Wednesday, June 03, 2015

More inconsistency in thinking about race

I'm almost surely never going to watch Aloha, which stars Emma Stone in the role of a Hapa on Hawai'i. But there is such a great backlash over this film, focusing primarily upon the race of Emma Stone and how it doesn't match the race of the character. However, I noticed something about this coverage: most of the coverage about how badly matched the actress was with the character's race gets the character's race wrong.

Emma Stone's character is supposed to be 1/4 Chinese, 1/4 Native Hawaiian, and 1/2 European mutt. But this is how Entertainment Weekly discussed the casting problem:
Accepting Emma Stone as an Asian-American in Aloha requires a certain suspension of disbelief and no small amount of magical thinking. In the Hawaii-set romantic comedy-drama, she portrays Allison Ng: an aggressively peppy Air Force fighter pilot of Chinese-Hawaiian-Swedish decent who falls for an existentially angst-y military contractor played by Bradley Cooper.

But in order to process this idea of Stone as a bi-racial character, as someone whose genetic lineage can be traced back to the Middle Kingdom by way of Polynesia, you must first get past the obvious stumbling blocks: her alabaster skin and strawberry blond hair, her emerald eyes and freckles—past the star’s outwardly unassailable #Caucasity—if only because the movie hammers home her cultural other-ness in just about every other scene.
And EW isn't alone in this, either. Social-justice/femenist website Jezebel doesn't do much better:
Emma Stone Playing a Half-Asian Character in Aloha: Literally Why
NBC News' coverage of the controversy shouts:
Cameron Crowe Apologizes for Casting Emma Stone as Asian American
 The Guardian's news story on this states:
Emma Stone: the whitest Asian person Hollywood could find
You get the idea.

The problem is, of course, that "Asian" in this case means someone of Asian racial ancestry. And in that sense, the character of Allison Ng is "Asian." But the character is also "Hawaiian." And the character is also "European." The mix is even explained - again and again - by the various stories that are breathlessly saying how horrible it was that the actress didn't even come close to matching the ethnicity of the character. But then they all do the easy thing and just label the character "Asian" or "Half-Asian."


Why not label her "White" or "Half-White"? Indeed, why not label her "Hawaiian" or "Half-Hawaiian"?

The US remains stuck in a discussion and conceptualization of race that revolves primarily around a "White/Black" axis. Sure, there is a recognition that there are more races than "White" and "Black," but the rules of discussing them and assigning someone to them remains effectively the same as the rules that still remain about assigning race within the "White/Black" context: you are either fully White or you are Black. Therefore, we call Barack Obama "the first African American President," despite the fact that he's half-White.

In the same vein, since the character of Allison Ng not 100% White, Allison Ng is not - and cannot be - "White." This then leaves us with determining whether she's "Asian" or "Hawaiian."

I would hazard a guess that most mainland Americans have no idea about what a Native Hawaiian looks like, what Hawaii's culture actually consists of, or even what Hawaii's history entails. I doubt that most mainland Americans can name two Hawaiians from history or even name two Hawaiian traditional dishes. In short, most mainland Americans have next to no idea about anything relating to Hawaii other than (possibly) that it's one of the States of the United States, that it's in the Pacific Ocean, it's where Pearl Harbor is located, and it's got hula dancers. But ask most mainland Americans to describe how a Native Hawaiian is different from an Asian, and I would hazard a guess that most wouldn't be able to give a straight answer (except - perhaps - a circular one, like, "A Native Hawaiian is a native of Hawaii"). Indeed, I would hazard the position that Native Hawaiians are completely absent from the minds of almost all mainland Americans.

Add to this invisibility the comparative visibility of Asian Americans, especially in TV shows that are supposed to take place in Hawaii, such as all the Asians in Hawaii Five-O (which even cast an Asian American as a Native Hawaiian!!!). Add to this the way in which official census forms have the lumped-together category of "Asian Pacific Islander." That lumping effectively extends the geographic range of this "racial category" from Turkey to Hawaii. (As if Turkey to Japan wasn't large enough.)

... and so - for a variety of reasons, her Hawaiian-ness gets completely subsumed, her Whiteness gets disqualified, and she is left as "Asian" (or "half-Asian").


If you're going to write an article excoriating Crowe for casting lily-White, Northern-European-descent Emma Stone in the role of Allison Ng, you must get the race of the character right and you must never get it wrong. The simple truth is that the character of Allison Ng is more White than she is Asian. The character of Allison Ng is as Hawaiian as she is Asian. Referring to her character as "Asian" (or even "half Asian") in these articles is just so stupidly wrongheaded that it beggars belief.

The US (heck, most of the world) needs to get past the idea that 50% White, 50% Black makes you Black. They need to get past the idea that 50% White, 50% Asian makes you Asian. There needs to be a greater recognition that

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