Race & Racism at the University of Richmond

Orientalism

The United States used yellow perilism to scapegoat Chinese immigrants throughout the 19th century, leading to many Chinese students being barred from the American education system with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In the early 20th century, a wave of Orientalism swept through popular culture in the United States. Orientalism served as a framework for Western society to imagine and exaggerate differences between themselves and the exotic Other. A 1929 article shared a fictional anecdote that was both racist and exoticizing, describing the interaction between an American traveler and a wise “coolie.” The author of the article writes, “as a race, the Chinese are an intelligent folk, and they possess as keen a sense of values as do we Westerners - oftentimes they are gifted with a far deeper insight.” This story reduced the Chinese experience to a couple of tropes, and it is almost certain that the Chinese students attending the University would have read the piece on the second page of the newspaper.

Chinese students came to Richmond College during this era of pejorative racialization and Orientalism. These students were seen as an exotic “other,” materialized in the use of racial slurs and racist language to describe Chinese people and students. Racial slurs can be found in many Richmond College documents, including “chink” and “coolie.” The Asian American Journalists Association defines “chink” as “a slur, often applied to anyone of Asian heritage” one which originated in “19th-century America, specifically for Chinese workers who worked for small wages building the transcontinental railroad.” The slur “coolie” indicates an unskilled indentured laborer of East Asian descent. Chinese students arrived at Richmond College to find their American peers performing in yellowface and writing literature imagining Chinese experiences, as depicted in this exhibit page.

Photograph "Unique, picturesque pageant of the Dwarfed Pine"

Photograph from “A Gem of a College” by Claire Millhiser Rosenbaum

"Pageant of the Dwarfed Pine"

An early example of Orientalism in the performing arts at Westhampton College was the creation of a  “truly and distinctly Japanese” pageant, with no Japanese peers present at the college. On April 29, 1920, Westhampton College and Richmond College students staged a pageant of the "Dwarfed Pine." Corresponding articles in The Richmond Collegian explain the pine as an emblem in "the East" of "long life and endurance." This performance was staged in the "pagan splendor" of Japan, with the chorus performing a "Japanese folk song," F. Flaxington Harker's "Pretty Geisha Girl," and Marion Norris's "Japanese pantomime" titled "Cat Fear." Nearly 100 students were part of this production, and the associated image appears to show white students adopting yellowface to perform an Americanized depiction of Japanese culture.

College apathy displayed toward acts of cultural appropriation continued to be evident with the depiction of Chinese characters in theatre nearly a decade later, even after more Chinese students arrived on campus. Nine years after “Dwarfed Pine”, Westhampton College sophomores staged The Yellow Jacket in the Red Cross Building, located near the site of the current Modlin Center. The play had ten Chinese characters, each played by a white student. A newspaper subheading stated that the “play will be Chinese to the very heart.“ Despite the presence of Chinese student on campus, there is no indication that Chinese students collaborated in the making of the play.

Review "The Silent House"

The Messenger, 1929, p. 30. Review of "The Silent House"

Review: "The Silent House"

After visiting a ticket scalper, Richmond College students visited a discounted production of John G. Brandon’s “The Silent House” (1929) on Broadway. While most of the review discusses difficulties comprehending the play due to the actors having poor enunciation and heavy New York accents, the reviewer eventually breaks off to describe the play itself with some racialized terms. The reviewer notes that white actor Harold De Becker played his role of “a domesticated Chink really quite good.” Describing De Becker’s character, Ho-Fang, as “domesticated” further contributes to the dehumanizing portrayal of Chinese people. Domestication, referring to the process by which non-human entities become acclimated to new settings, is paired with the use of "chink" to firmly create a racialized “other.” The practice of white actors portraying East Asians in yellowface was common in the early twentieth century, and continues to this day. It would not be until 1995 that Wang Luoyong would become the first Chinese American actor on Broadway in the production of Miss Saigon.

The Son's Father, A Play in One Act by Mary Lucile Saunders

The Messenger, 1931, p. 5. "The Son's Father"

"The Son's Father"

Mary Lucile Saunders (W‘32) was a junior at Westhampton College when she wrote her one-act play “The Son’s Father.” The play would win first place in a playwriting contest held by the Westhampton College Alumnae Association, and was subsequently published in a 1931 issue of The Messenger, the university’s literary magazine. Saunders was heavily involved with college athletics, and noted in the 1932 Tower yearbook for her “volcanic energy” (Tower, 1932, page 54) Born in the Shiu Chow (Shaozhou) region of Kwang Tung (Guangdong) Province in South China, Saunders was likely the daughter of white American missionaries to the region (The Web, 1931, page 193).

During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, hundreds of Christian missionaries were killed, halting the spread of foreign missions in China. After Sino-American relations were thawed, missionaries returned as both religious leaders and informal cultural attaches. In 1906, missionary Chester Holcombe wrote in The Atlantic that missionaries were ideal for developing cross-cultural communications, believing that the increase of Christianity was beneficial for increased trade. While some descriptive elements within The Son’s Father play might accurately reflect the experiences Mary Saunders had while living in China, her position in the American missionary community undoubtedly formed her understanding and biases toward Chinese people. Saunders may have sought to demonstrate her appreciation for Chinese people, character descriptions paint non-white characters as novel and exotic, unequal in position to whiter characters.

Saunders describes a character named Charlie as being a “half-breed,” “a white man were it not for his wearing the costume of his country.” Charlie is positioned as the “head boy,” in charge of his white employer’s servants. The employer, Smythe, is described as an older man who, thanks to forty years spent in China, “moves with the quickness and softness of the natives.” It appears that Charlie’s garments are a visible element of what “others” him from participation in Western culture. Another character, Ling, is described as “a young coolie” who is “a frail, rather weak looking chap.” The comparisons drawn between Smythe, Charlie, and Ling, suggest a racial hierarchy dependent on strength, race, and dress.

The one-act play was performed on December 11, 1931, in the Red Cross Building, located near the site of the current Modlin Center. An article in The Collegian describes the play as “a stirring story of the cruelty and craftiness of an American merchant in China, whose artful nets eventually entangle tragically those whom he least intends to hurt.” Co-directed by Mary Lucile Saunders and Evelyn Solter, another article states that Hearne Stevenson and Sidney Swann portrayed the Chinese servants in the play, Charlie and Ling.

The Messenger, 1933 p. 22. “Jade

"Jade"

Louise Dinwiddie (W‘33), a senior from Alexandria, Virginia, was a well-known student writer at Westhampton College, writing the 1933 Proclamation Song and serving as Editor-in-Chief of the Messenger. After her graduation, Dinwiddie would serve as a librarian at George Washington High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Set ambiguously in “The Orient,” the play uses descriptive language to exoticize the “other.” Stage descriptions include writing character Kin Cho as having a “sleek yellow-mooned face,” who is further described as a “coolie.” These descriptions reduce Kin Cho to his skin color, as he is the only character in the play described in terms of race. Due to his status as the only laborer in the three person play, Kin Cho is little more than a foil, a tokenized representation of an uneducated “other.”

Orientalism