Aloha the Movie: Why Genuine Racial Diversity is Often Illusory in American Society

I’ve posted before about the problem of perceiving Asian simply on “looks”–being Asian is not simply a function of physical, morphological features. So my dismay with the casting of Emma Stone in Aloha may seem a bit off the mark. But not quite, since her casting by Cameron Crowe is a good, crystallizing example of how white racism and privilege operate in American society, especially in relation to Asian Americans. I think this is what so many within the Asian American community have come to see in the Aloha affair.

To be more specific: I don’t want to get too hung up on the fact that Emma Stone is white, and the character that she portrays is half Asian. If the controversy is simply about looks, then it’s a misplaced controversy. Take this for whatever it’s worth, but my daughter is half Korean, and there are times when she looks more like her mother than me, and I often think, am I even related to her? (I am, so don’t let your imagination run wild!)

But the more fundamental problem with the whole Emma Stone business, as I see it, is how whiteness has become the paradigm of ethnicity and race in America. This reality is in many ways so subtle that we hardly think of it, and that’s partly due to the way class, race, and history intersect in American life. But what is subtle and often times feels rather normal becomes apparent–shockingly apparent–when something like the Aloha movie comes along and stirs the emotions. What I’m trying to say is that the real crime with the movie is that it does not allow Asian Americans to be represented on their own terms. We see this all around, and so Cameron Crowe’s movie is hardly unique in that regard; it’s a mainstream Hollywood problem.

We live in a society in which diversity, especially racial and ethnic diversity, is increasingly accepted and celebrated but with strings attached. Diversity is great, so long as you talk, dress, and walk like everyone else, and by that I mean white middle/upper middle class sensibilities. (Mind you, many Asian Americans have bought into this racial paradigm, a.k.a. assimilation, so there’s plenty of culpability to go around.) The phenomenon I am calling attention to is what the idea of whitewashing is trying, in part, to illumine, and why mainstream American society struggles so much with modes of cultural being that do not fit nicely within long-standing notions of citizenship and plain old neighborliness. (Hence, the anxiety, in certain quarters of the U.S., over English as a fading “national” language and the rise of immigration, among other matters.) Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is the happy embrace of diversity so long as it is relegated or confined to a specific geography, say, in Chinatown, little Manilla, little Saigon, or wherever. For many in mainstream America, racial and ethnic diversity is something to go and experience, on a service trip to Nicaragua, or on a weekend jaunt to an ethnic enclave for some so-called authentic ethnic food. Then, after the experience, you go home, back to the norm. But this kind of diversity is just another form of racial and ethnic marginalization, making particularities static and stereotypical. What’s especially pernicious perhaps is that it renders such particularities invisible, and only visible when there’s a desire for an experience of diversity.

Diversity with strings attached is particularly true for biracial persons. And this is why the Aloha movie strikes a particular chord, especially for me. That whiteness is the controlling racial and ethnic paradigm means, at the very least, that racial and ethnic “irregularities” are problematic; they don’t fit nicely into definite and majority-defined identity boxes. In this respect, the prevailing norms of society set up the identity game in such a way that folks who are biracial in particular are pressured to pick a part of their racial make up and elevate it as the primary definition of themselves. I see this with my young biracial kids–they are half Asian and half white, but I find that folks are uncomfortable when I say they are simply of mixed race. For lots of folks, it’s seems more coherent and intelligible to say they are Asian American, with a white mother. At any rate, the point I am trying to get at is that Cameron Crowe with Aloha seems to have fallen into this biracial bog by moving in the other direction, that is, by making the main female character of Aloha essentially white by casting Emma Stone (in other words, by rendering her white, with Asian ancestry). But we know that Allison Ng is quarter Asian and quarter Hawaiian, making casting choices a little more complicated, or one would think. Apparently not so for Crowe, however. Ng is a half step closer to being white, so why not a white Emma Stone for the part, with a muted acknowledgment that she is biracial. White or half white/half Asian–same difference, isn’t it? Besides, that makes biracial persons, particularly Amerasians, if I may use a slightly old fashioned category, more palatable, less foreign, and more relatable to mainstream white America (which is important, unless we were talking about a martial arts themed film).

Allowing and respecting the right for biracial persons to represent themselves on their own terms–now that sort of approach would have made the casting of the movie more interesting and would have been one small way of resisting the racial “norming” of biracial identities. More startling and gutsy would have been if Columbia Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions et al. decided from the very beginning to hire an Asian American or biracial Asian director and casting director etc. and empowered them to make decisions collectively about casting. That could have injected some creativity to the movie, at least at the start of production, even if it ultimately turned out to be a dull, lifeless movie.

