How Cameron Crowe Misunderstands Multiracial Politics in his “Aloha” Apology

June 3, 2015

aloha-movie-poster

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.

Cameron Crowe
Cameron Crowe

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.

  • Skeet Duran

    Great point, thanks for bringing it up. Yes, I was aware of Americans are direct descendants of the British, Christopher Columbus was an Italian who represented the Spanish, and England-France-Spain-Netherlands colonized the original 13 Colonies, which technically makes Europeans direct ancestors of Americans.

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to debate against white people about ethnic casting based on the ancestry standpoint. Arguing from that angle would be a great disadvantage for minorities. White people can easily counter-argue that Blacks are direct descendants of Africa, and they will argue that the only roles Blacks can play are characters from Africa, which typecasts minorities into an even smaller box.

    I rather see all actors get versatile acting roles across all ethinicities within the range of race, once the race barrier is crossed then that is where it should be controversial.

    I was not conflating race and ethnicity, I was making a distinction separating the two to make a point to Fett that while the race identifier is not ok, the ethnicity identifier should be ok.

    Jenn, I know you’re against cross racial casting, but are you against cross ethnic casting too?

  • Fett

    Yeah, I know this to be the case as well. I don’t know which multiracial intellectuals she’s been talking to but alot of what she writes goes against common sense. Mix people treat themselves as math equations all the time.

  • I think we’ve already established that someone who legitimately refers to mixed race people as folks with ‘watered down ethnicity’ are perhaps not the best authorities on contemporary mixed race politics.

    Also, you have yet to explain yourself above with a convincing presentation of a cogent argument as to how Cameron Crowe’s casting choices could have anything to do with Internet chatter.

  • That doesn’t mean that such language isn’t reinforcing of a racial purity perspective on race that would treat mixed race individuals as lesser versions of mono racial individuals.

  • Yeah, sorry I was unclear — my last comment is agreeing with you. 🙂

    I don’t oppose cross ethnic casting, precisely because of the meaningful difference between race and ethnicity, and that this distinction is precisely how and why crossracial casting has been used as a problematic tool against POC.

  • Pablo’s comment was edited to insert proper blockquote formatting.

  • Pablo Wegesend

    Actually no, because in Hawaii (where the movie takes place AND also where I’m from), the use of “I’m 1/2 this, 1/2 that” is NOT sending the message of “lesser versions of mono racial individuals”, it is just a way of saying this is how my ancestral DNA is divided!

    You have to remember that in Hawaii, the meaning we give to the words are different from how it’s done in the continental US! Because Hawaii has a such large population of mixed-race people, we don’t have the same level of insecurity that would cause people to freak out at mentions of “he’s 1/4 this, 3/4 that” because we all know that those fractions are not referring to one’s humanity, but just referring to how our ancestral DNA is divided!

    And yes I do refer to myself with fractions! I’m 1/2 Mexican, 1/4 Puerto Rican, 1/8 German and 1/8 Portuguese! These types of self-descriptions are common in Hawaii and doesn’t freak out anyone here because we know the context!

  • Pablo, I respect that you use this kind of language to describe yourself, and wish to defend it. I want to reiterate however that if one really thinks about what one is saying, it suggests a mixed person is (politically) “half” a monoracial person. For a community that struggles for full acceptance and inclusion in monoracial social movements, this becomes a point of serious concern. Personally, I do not enjoy that sentiment.

    That being said, I respect that this is language you wish to use to describe yourself, and further want to emphasize that one of the chief characteristics of mixed race identity politics is fluidity of identity. Mixed race people might use the word “half” as a way to relate their own racial identity; this post doesn’t dispute that. That is distinct, however, from how monoracial people should speak about and to multiracial people, in my opinion. Identifying as “half” is one way to approach one’s mixed race identity; it is not the only way. When we use such language about mixed race people, we are making an assertion about how mixed race people should relate to their own identity that we don’t have a right to do. A mixed race person may choose to identify as “half”; we as monoracial people shouldn’t choose that relationship for them.

    Using a word like “multiracial” reflects that a person is mixed race or multiracial without asserting anything about what that person’s racial relationship is for themselves.

  • I don’t think that you Yanks begin to comprehend how ridiculous you appear to the rest of the world with these mind-boggling, hair-splitting pc-doctrinal discussions of racial issues and terminology. The entire western world deals with exactly the same issues in a perfectly normal way. Two multi-racial countries that I know well, the UK and Israel, just deal with these issues naturally and with humour. Half the British TV comedies would be banned in the US as politically incorrect if not racist. But everyone has a good laugh and no-one takes themselves seriously. The same goes for numerous Israeli sitcoms. As for simply talking, every Israeli will say he’s one-quarter Yemenite, one quarter German, one-quarter Iraqi, one quarter Moroccan. This is simply how people speak (I know an fourth-generation Israeli who is – hold your breath – one quarter Yemenite(=Yemeni Jew)-Israeli, one eighth German, one-sixteenth Polish-English, one-sixteenth Russian-English, one-quarter Italian-Israeli, one-quarter Moroccan-Israeli. Much of the population is like that, and proud of it. Because this information is rapidly disappearing, 7th-grade Israeli kids have to do a roots project in school and find out where their great-grandparents actually came from. In the UK there’s something similar). OK he screwed up the casting. If the plot says she passes for white she shouldn’t actually be a white actor? Who exactly is the victim here? Why in heaven’s sake did he find the need to apologize? You’re obsessive, narcissist and probably seriously bored. This is counter-racism which is a kind of racism in itself. Loosen up and get a life!

  • In Israel everyone would be multi millionaires. Without all the start-ups.

  • Who for crying out loud, actually has a “racial purity perspective on race that would treat mixed race individuals as lesser versions of mono racial individuals”. Are you sure that this isn’t just inside your mind???!!! Who are the tortured “multiracial intellectuals” that you refer to below? Isn’t all this compulsive navel-gazing just making US racial problems even worse?

  • And lest I am accused by the PC Brigade of ignoring Israeli Arabs, the funniest and most popular sitcom in Israel EVER is Arab Labor
    http://www.keshetinternational.com/show/comedy/arab-labor/
    The US guardians of PC would have all the creators arrested! (OK only the Israeli-Jews, not the Israeli-Arabs… 🙂 )

  • Ad hominem attacks are not permitted on this site. Additional comments of this nature will warrant removal.

  • Who are the hominem? 300 million Americans?!

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