racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie

Throwdown NNHS: Talk the Talk or Walk the Walk? Regarding Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie

racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie

Dear Principal Price, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Young,

This week, I was disappointed to hear about the controversy around North’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, and what the students, families, faculty and community will take away from this production.

I have four concerns:

  1. Valuing one group while marginalizing another – This play was selected for the dynamic female characters while recognizing it contained anti-Asian racism. The school administration is thus condoning promoting one group at the cost of another.
  2. Historical fiction – this fiction does not portray the common experiences of Chinese American bachelors in the 1920s and masks the reality of the hardships and racism they endured. It was not easy (to say it mildly) for Chinese women to immigrate to the US during exclusion, and few white women would give up their citizenship to marry a Chinese man. Given there is so little Asian American history in the curriculum, it’s frustrating to know that this is what students are being exposed to.
  3. North’s endorsement of the play – I presume the school paid a licensing fee for the rights to the play. From the distributors stand point that’s another vote to them that there’s a demand for this type of content. In a bottom line industry, people put their money where their mouth is.
  4.  What will be remembered – I question who the beneficiaries are of this “teachable moment.” I expect that although members of North’s Asian American community worked with Theatre Ink in making edits, I can’t imagine they are satisfied with the outcome or happy they were put in this situation, especially during Asian Heritage Month—which in my day, I recall was celebratory and honored those in the community.  In my experience as a student, it’s memories like this that leave bitter feelings towards an institution (and expect it would be the same case if I were faculty too.)

I graduated from NNHS in 1994. It’s taken me 20 years to realize how influential  the experiences I had during high school were in shaping my values led me to become the Asian American community leader I am today.

During my freshman year, it was rare to see Asians on camera outside of a martial arts film, and it was the first time I saw an Asian American film. The film had a mostly Asian cast portrayed in America, speaking English without accents. It was a validating experience — the pride and joy I felt watching it sparked a lifelong fire in me to seek out more opportunities to view Asian-Americans in dynamic and diverse roles. Now, over 20 years later, I’m the Founding Director of the Boston Asian American Film Festival.

During my junior year, I really struggled with the level of writing needed for my AP US History course. With the support and encouragement from Mr. Moore, I chose to write a research paper comparing the Chinatown community’s reactions to the proposal of the Central Artery in the 1960’s with the Big Dig in the 1990’s. Through that I learned how the Asian American community was much more active and organized in the 90’s in standing up against plans that would have had a negative impact on Chinatown residents, and that voicing your concerns can make a difference.

Considerations for moving forward:

Put your money where your values are – proceeds from Thoroughly Modern Millie could be put towards more positive educational experiences for the students, faculty and wider community. The cast and crew may have been provided cultural sensitivity training, but the impact of the NNHS production go beyond the walls of the school and city. The debate on ilovenewton.com is reaching concerned citizens across the commonwealth and country (I found out about this from a blog authored in California.)

Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend the production this week as I am currently out of town attending CAAM Fest (the largest Asian and Asian American film festival), but given my role at the Boston Asian American Film Festival and Chinese Historical Society, I would be more than happy to discuss opportunities and/or give references to others that can help to support the administration, students and faculty in moving forward so that students leave North with experiences that are more supportive in their journey towards self-identity and awareness.


Susan Chinsen

NNHS Class of 1994

Founding Director, Boston Asian American Film Festival

Managing Director, Chinese Historical Society of New England


p.s Related links:

Thoroughly Modern Millie is Thoroughly Racist

My Take on Thoroughly Modern Millie

Talk Back: Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS

NNHS Responds to Concerns About Thoroughly Modern Millie

MTI Advises How to Squelch Dissent on Thoroughly Modern Millie

Rebuttal to ’Millie in Newton: Turn Stereotypes into Lessons

More Than 50% of Asian American Teens are Bullied in School

White Privilege and Thoroughly Modern Millie

Thoroughly Modern Millie End of School Year Takeaway

Thoroughly Modern Millie Talk Back Videos


The Boston Globe: School Play’s Stereotypes Bring Outcry and Apology. “Millie” touches nerve in Newton by Ellen Ishkanian

The Boston Globe: ‘Millie’ Flag Highlights How Old Plays are Rife with Stereotypes by Don Aucoin

The Telegraph: US high school show triggers race row by David Millward

NECN TV SegmentNECN Broadside with Jim Braude, Historical Musical Sparks Controvery at Massachusetts High School

The Boston Globe: ‘Millie’ Fight Creates a Chilling Effect by Joan Vennochi

The Boston Globe: Musical is Little More Than Staged Racism by Jeffrey Melnick (Letter to Editor in response to Joan Vennochi’s article above).

Monitoring, Exposing & Fighting Against Anti-Semitism and Racism: Thoroughly Modern Millie’ play draws controversy in Mass. over racial stereotyping

Company One: In the Intersection, Thoroughly Modern Millie Controvery at Local High School

A case study published by UMass Peter Kiang almost 20 years ago (see pages 9-13), parallels almost exactly what happened at Newton North High School. ScholarWorks at UMass Boston, We Could Shape It: Organizing for Asian American Student Empowerment by Peter Nien-Chu Kiang.

The Notebook: Racism isn’t entertainment: Why “Thoroughly Modern Millie” didn’t belong on CAPA’s stage

Resist Racism: Thoroughly Racist ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’

Genki Speak: Racism in Our Backyard

Angry Asian Man

Village 14: Decision to Stage ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ at North Challenged

AsAm News: Play Filled With Offensive Images Sparks Town Hall Meeting

AsAm News: I Love Newton: High School Production Fails To Address Heavy Dose Of Asian American Stereotypes

Greer Tan Swiston: Kudos to Newton North for a thoroughly modern update of ‘Millie’

The Boston Globe: Oh, by the way, how about a round of applause for the kids? (Letter to the Editor from a grandparent)

The Boston Globe: Choice, execution of musical informed by thoughful education process (Letter to the Editor from the writers who comprise the Theatre Arts Opportunity Committee at Newton North High School.)