Originally posted on, June 2015

Do Asian Americans have a Race Problem? Asians and African Americans in Baltimore, Ferguson, and Beyond. 

NPR: Baltimore Unrest Reveals Tensions Between African-Americans And Asians (April 30, 2015)

One dimension of the Baltimore protests in April that has received little media attention is the looting of some Asian American businesses during those protests. This piece from National Public Radio fills in some of that reporting gap. Asian American business owners also experienced looting in Ferguson. And of course, many Korean Americans remember quite vividly the kind of looting that took place in L.A.’s Koreatown in 1992, in response to the Rodney King incident. The looting against Asian American businesses in Baltimore, I think, should once again push Asian Americans to think more seriously and soberly about our often fraught relationship with the African American community.

Let me be clear. In what I am about to write below, I am in no way insinuating that Asian Americans are purposefully setting out to profit off of African Americans. Many Asian American business owners are decent, honest, and hard working persons trying to make it in the U.S.

But considering how some Asian American businesses fared in Baltimore, it would be irresponsible of Asian Americans to ignore the kind of question that we don’t seem to want to discuss more openly in a sustained manner (at least in my opinion). The question is this: are Asian Americans insensitive and perhaps willfully ignorant of the problem of race in America, specifically racism against African Americans? To the extent that some African Americans in Baltimore involved in the looting of Asian American businesses suggested that those shops deserved to be vandalized underscores the urgency of the question.

Now of course, no one deserves to be vandalized. What I am trying to call attention to, however, is whether the looting that took place against some Asian American businesses in Baltimore and beyond is symptomatic of a kind of racial tone-deafness among some Asian American small businesses and Asian Americans more generally. I realize that I may be embarking on some very sensitive territory here, but again, it’s a topic that Asian Americans need to discuss more openly as far as I’m concerned.

So let’s start with this proposition. So long as Asian Americans continue to open and operate small businesses in poor and working class African American neighborhoods–laundromats, liquor stores, convenience stores and so on–then Asian Americans need to be a greater part of the neighborhoods in which they do business. Many Asian American businesses owners do just that, but many do not as well. To those who don’t, it’s just not good enough to show up in the morning and then leave at the end of the day without being meaningful participants in the life of that neighborhood. That may be asking a lot from folks who are simply trying to make a living, but it’s not really and shouldn’t be seen as an added burden. Otherwise, we should hardly be surprised if Asian Americans doing business in these communities are perceived as contributing to the economic exploitation of African Americans. If this proposition doesn’t resonate among Asian Americans business owners, then I encourage them to ask why. And in doing so, I am encouraging all Asian Americans to think about racism, whether at the unconscious level or not.

Here’s a reality check: Asian Americans are not immune to racism. By racism I don’t just mean racism against Asian Americans. I don’t want to understate the the persistence of discrimination that many Asian Americans experience routinely. But as much as we need to make more visible the kind of subtle, often covert racism Asian Americans are subject to, we also need to face the reality that we can (and do) dish out the same to others.

One thing that concerns me greatly is the extent to which Asian Americans may be reinscribing, knowingly or unwittingly, patterns of bias against African Americans, especially against economically disadvantaged African Americans. The social forces that may facilitate and bolster such reinscription are complex and varied. In a book chapter that will be coming out later in the fall, I attempt to parse out one possible social force. Specifically, how the desire to assimilate or gain recognition as a peer (or, simply, to “make it”) in mainstream, middle class America, coupled with the actual rise of Asian American educational achievement and economic affluence, can too easily create a false sense that Asian Americans can be a part of American society while being apart from the larger American narrative of racism.

I may post more details about that chapter when it is published in a few months. For now, all I want to emphasize is the following. An attitude that Asian Americans need to guard against is that racism is not an Asian American problem but the problem of others, specifically, between White and Black Americans. But the reality is much different. There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting a good education and living a comfortable life, but so long as you live in the U.S., you cannot insulate yourself from racism. The challenge is discerning how you and your community are plugged into it. That Asian Americans continue to experience discrimination is one way we are plugged into the narrative of American racism. (On that front, there is a good deal of research that strongly suggests the purported integration of Asian Americans into the mainstream has far from eliminated racism against Asian Americans.) But we also need to think more about whether Asian Americans are plugged into that narrative as racists or unwitting perpetrators of racism.

