Speaking Truth to Power is not Cyberbullying: On Tone Policing and Respectability Politics

Zach McGowan (left), who is not Native Hawaiian, has been cast to play Ben Kanahele (right) in the upcoming “Ni’ihau” film.

Last week, Deadline broke the story that writer/director Gabriel Robertson (EastEnders, Bucket, The Gift) was attached to write and direct a feature film based on the infamous so-called “Ni’ihau Incident”. Deadline further reported that actor Zach McGowan (Dracula UntoldTerminator: Salvation, Black Sails) — who is not Native Hawaiian — had been cast in the leading role of Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele, a historical figure and Ni’ihauian who was awarded a Purple Heart for his role in the incident.

News of McGowan’s casting triggered immediate backlash from Asian American and Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander activists, who accused the filmmakers of using “Polyface” to whitewash the character of Ben Kanahele. In addition, Asian Americans criticized early buzz surrounding the planned “Ni’ihau” film, which described the incident as a “catalyst” for Japanese American incarceration (Editor’s Note: see JACL’s Power of Words handbook).

In truth, the events of the Ni’ihau Incident was co-opted by hardline conservatives to provide a veil of legitimacy to obscure the racist and anti-Asian motives behind Japanese American incarceration. History has since confirmed that Executive Order 9066 — which led to the forcible removal of over a hundred thousand Japanese and Japanese American civilians — was not based in significant military intelligence showing that Japanese Americans were untrustworthy; rather, Japanese American incarceration emerged as the latest escalation in a decades-long pattern of legalized anti-Asian and anti-Japanese harassment and criminalization.

Online outcry against “Ni’ihau” was fervent, taking the shape of memes, Twitter threads, and long-form thinkpieces. As it turns out, the filmmakers behind the planned “Ni’ihau” film were listening; and, they weren’t very receptive to the criticism.

Actor Zach McGowan (@Zach_McGowan), who features centrally in the controversy, has been largely silent. However, over the weekend, McGowan’s brothers — Doug and Matt McGowan — took to Twitter (along with a number of surprisingly committed Zach McGowan super fans) to accuse Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of racism and cyberbullying. In a lengthy Twitter conversation (that I was also a part of), Matt McGowan (@matt_mcgowan) demanded to know why his brother’s earlier roles playing a Native American in Shameless and a Romani character in Dracula Untold had not elicited similar controversy. (Twitter user @lsirikul helpfully pointed out that McGowan’s past forays into brownface did not excuse his latest effort to do the same.)

Older brother Doug McGowan (@doug_mcgowan) then pointedly implied it was racially discriminatory and/or factually inaccurate to argue that a white actor could not play a character of any race. That tweet garnered the support of Zach McGowan superfans but was otherwise widely denounced. (Doug McGowan then went on to tone police popular Asian American writer Jeff Yang who responded to McGowan’s tweet with understandable dismissiveness.)

The conversation ended with an assurance by Matt McGowan that “Ni’ihau” filmmakers and actor Zach McGowan were receptive to AANHPI’s concerns and would “do [their] best.” There was even a #pinkyswear.

However, in seeming contradiction to the supposed sincerity of that promise was McGowan’s parallel insistence — posted just a few hours later — that the filmmakers of “Ni’ihau” had been bullied into silence by a targeted cyberbulling (or #Cyberbullying) campaign.

McGowan’s accusation of cyberbullying is a serious charge, and should not be invoked lightly. Cyberbullying is a rising issue in America, particularly as it targets American youth who possess one or more marginalized identities. Among Asian Americans, cyberbullying is one facet of the larger problem of classroom bullying that affects 1 in 5 Asian American students and which is significantly more likely to center around that student’s race compared to bullying victims of other racial and ethnic groups. Among adult netizens, cyberbullying disproportionately targets women and people of colour, who are more likely to face severe threats against their security and even their physical safety. In some instances, cyberbullying has been directly involved in the deaths of victims by suicide; too often, those victims have been children of colour.

By definition, cyberbullying involves a concerted campaign to target an individual solely based on some aspect of their identity, and to harass and endanger that person through name-calling, stealing of personal information, catfishing, doxxing, and other forms of threatening behavior. Victims of cyberbullying and other online harassment campaigns have had to report online threats to police and, in rare instances, have gone into hiding to keep themselves and their family safe.

Cyberbullying does not describe being the recipient of mass criticism from a group of people who are responding to acts of racism committed against them. Speaking truth to power is not cyberbullying. Period.

To weaponize the serious issue of cyberbullying against activists who are doing nothing more than speaking out against the literal erasure of Native Hawaiians and Asian Americans is disgusting and offensive. It is insulting to the many activists (myself included) who have not only been the targets of actual online harassment but whose work is focused on ending racist and sexist online harassment of marginalized people. It is furthermore disrespectful to the many activists who have taken our time and energy to engage thoughtfully in dialogue to problematize the announced plans for “Ni’ihau”.

Against the backdrop of a film that profoundly misappropriates Native Hawaiian and Asian American history and people, McGowan’s hyperdefensive invocation of the cyberbullying issue — which predominantly victimizes people of colour and other marginalized peoples — is yet another co-optation of people of colour and our politics by those attached to the “Ni’ihau” film project. McGowan’s accusation that anti-racist AAPI activists are engaging in cyberbullying is an effort to delegitimize what we are saying by focusing on tone policing how we say it. When McGowan cries cyberbullying, what he really seems to be saying is that he’s tired of hearing angry AANHPI talk so loudly.

As if we should still remember to be muted and reverent to white people in our reactions towards racism committed against our bodies and our histories. As if our anger would be more digestible by those in power, if only we could find it within ourselves to be nicer.

Pardon my French, but fuck that.

I acknowledge that it can be tough to find oneself at the center of a Twitter shitstorm. And, of course, I totally get the instinct to defend family members who feel under siege.

But, if the McGowan brothers truly want to protect brother Zach from online criticism, the solution is not to try to invalidate those doing the work of reaching out and educating the folks behind “Ni’ihau” as to why many aspects of the project appear to be problematic. The solution is not to denounce activists, as if we are only deserving of consideration if we are more muted in our hurt and outrage. The solution is not to insist that it is we who should approach those committing racial offense against us with more respect, more politeness, and more submissiveness. The solution is not to invoke respectability politics against Asian American and Pacific Islander activists.

The McGowans need to stop reacting with knee jerk defensiveness. They need to instead take the time to sincerely listen to what is being offered by the AANHPI community.

There are a lot of outraged people right now because early buzz about this film is simply outrageous. From what we know about “Ni’ihau”, the film will whitewash at least one Native Hawaiian historical figure, speak over all other Native Hawaiians including members of the Kanahele family, downplay the dynamics of settler colonialism, and reinforce conservative anti-Japanese narratives to provide false justification of WWII-era American concentration camps. Above all, the film appears poised to misappropriate Asian American and Native Hawaiian history to rationalize WWII-era racism while telling a sensationalized story of American exceptionalism. If even a fraction of what I have just described is true, this ahistorical treatment of a sensitive episode in our history will prove hurtful and offensive to the millions of Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islanders of this country, particularly if it is presented within our current political climate of heightened nativism and xenophobia. We have a right to be really damned upset here.

To the McGowan brothers: I get it, it’s no fun to get a whole lot of angry tweets. But, let’s get real — you are not the victims here.

As I said earlier this weekend, I and many other activists are interested in having this conversation, and we await a sincere effort at outreach towards us.

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