The Boston Globe: We miss a vital chance for understanding when we swap out ethnic characters (Letter to the Editor from a great-grandmother, teacher and volunteer)

Arissa Oh ‏@arissaoh  1h

3 white ppl on @GreaterBoston unhelpfully discuss HS prodns of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” cc: @pragmaticmom

Pawprint: Millard West Student NewspaperThrough with Thoroughly Modern Millie

The Washington PostTwenty-Three Skiddo: ‘Modern Millie’ Doesn’t Dance

It’s an attempt, sort of, at a parody of the old-style musicals of the ’20s and ’30s, the sort jerry-built out of cheerful songs, convoluted plots, elaborate tap demonstrations and derogatory stereotypes.

IMDbThoroughly Embalmed Musical

Project MuseThoroughly Modern Millie (review)

Not Like CrazyAn Easily Overlooked Racism?

In the Spring semester at school, the Musical Theater Department put on Thoroughly Modern Millie, which was overflowing with racism in its portrayal of Asians. I must say, I was thoroughly upset about the whole thing. First, the guys playing the Asians, I believe they were supposed to be Chinese immigrants, had white face makeup and slanty eyes. I couldn’t help but think that if they’d dressed in blackface, surely there’d be an uproar (Of course, they are putting on Ragtime this year, so we’ll see how they handle that– they’re already sending out emails about how they want the black students to try out for roles because there aren’t many black people in the musical theater department *eyeroll*). That wasn’t the only bad thing about the musical, however, the villian was a white woman pretending to be Asian who pronounced her L’s as R’s, and said she used soy sauce to clean a stain. Of course, she also treated the two Asian immigrants who worked for her as if they were stupid, and the silently and humbly submit in front of her, though behind closed doors they argue in Chinese (I guess it was real Chinese), with subtitles projected above the stage. And then one of the Asian men falls in love with one of the white women in the musical, blonde hair, blue eyes, you know the deal. At the end of the musical, they get together, as if his reward for working hard and being submissive, for being mistreated, is the gift of white womanhood, the pinnacle of creation. So yeah, I was pretty pissed about that whole thing.

MyvanwyReview of Thoroughly Modern Millie

Someone sent me video of a local comedian’s youtube video of a character I’ve seen him portray once before. To call it infantile and racially insensitive would be a gross understatement. For the targets of his ridicule, it’s every bit as offensive as a mean-spirited performance in blackface. But because it’s against one of the few groups for whom bigotry, hostility, and ridicule is still acceptable (Chinese Americans and others of Asian and/or Pacific Island descent), it’s seen as okay by most and even encouraged by other local comedians. Kevin Marshall’s America

Zak KeithHollywood Asian Stereotypes

Racism against Asians is often “unawares”—a form of racism that flies under the radar due to its widespread acceptance as the norm. Its interactive dynamic resembles that of an unwritten social contract. Asians in the West are expected to accept patronizing remarks and racist taunts so demeaning that perpetrators would think twice before dishing them out with such unwavering consistency to any other minority group, such as Latinos or African Americans. Asians who object to such treatment are typically met with befuddlement and offense at their audacity to make an issue out of it.


Mia Wenjen blogs at PragmaticMom: Education Matters, here and occasionally at her Asian American blog JadeLuckClub. She resides in Newton with her husband and three kids, the oldest of which will attend Newton North High School this fall. She can be found on PinterestTwitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Sulia, Google +Instagram and YouTube.

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5 Responses to “Throwdown NNHS: Talk the Talk or Walk the Walk? Regarding Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie”
  1. Pragmatic Mom says:

    There’s going to be a forum at Newton North at 7 pm on Monday 3/17/14 to talk about the aftermath of the musical. She said to tell folks who are angry about TMM to show up and weigh in, as it’s most helpful if these folks have also seen the musical as well.

    • Pragmatic Mom says:

      I’m disappointed that the promised discussion about the educational aspect of Thoroughly Modern Millie in order to break down Anti-Asian stereotypes will take place NOT FOR THE AUDIENCE who will view this but for those who opt this Monday to voice their concerns. Obviously, this group that is targeted is not in need of education with respect to negative Asian stereotypes as they most likely have already experienced it personally.

      This is a case of talking the talk but not walking the walk to me.

  2. Pragmatic Mom says:

    There have been 1,514 hits to the post Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS is Thoroughly Racist as of now.


    It also indexes into Google and will stay up in perpetuity. It is my hope that other high schools considering Thorough Modern Millie will read this post and understand the racist issues embedded in this musical. I hope that they make better choices than NNHS.

  3. Pragmatic Mom says:

    I am posting an excerpt from an email and hope to get permission to post it in its entirety:

    “Asian American faculty members at Newton and the AACC have been trying to tell the director of Theater Ink, the chair of the department of Performing Arts and the principal how offensive the play is since it was first announced. They’ve made some slight changes but they still don’t get why it’s offensive and there’s no telling what the actual performances will be like.

    THanks so much again for speaking up against this. [Asian American faculty members and students] have been feeling shut out and dismissed so voices from the community really help a lot. (The school officials still may not get why it’s bad, but they’ll understand bad PR and bad press, so please keep it up. I look forward to reading a review of the performance if you are able to go.)”

  4. Pragmatic Mom says:

    From Kevin Yu
    Education Management Professional

    via LinkedIn

    “I’m glad an elloquent, poignant response was produced in response to a gross example of bigotry.”

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