Coming back to the more specific instance of Asian American businesses in economically challenged neighborhoods of color, here’s a revised version of my earlier proposition. Inasmuch as Asian Americans are part of the American narrative of racism, how Asian Americans conduct business in a particular community of color without regard for that community’s history can reinforce and perpetuate patterns of bias against that community. That’s why doing business is never simply a “value-neutral” act. Business is never just business; this applies to Asian American businesses as much as non-Asian American businesses. Such is the reality–the historical reality–of American society.

A few statistics from from a 2012 Pew study should raise hard questions for Asian Americans. The study finds that 61% of Asian Americans say they get along “pretty well” with whites (26% say “very well”). In comparison, 48% of Asian Americans say their group gets along with African Americans “pretty well” (15% say very well). The Pew study then reports that “Korean Americans have an especially negative view of group relations with blacks.” Only 39% of Korean Americans surveyed say they get along “pretty well” with African Americans (and just 4% say “very well”). From these statistics, I wonder about the extent to which Asian Americans are becoming/have become more socially disconnected to African Americans. Whatever the causes of that disconnection, may it not be the case that greater the disconnection, the greater the insensitivity to the kind of racial legacy and realities African Americans face on a daily basis? Let’s resolve to have this conversation in a sustained, honest, and open manner.

Originally posted on, June 2015

Can a Non-Asian Out-Asian an Asian? Questioning the Idea of Ethnic Authenticity

Can a non-Asian out-Asian an Asian?
There are a number of issues intertwined in that mouthful of a question. One issue that interests me especially is whether racial or ethnic identity can be assumed by anyone. After watching the “New York” episode of A Mind of a Chef (2012), again (!), I was, this time around, struck by the phenomenon of Ivan Ramen. (Above, David Chang of Momofuku fame discusses ramen with the famous Ivan of Ivan Ramen of Japan and now in Manhattan).
In the food world it seems fairly acceptable for white chefs to cook so-called non white food (aka ethnic food) and vice versa. And, being able to cook a food “outside” one’s own ethnic or racial background seems to be a kind of desired challenge and personal and professional achievement among ambitious chefs. I have no qualms with this; in fact, it reminds me that ethnic and racial culture is malleable and that there are significant limitations to the way most people approach the concept of cultural authenticity.
But if the world of food helps us to see how ethnic culture does not (or need not) solely “belong” to a certain group of persons, can this also be possible for ethnic identity? Is ethnic identity just as malleable as ethnic culture? A white person may be adept at Japanese cooking, but can a white person choose to identify as Japanese? I guess it would depend on what we mean by ethnic identity. If it is defined primarily in cultural terms, then shouldn’t a non white person who embodies a number of Japanese cultural practices be entitled to identify as Japanese if she wishes? Unless being Japanese (or some other ethnic and racial identity) is more then a set of cultural practices. But what would constitute “more then?”

Originally posted on, February 2015

Racial Aesthetics: How Asian Can You Look to be American?

Racially or ethnically specific baby dolls from the company that makes the American Girl line of toys–apparently very popular, at least based on the lines that form in front of the midtown storefront (in Manhattan) during special events. (My 3 year old daughter seems to like these dolls a lot too.) I get why the American Girl company made these baby dolls, and I get why some kids and their parents prefer them over the “traditional” American girl doll (traditional meaning white). In other words, it makes sense for a little kid to have a doll that looks like her. But there’s the rub. Do these dolls look like an Asian American kid or a Latina child? The doll on the top left is suppose to appeal to Asian American girls–note the “almond eyes” description. My daughter has that one. When I first saw the actual doll, my initial reaction was, okay, maybe it looks Asian. But then when I saw the picture of the doll next to the Latina doll (see the picture top right), I began to wonder what the American Girl company is trying to do with these dolls.
Both dolls on top look pretty much the same. Am I completely off the mark on that? Perhaps more interestingly, the top two dolls don’t look all that dissimilar to the one on the bottom right, which is suppose to the Caucasian doll.

I was more amused than anything else when my daughter received her American Girl baby doll. The doll, especially in relation to the picture of the other ones, is a tad funny looking. Amusing or not, the dolls do reflect, I think, the kind of racial dynamics at play in American society. On the one hand, the increasing sensitivity to difference and the affirmation of diverse identities. On the other hand, respecting difference within the context of whiteness. The latter dynamic is the more subtle and covert dimension of the American experience of race and can be studied in the comparison of the American girl dolls.

