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 Tumblr.com, 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 Tumblr.com, February 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 tumblr.com, January 2015