The past couple of weeks, I have had the privilege of traveling to Iceland, Scotland, the Shetland and Faroe Islands on a Holland America cruise. I enjoyed unimaginable scenery with beautiful weather and calm seas in a region of the world known for grey drizzles. Along with the endless food, diverse entertainment is another accommodation of cruise travel. The evening shows on the ship were performed by a magician, juggler, violinist, comedian, Britain’s Got Talent singer, and of course several full cast productions produced only for Holland America. The show, “One World,” performed towards the end of the trip made me shudder from the moment it began. This performance was so repulsive, I spent the morning of my next day at sea writing the letter below.
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing in regards to the show “One World” produced by Holland America and performed on the ms Zuiderdam on August 9, 2018. While I must assume that no harm was intended, the impact of this show was disastrously insulting to almost every cultural group represented in the dance numbers. With no singers or dancers of color, reoccurring themes of imperialism and White male dominance, the show “One World” could more accurately be titled, “White World.”
From the very beginning, the opening scene was problematic. I stared in disbelief as I noticed that the skimpy outfits worn by the female dancers appeared to be a supposed Native American costume, while none of the dancers looked to be Native. These outfits were offensive because they were poor representations of Native dress used purely for the entertainment of the ship’s passengers, with no permission by or benefit to Native communities. Native groups would not want to be identified by those inappropriate ripoffs of their actual attire, which reduced a rich and longstanding culture with symbolic meanings of the clothing to tiny, flirty fringe.
To pair with the disrespectful costuming for the female dancers, the male dancers wore pants and blouses to resemble White settlers to the Americas. Their dress promoted a message of colonization as the White male singers sang a song with the repeated lyrics “the world is ours” to the female dancers wearing mock “Native” dress. This is historically disrespectful to glorify because “the world is ours” is the attitude White settlers had in the Americas, displacing the Native populations and relegating them to live on small reservations, as the White man took over the New World. The power dynamics shown in this song are also socially relevant in today’s world as fascist political parties gain power in Europe and with Donald Trump sitting in the position of president of the United States. Given President Trump’s criticisms of Black people’s intelligence, his lackluster response to the Nazi parade in Charlottesville, Virginia, and his willingness to separate brown, immigrant families, please think about what message it conveys to have a group of White men singing “the world is ours” to people dressed like people of color.
While I hoped that this opening piece would be the only offensive work in the lineup, I was sadly mistaken. The fourth number featured a desert backdrop and again inappropriate costumes worn by the dancers, this time meant to look Arabic. What was perhaps most horrifying in this piece was that the lead singer wore a headscarf, draped on her head like a hijab. This piece of costuming is particularly damaging because the hijab is not just an article of clothing – it is a religious symbol. And to wear it for fun without the religious intent dilutes its meaning and would offend any Muslim on the cruise ship. During the scene transition, the lead singer swiftly removed the headdress to shift into her next role, which hijab wearing Muslim women would not do.
Moving from the Middle East to Africa, the song, “God Bless the Rain Down in Africa” furthered the show’s offensive tone. While the dancing was irrelevant because it didn’t appear to be African, the song for this section was thoughtlessly chosen. It must not be forgotten that Western imperialism that brought Christianity to the continent through missionaries also brought the destruction, political conflict, and economic devastation that continues to plague much of Africa to this day. The continent of Africa shows exactly what happens when White men with “the world is ours” attitudes enter a land and divide it for their desires with no regard for the local people living there. With this complicated history in mind, a song asking God to “bless the rain down in Africa” seems like an insincere and belated gesture of generosity.
The next song I would like to discuss featured an Asian background with Gregorian chanting, while the dancers were dressed like faceless Buddhist/Christian/other Monks. While this mashup seems especially ignorant of these cultures, the same problems mentioned before with the Native and Arabic costuming continue to this set. The monk dress was disrespectful because it was appropriative and religiously insensitive, and the music played was either a real or imitation Gregorian chant, which would be offensive to at some in that religious sect. Surely, Holland America knows that Buddhist or Christian monks do not dance to to chanting that turns into hip-hop music. To portray monks in this way makes a caricature of this way of life.
