I read with a lot of interest Sharon Yamato’s and Guy Aoki’s coverage of the casting of the Hans Christian Andersen play “The Nightingale.”

I was, however, disappointed in Guy’s use of the term “idiot” in describing some on the panel that met to discuss the issue. While I can appreciate Guy’s anger over their position, the use of the term is offensive to me.  Mentally impaired people cannot respond to defend themselves.

Through Facebook, actors Greg Watanabe and Chris Tashima are credited for creating an awareness of the play, taking place in feudal China, which has only two Asians out of a cast of 12.

Guy cites a contract by the League of Resident Theatres  (LORT), which governs casting in plays. It calls for “non-discriminatory casting (of) ethnic minority actors in roles where race or ethnicity is not germane.” So for example, an Asian actor could take a role played by a white actor, but not one portraying an African king.

At the end of Guy’s column, where he covers the panel discussion in La Jolla, Guy mentions the comment of a white woman regarding white people playing Asian roles. The woman says after she “got into” the play, she didn’t care about race. To this, panelist Cindy Cheung replies, “And you’re white!”

Guy regrets that Cindy did not follow up her comment with the implications of the woman’s comment. He later wrote a letter to the convener of the panel. In the letter he says the woman doesn’t care about race. “Why would she? Does she ever notice when Asian Americans aren’t cast as the stars in television shows taking place in Hawaii or San Francisco?”

Another panelist had made a comment on a San Diego television station. Referring to the casting, she said, “At first you notice there is only one Asian, but the cast is beautiful, and you get over who’s who.”

Guy’s response to this: “White people have been ‘getting over’ us for decades. When whites are suddenly left out of television and movies and theater, then they will begin to understand what it is to be invisible even in parts written for them.”

The two examples above, I think, can help us see white privilege in action. It seems to me that white privilege does not come about as an attempt to demean. It is a result of living in a society where the white majority is in control, and has little interest in seeing matters through the eyes of those not in control.

The acting contract mentioned above deals strictly with casting of ethnic minorities in roles where ethnicity is not germane. The contract makes no mention of roles for white actors who could take roles where ethnicity is germane, thereby allowing whites to play Asians or any ethnicity of their choosing.

The two individuals mentioned above probably feel that by totally accepting white people playing Asian roles they are overcoming racial barriers and doing the right thing.

MANAA and others in our community need our support in challenging these privileged assumptions.

A powerful way of doing this is by honestly sharing our feelings about being invisible and not being recognized as people worthy of respect and consideration as Asian Americans.


Phil Shigekuni writes from San Fernando Valley and can be contacted at The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. Hi Guy-

    My career as a special education counselor has made be sensitive to the use of derogatory terms referring to mentally or otherwise handicapped people. The burden that their parents must carry is enough without their children being denigrated in any way.


  2. Phil, you confused me calling certain people “idiots” with “mentally impaired people.” Those at La Jolla Playhouse are not “mentally impaired people,” so they should know better. I’m glad you agree on the issue of white privilege.