“Geisha”: Blog Wars?

Yikes — looks like we might have a blog war a-brewin’ between APAP and 8Asians.

I blogged earlier this afternoon about the “Geisha” bar opening in Oakland, linking a post from APAP for some of my sources. It turns out that Moye, over at 8Asians, also read the APAP post and has a different take on the “Geisha” fiasco.

Aside from the heavy cultural significance of the word, the leaders of this protest also cite that giving the bar with such a name would help support sexual harassment, mental illness, and a negative economic impact with its indirect support for the sex trade and/or pornography. Oh yeah, and don’t forget that rapist in the area who was targeting Asian women. Wait, what? These are all related?

I hate to be the one to say this, but I can’t help think these folks are overreacting in this situation, and wrongly defining the history of Japanese geisha. They were dancing and musical entertainers, and nowhere did violence and overt sexuality come to play in their formal occupation. No, geishas aren’t prostitutes. Maybe some of them were but hey, it’s the oldest job in the world.  If anything, they should be focusing their outrage on two Asian American businessmen with a tired and unoriginal idea for a new bar, or at least ask why someone would want to go to a Geisha bar in the heart of Chinatown. Wrong culture, people.

Also, what does the NorCal rapist have to do with this? Did he have a geisha fetish or something and this bar is his one chance to finally hang out in the open? I don’t see the connection.

I think the problem here is a question of interpretation: is the criticism of “Geisha” a reaction to the negative connotations of the geisha profession? Or how the term “geisha” is interpreted by American audiences.

As Moye points out, the traditional geisha was not a prostitute. Geisha would be best described as artisans, trained in music and dance and hired by wealthy men to entertain at dinner parties by playing songs, singing, and socializing. Some prostituted themselves, but the profession, as a whole, is oversimplified by the term “prostitute”.

But that’s looking at geisha from a strictly historical perspective, and not in the context of America’s sociopolitical landscape — which is the way most restaurant patrons and passersby will view the restaurant name. Here, the term “geisha” refers to an archetype that fits hand-in-hand with other images of the hypersexualized, demure Asian female “lotus blossom” prevalent in historical and contemporary American media. Asian and Asian American women are — and have been — predominantly depicted in hypersexualized and subjugated roles in American film and literature, and this directly counteracts efforts to empower Asian American women with a positive and healthy image of ourselves and our sexuality. To that end, failing to criticize a local establishment, opening in a heavily Asian American community, that draws upon and glorifies this negative stereotype of Asian women would be irresponsible.

Moreover, while the link between a bar named “geisha” and depression is not direct, dehumanizing stereotypes left unchallenged in mainstream media often lead to conflicted and unhealthy self-image problems. After all, no one questions that our society’s predilection for super-skinny images of beauty are contributing factors to high rates of anorexia and bullemia specifically amongst teenaged girls of all races.

That being said, I’m not sure I co-sign the Norcal rapist connection; mainly because I don’t think we know the specific motivations for that dude.

Subjugating APA Women One Meal At A Time

geisha

‘Cuz when I go out to dinner, I’m looking for a little bit of racism with my sushi entree.

The Asian American community is no stranger to offensive Asian-themed restaurants. Here in Tucson, the Asian American community successfully lobbied a local restaurant named “Eggrolls, Etc.” to change multiple anti-Asian references in their menu. Last year, this blog was involved in lobbying a restaurant on the East Coast in an effort to raise awareness about advertisements that exotified and objectified the Asian female form.

But, here we go on: a restaurant that has yet to open in the Oakland area is raising more than mere eyebrows. This restaurant will be named “Geisha”.

Yes, you read that right: “Geisha”.

As an Asian American woman, I am deeply offended by the title of this proposed restaurant, and am even more insulted by the nerve of the restaurant owners to open such a derogatorily-named establishment in the heart of one of the nation’s more populous Asian American communities. The last thing that Asian American women and girls need is to be walking down the street and get exposed to yet another example of mainstream exotification and subjugation of our bodies. America’s fascination with the geisha image is not for merely due to the rampant sexuality of the stereotype; no, it is an obsession with a distinctly racialized image of an Asian woman as existing purely for pleasure and domination by men. We’re not merely talking about simply hypersexualizing the Asian/Asian American woman (as if that weren’t bad enough) — we’re talking about glorifying the sexual slavery of the Asian/Asian American female body by rendering her nothing more than a meek, demure and ultimately silent sexual plaything. The persistence of the geisha image in the American cultural landscape is a daily affront to strong and empowered Asian American women, and takes the cause of Asian/Asian American feminism several steps backwards.

But, before I go on waxing philosophical, check out this incredible letter by professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, Dianne Wu. Wu breaks down the argument against “Geisha” poignantly and eloquently in her letter to the Oakland Planning Commission, urging them to deny a permit for “Geisha”. You can read the full text at Angry Asian Man, but I’ll quote my favourite part regarding microaggressions:

A recent study conducted by Derald Wing Sue et al (2007) from the Teachers College at Columbia university identified 8 major types of microaggressions commonly experienced by Asian Americans. Of the 8, 2 are relevant to the issue at hand today.

First is the exotification of Asian women, where Asian and Asian American women are perceived as being available for sexual favors for men. As Jessica Tan and Jen-Mei Wu’s testimonials also concur, these incidents are not isolated to academic books and journals and radical social justice circles, but a salient feature of Asian American women’s lives in Oakland, in downtown, in the United States every day. I would hope and expect that the Oakland in which I live, work, love and play would absolutely reject any role in allowing this stereotype to live or become in any way a feature of the physical or psychological landscape of this city.

Second was the widespread denial of Asian Americans racial realities. This included messages being conveyed were that Asians are not an ethnic minority group, experience little or no discrimination, and that their racial concerns are unimportant. In this case, the group’s prior attempted exchanges with Perry were met with absolute denial that our concerns about the name of the bar-restaurant-lounge could possibly be reinforcing a racist and sexist stereotype, nor even that geisha itself was a racist and sexist stereotype in the US and Western context.

According to Wing Sue et al, microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial – and this case, racial and sex-based – minority group. These exchanges are so pervasive and automatic in daily interactions that they are often dismissed and glossed over as being innocuous.

Sadly, the Oakland Planning Commission confirmed the perceived innocuousness of these kind of anti-Asian stereotypes by voting in favour of “Geisha”. Here are the names of the four commissioners who voted “yes” (kindly collected by spamfriedrice over at Asian Americans for Progress) —  Act Now! and write a letter expressing your displeasure at their votes:

Michael Colbruno
Clear Channel Outdoor
555 12th Street, Suite 950
Oakland, CA 94607
835-5900
Fax: 663-4662
Email: michaelcolbruno@clearchannel.com

C. Blake Huntsman
SEIU, Local 1021
155 Myrtle Street
Oakland, CA 94607
452-2366, ext. 522
Fax: 452-2436
Email: Blake.Huntsman@seiu1021.org

Douglas Boxer
Boxer & Associates, Inc.
300 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Suite 500
Oakland, CA 94612
286-2937
Fax: 835-0415
Email: dboxer@gmail.com

Vince Gibbs
City of Oakland
250 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza Ste. 3315
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 903-9516
Email: VinceGibbs.opc@gmail.com

In addition, write about how you find the restaurant’s name offensive on Yelp, where the restaurant’s owners are trying to stir up some good press for their future establishment. And of course, if you live in the Oakland area, boycott the living hell out of the place.