This “Asian” song featured two new offensive additions: racist hand gestures and yellowface. The dancers in this piece employed two standard hand positions for historically problematic representations of Asian people. The hands joined in the middle as if in prayer and the arms extended outwards and upwards, bent at the elbow, have been commonly used in Western portrayals of Asian people that propelled stereotypes about Asian servitude. In addition to this, the female dancers went backstage before this number and reemerged with dark, exaggerated eye makeup to make them look more Asian. The employment of this type of makeup on stage and off is called yellowface and is extremely inappropriate. Blackface was widely used in the 1800s by White performers depicting Black folks in the U.S., and this practice is now considered generally unacceptable by all audiences, but the same is not yet true for yellowface, though it is equally as offensive. I am an Asian woman with typical Asian features. Unlike these dancers and stage performers, I can’t wipe away the way my eyes look. My culture is not a costume, and my face, which I have been discriminated against for, does not get to be worn by someone else for entertainment on stage when they please with none of the negative daily ramifications.
The next song presented was a duet between two White male singers harmonizing the words, “I can change the world.” They continued, “If I could be king, I’d make you my queen. I’d have it no other way.” The lyrics to this song show the entitlement and attitude of the White man and that they can demand things to be “no other way.” This song perfectly lends itself to the idea that White people need to change the world in order to save the poor, other worldly people. What’s more, what message is conveyed through all of the power songs (“The World is Ours” and “I can Change the World”) having been song by the male singers rather than by or in unison with the female singers?
The closing number was culturally ambiguous, but the show appeared to have no culturally European (with the exception of the White settler and Native women piece) numbers in which the dancers emerged in German dirndls or with scenes from Italy or Paris as the background. Instead, when the White dancers were supposed to portray White folks, the plain outfits and neutral backgrounds, such as flowers, the woods, or lava were used. This juxtaposition of “ethnic” backgrounds for the other cultural groups and “neutral” backgrounds for White dances exoticizes the cultural groups showcased and further promotes the idea of Whiteness as a blank slate with no culture, which is why many White folks often feel that they can unfairly take other people’s cultures as their own, as done in this entire show.
Towards the end of the show, the cast performed the Beatles’ song, Imagine. It is hypocritical to have this song, with the lyrics “imagine there are no countries” when the entire One World production highlighted differences between regions of the world. What was particularly jarring about this song was that it ends with the lyric, “imagine all the people as one.” While this is a noble thought about world unification and peace, the singers and dancers on stage when this lyric was sung were all White, leaving me wondering if eugenics were used to leave the world all White and questioning what happened to the Native person, the Asian monk, the Muslim woman, the Africans who needed prayers. The conclusion to be drawn when White people sing they want “all the people as one” in a production whose overarching message was about White superiority is not a good one if you look like me, an Asian woman.
The completely White cast of a global show like this is problematic because of the cultural appropriation used and the visual appearance of whitewashing the world. My critiques of the show are not novel concepts, and perhaps if there had been some people of color in the cast, some of the problematic elements of the show would not have come to fruition. I don’t see an excuse for the all White entertainment team because, looking at the dining and cleaning staff, it is apparent Holland America does hire people of color.
This show could have easily been conducted in a way that was respectful to the nations represented instead of the offensive show that was produced. Omitting the religiously significant allusions and songs that featured a message of White dominance, the visual aid of the LED screens could have still been used. Instead of static backgrounds, the screen could have shown pictures and video of landscapes, scenery, families, and people in their everyday lives from the particular regions allowing the dancers, in neutral clothing, to be simply dancers rather than poorly conducted and offensive caricaturizations of the groups they pretended to be.
More than on a larger scale effort towards respect for all nations, Holland America should consider editing this show for two self-serving reasons: firstly, because I would hope that Holland America would not want to offend any of their guests, especially since cruise lines often rely on returning customers; and secondly, because Holland America has a reputation for attracting a more senior audience. If the cruise line hopes to be seen as an attractive option to younger audiences who are the people who will carry business into the longer future, Holland America will have to adopt a more socially conscious racial philosophy rather than the one presented in last night’s performance.