Earlier last week, Cameron Crowe’s Aloha — which opened on Friday to pitiful box office returns — became embroiled in controversy as attention focused on the casting of Emma Stone in the role of love interest Allison Ng, who is described in the script as multiracially Chinese American and Native Hawaiian. Stone is of Swedish, Dutch German, English, Scottish and Irish heritage and has presumably zero Asian or Native Hawaiian ancestry.
I wrote last week about how Crowe’s miscasting of Stone as Allison Ng is part of a far larger pattern of how film mistreats the Asian American and Pacific Islander identities: we are either cast as racial or cultural fetish objects (in Aloha, a prescient storyline recapitulates but also flattens the political tension of Mauna Kea), or alternatively our bodies are rendered invisible (in Aloha, a multiracial AANHPI character is played by a White actress).
One of the frustrations of how the Aloha controversy has played out on the larger social media stage has involved the language that we use to discuss the strange White-washing of Allison Ng. As Sharon Chang has pointed out, outrage has focused on the casting of a White woman to play a multiracial Chinese American character; comparatively little attention has been focused on either the impact of Aloha (or its casting) on either Native Hawaiian indigenous politics, or on multiracial identity politics.
On the latter point, Aloha becomes a lens through which we can more broadly assess (and confirm) how multiracial politics are misunderstood, both by the White mainstream and also by many race activism-oriented progressives. This sad status quo should be disheartening but not surprising: there is profound lack of specific conversation in the larger sphere of identity politics over multiracial identity. Consequently, there is a lot of dumb bullshit that monoracial people say about and to multiracial people that goes largely unconfronted.
Multiracial identity politics are based on a few key points, all that should be recognizable as also applicable to monoracial persons and how we view our own racial politics: 1) multiracial persons are fully members of their constituent racial groups; 2) only a multiracial person can decide his or her own politicized racial identity; and 3) no one has any right to invalidate a multiracial person’s racial identity.
Yet, even though we might claim to intellectually understand multiracial identity politics, rarely do we demonstrate fluency in these tenets. I recently wrote a post using Elliot Rodger and his heinous actions as a lens through which to explore our unchallenged preconceptions about mixed race politics, only to find those same disturbing and invalidating assertions about the racial identity of multiracial people recapitulated and defended — by self-described race activists! — in the comments sections. The character of Allison Ng is frequently described — even by those critical of Stone’s casting — as “a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese”, while many casually use the word “fully” to describe monoracial people. Such treatments of racial identity as math equations suggest that a multiracial person is some lesser fraction of a monoracial person; yet, no multiracial Asian American person should be considered “half” a person, as if they have less claim to their Asian American identity than someone monoracial. They don’t get half a vote at the Asian American Council. They don’t only get half of a drink ticket at the Asian American after-party.
Multiracial people are multiracial people. They are not Frankenstein monsters, sewn together from the broken bodies of dismembered monoracial people and brought to life by the sizzling lightning bolt of interracial sex.
Late last night, Cameron Crowe posted a non-apology on his blog about Emma Stone’s casting. In it, Crowe offers “a heart-felt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice” but then defended Stone’s casting by suggesting that Ng’s character was supposed to look White.
There are many multiracial people who may not look multiracial. A mixed race White, Asian, and Native Hawaiian person may indeed look White, but that does not mean that they are not mixed race. To cast a monoracial White person in the role of a mixed race White-passing character is to lend credence to the disturbing idea that the mixed race individual is racially and politically indistinguishable from Whiteness, and that because their non-White heritage is not visible, it is not critically important.
To say that Stone’s casting is sensible because Allison Ng is supposed to look White is to say that mixed race identity is literally skin deep. And yes, Cameron Crowe, that’s a problem.
Multiracial politics rarely play out on the big screen, and Crowe’s writing of Allison Ng deserves some (minimal) praise for its interest in tackling the consequences of passing on multiracial identity formation. Yet, as has been pointed out numerous times already, there are many exceptionally talented mixed race actors who might have been better chosen to portray Allison Ng’s character and her multiracial identity. Some of these mixed race actors are White and Asian, and are not immediately recognizable as Asian American.
To choose the monoracially White Emma Stone to play a character who, according to Crowe, so appears White that she feels the need to “over-explain every chance she gets” is to commit an even greater crime against that character and her real-life inspiration. By casting Stone, he actually reinforces the suggestion that “looking White” and “being White” are the same thing. Yet, this is exactly the mindset that troubled Allison Ng’s real-life muse (“a real-life, red-headed local” who is “personally compelled to over-explain” because she is “frustrated that, by all outward appearances she looked nothing like [a multiracial person]”). Crowe’s casting, in essence, disconnects this red-headed girl from her Asian American and Native Hawaiian heritage, and in so doing reinforces the exact reason why she exuberantly emphasized her non-White identity.
There has been a lot of conversation over Aloha recently that has focused on Hollywood’s White-washing of Asian faces. Aloha is certainly an example of that. But, while we maintain this conversation, we should also examine the many other facets of Aloha‘s mistreatment of Asian, Native Hawaiian and mixed race politics.
All of us — including Cameron Crowe — should take this opportunity not just to speak out against an outrageous example of erasure, but also to educate ourselves on multiracial (and indigenous) identity politics.
And above all, we need to put an end to monoracial people saying dumbass bullshit things to mixed race people because we misunderstand mixed race politics and don’t take the time to learn. We think we know, but really y’all, we have no idea.
Update: Grammar edits because it turns out that writing a post while on hold with the electric company makes for some truly shitty copyediting.