Guest Contributor: Mark Tseng Putterman (@tsengputterman)
Asian American Twitter has been abuzz this week with news that Tilda Swinton singled out Margaret Cho to explain to her the backlash surrounding her whitewashed casting as “The Ancient One” in Dr. Strange. On a recent episode of Bobby Lee’s TigerBelly podcast, Cho described the odd email exchange with Swinton, who she had never met, explaining that it left her feeling like a “house Asian, like I’m her servant.”
While many commentators have rightfully jumped on Swinton’s behavior as another example of white people expecting people (especially women) of color to perform uncompensated intellectual and emotional labor, few have discussed how Cho’s coopting of the term “house Asian” represents a parallel trend of non-Black Asian Americans repurposing Black movements, analyses, and terminology for our own purposes.
If you spend any time thinking about race or identity politics, you have by now heard of Rachel Dolezal, the (former) president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP who for several years passed as a (multiracial, light-skinned) Black woman until her parents revealed early last week that they are both White.
Because we haven’t had enough thinkpieces on this subject, here’s another. (Yes, that’s sarcasm.)
This story took social media by storm, with each day revealing new details of Dolezal’s life: born in Montana and growing up with blonde hair, pale skin, and blue-green eyes, Dolezal reportedly increasingly identified with Black culture when her family adopted her two (Black) brothers. As a college student, Dolezal applied to Howard University as a fine arts major with a portfolio that focused on Black subjects, and was admitted on a scholarship. During her time at Howard, Dolezal identified as White, and when she graduated in 2002, she sued the school claiming racial discrimination when she was not offered a teaching position and when some of her work was removed from an exhibit to make room for other artists; the courts failed to uphold her claims.
It was at some point after Dolezal graduated and before she moved to Spokane that she began altering her appearance — darkening her skin and wearing her hair in braids — to (intentionally or unintentionally) lead the casual observer to assume she was multiracially Black. Perhaps initially, Dolezal simply chose not to correct those who made assumptions about her racial identity based on her appearance, but by the last few years, Dolezal was taking increasingly elaborate steps to maintain the subterfuge: she applied to a City commission position (which she received) while self-identifying as White, Black and Native, she wrote numerous social media posts subtly crafted to self-identify with Blackness, she presented her younger adopted brother as her own son, she identified an unknown older dark-skinned Black man as her father and fabricated a story about him forced to flee the Deep South, and she gave an hour-long interview with a graduate student (available in five parts on YouTube) where she recounts an apparently entirely made-up story of her life as a multiracial Black child discovering her Blackness at an early age.
Today, she told the Today show, “I identify as Black”.
As we approach this story, we must also question why and how this story came to be. Dolezal’s parents — estranged from Dolezal for many years — claim they are motivated only by the ethical implications of Dolezal’s racial performance. However, reports published this week say that last week’s revelation regarding Dolezal’s heritage may be an effort by Dolezal’s parents to discredit Dolezal, who has sided with the alleged victim in a sexual assault case involving Dolezal’s older biological brother. If so, anyone who chooses to write about Rachel Dolezal must acknowledge that this entire story may be part of a smear campaign designed to protect a sexual abuser from being held accountable for an alleged crime. Such smear tactics are disturbingly common countermeasures used to absolve those accused of rape and sexual assault by undermining the character of their (typically female) victims and their supporters.
Despite the circumstances of these revelations, however, we also cannot simply ignore the implications of Dolezal’s attempts at racial transformation. Dolezal’s attempts at passing enthralled the nation with equal parts fascination and disgust, in no small part because it raised for many of us weighty and confusing questions on the very construction of race: What constitutes membership in Blackness? Can a person not born into Blackness (or Whiteness or Brownness) simply choose to switch their race? If so, what would be the mechanism of this transformation? Is race-switching a one-way street?
(H/T M. Holt)
Did y’all know Mindy Kaling had a brother?
Yeah, neither did I. Turns out that the star of the hit comedy The Mindy Project has an older brother named Vijay. A quick Google search of his name reveals little: on the internet, he exists entirely in the form of short quotes (one to Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, the other to Parade, another to the New York Times) about how awesome his sister is. He is also listed as a surviving child in his mother’s obituary. On a fansite for The Office, Vijay trawled for threads about his sister and shamelessly name-dropped that he was related to her (Update: link no longer active). On Twitter, he has a scant 230 followers (at the time of this publication) despite having been on the microblogging site for four years as a self-described “anti-affirmative action hacktivist” (#tcot?). In his Twitter bio, he tells us that the most pertinent detail about his life is that he’s related to Mindy Kaling.
Yet, Chokalingam is making news today in super-Rightwing news media outlets: in early March, Chokalingam released details of a book pitch documenting his efforts to gain admission into medical school by donning Blackface fifteen years ago.
Yes, you read that right: Mindy Kaling’s brother says he wore Blackface for more than two years while applying to and attending medical school.
What. The. Fuck.
Looks like we’ve already got our first submission for the closing credits of Dear White People 2: Guess You Weren’t Paying Attention The First Time.
Students at Brock University, located in downtown St. Catharines, less than an hour’s drive south of Toronto, decided to go to an on-campus student-organized Halloween party last week as the Jamaican bobsled team from Cool Runnings. They wore Jamaican colours and then three of the four students (who are White) accentuated their costume with honest-to-God-shoepolish-black blackface; the one Black student did not wear makeup.
This isn’t your modern-day wifebeater and gold teeth blackface. This is your I-just-got-done-watching-Birth-Of-A-Nation blackface.
And just went you thought that a group of students in shoepolish-black blackface was where this story was going to end, I’ve got one more thing for ya: these students didn’t just enter a costume contest, they won.
Oh, HBO, how could you do me so wrong after I sung your praises so loudly regarding this season of Game of Thrones? How could you betray me after I just recently discovered the HBO-Go SmartHub app on my does-everything-but-start-the-morning-coffee smart TV?
On August 8th, HBO will premiere an Australian show called Jonah From Tonga. The show’s 6-episode first season (structured as a mockumentary) originally ran in Australia in May of this year, and has since been picked up by HBO, along with BBC (another disappointing turn for an otherwise stellar network). The show stars (White) comedian Chris Lilley in brown makeup and curly-cued wig, playing the show’s 14-year-old eponymous protagonist, a wayward thuggish high school student recently returned to Australia from the Polynesian islands of Tonga (trailer after the jump).