My feeling has always been that American society is quite willing to embrace racial and ethnic differences but under certain, often unspoken, stipulations. This observation is not entirely original; we all probably can observe what I mean by flipping through a magazine or watching some commercials. Black is beautiful, but not too black please (Halle Berry, anyone?); nothing wrong with being Asian so long as one doesn’t look too Asian (read: foreign). Perhaps that explains, in part, the popularity of skin whitening and eyelid surgeries among some Asian and Asian American communities. Looking and being different is fine, even to be celebrated, to the extent that difference is modeled after and conforms to “white” standards of aesthetics and “mainstream” or “traditional” American values.

I have nothing against American Girl dolls; my daughter loves playing with hers, and a lot of other girls seem to adore them too. Nothing wrong with childhood joy. But these American Girl baby dolls are indicative of powerful racial forces in American society. An Asian American girl playing with an Asian American-esque baby doll–why not? Empowering, isn’t it? That she can play with a doll that looks more like her provides subtle affirmation of who she is. But what kind of message is covertly communicated when the doll that supposedly looks like her looks more like the white doll, the main difference perhaps being the color of the dolls’ hair? How about this as a possible message: It’s great to be Asian American, but not too Asian American. To be one of us (i.e., American) is to be more like that other doll, white and whatever social and cultural meanings that may be presumed and affirmed with that whiteness. Is this all too sinister? Or, is a baby doll just a baby doll?

Originally posted on, June 2015

What does Asian look like?

This is one of the many dolls that inhabit my abode. This one is suppose to be Asian-looking. Can you tell?

The whole attempt at trying to create ethnically or racially sensitive dolls is interesting. It’s entirely understandable, giving kids the opportunity to identify with the dolls they play with, at least at the level of physical appearance. In the case of this Asian doll, however, I can’t help but think that there is something awry about the whole phenomenon.

How is this doll Asian or, maybe, Asian American? Can we depict Asian American-ness? Is being Asian American a function of how one looks? If that’s the case, then what does Asian American look like? Playing that game seems rather perilous, ripe for reinforcing stereotypes, creating insider and outsider boundaries based on something as plastic as appearance. We shouldn’t assume that’s all there is to being Asian American, or any other ethnic, racial identity.

Originally posted on, January 2015

What’s so Chinese about Chinese food (or Italian about Italian food)?

IMG_0071 IMG_0077

I recently watched the “New York” episode of A Mind of a Chef with David Chang, from season 1 (2012). In the middle of the episode, Chang visits the Torrisi brothers of the cultishly-famous Torrisi Italian Specialties, and Parm and Carbone (and I guess they have a French restaurant that opened recently). The Torrisi brothers cook a pasta dish in homage to their youth and then Chang cooks a Chinese noodle dish in the same spirit. Interestingly as Chang adds a chili pepper sauce and a pile of anchovies into his dish, one of the Torrisi brothers remarks with astonishment that Chang has just employed one of the most Italian of ingredients (presumably the anchovies). That made me wonder: there are a lot of ingredients that both Italian and Chinese cuisines share but are utilized in ways that make Italian food different from Chinese food. That’s obvious enough, I think. But less obvious and perhaps more challenging is whether that means there is such a thing as Italian food or Chinese food. Yes, both cuisines are hyper regional, but the diversity of regions in each cuisine can be described as particularized expressions (or, perhaps more philosophically, meditations) of Italian or Chinese cuisine because they speak to a general Chinese-ness or Italian-ness. I see such a sentiment all the time in the world of food television when chefs talk about flavor profiles. In fact, in this episode of A Mind of a Chef, the observation that both cuisines share integral ingredients moves to a recognition of different flavor profiles despite shared ingredients. But what exactly constitutes an Italian flavor profile, and is that simply a matter of culinary convention or does it point to a larger fact that there is something intrinsically Italian or Chinese? I am inclined toward convention, but wouldn’t that suggest that differences are meaningless? Yet differences do matter, at least at an intuitive and experiential level. Even as a practical matter, being able to make distinctions is important too. In the restaurant world, maybe that’s what matters most in the end—how else would a chef describe his or her food without distinctive flavor profiles and/or ethno-cultural markers? But outside the restaurant world, does that explain it all? Differences (and making distinctions, especially at the level of identity) matter, but in what sense do they matter? In what sense should they matter?

Originally posted on, January 2015