Guest Contributor: Dr. Keith Chan
This article appears as a response to a recent guest writing by Mark Tseng Putterman that appeared on Reappropriate last week, “Against Antiblackness as Metaphor.”
Recently, Mark Tseng Putterman wrote “Against Antiblackness as Metaphor” as a discussion of actor and comedian Margaret Cho’s use of the phrase “House Asian” in an email exchange with fellow actor Tilda Swinton. Cho and Swinton had been emailing in relation to months of controversy over Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One in Marvel’s Dr. Strange, wherein a traditionally male, Tibetan comic book character was rewritten as a Celtic woman to enable Swinton’s portrayal; many Asian Americans had criticized Swinton’s casting as the latest example of Hollywood white-washing of Asian American roles. Earlier this month, Cho weighed in on the controversy in a podcast by revealing a private email exchange between herself and Swinton, wherein Cho described feeling as if she had been put by Swinton into the politically dubious role of a “House Asian”. While many have since focused on Swinton’s methods and motives in approaching Cho in this exchange, Putterman offered a slightly different take: he wrote to criticize Cho’s choice to use the phrase “House Asian” in her emails with Swinton. Specifically, Putterman suggested that Cho, like many Asian Americans, should reconsider our use of metaphors of Blackness to legitimize racial justice issues associated with the Asian American community, and that our continued use of such tactics undermine solidarity efforts between the Black and Asian American community.
I believe Putterman’s article raised many insightful points, and offered a fair caution against the appropriation of race identity, especially in the case of Asian Americans seeking visibility and acknowledgment of the discrimination we face. Cho’s use of the term “House Asian” during her email exchange with fellow actor Tilda Swinton is indeed controversial.
Based on his writing, I believe it was Malcolm X who coined the phrases “House Negro” vs. “Field Negro” to highlight the relative instability of the plight of all subjugated Black people. Along those lines, Ture and Hamilton’s work, Black Power, also assigned a commonality of experience of subjugation for populations of color across the globe, and coined the term “Third World.” This latter term has fallen out of favor since the 1990’s. Cho’s use of “House Asian” misses many of these nuances, and runs the danger of advancing an agenda where all experiences of discrimination, based on race or otherwise, can be viewed as equal.
Clearly, they are not.
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.
I know I’m about a week late on this news, but I’ve got something really important to say: ScarJo, you look absolutely ridiculous in yellowface.
When the news first broke that Scarlett Johansson had been inexplicably cast in Paramount’s film adaptation of blockbuster anime/manga series Ghost in the Shell, I wrote a scathing post declaring that ScarJo is #NotMyMotoko. Last week, that debate was rekindled when studios released a teaser image of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi. I think we can all agree: sporting a black wig styled into an asymmetric bob, Johansson looks unbelievably absurd in the role of a Japanese cyborg woman who has long stood as an icon of Asian and Asian American feminism, queer identity, and gender fluidity.
A mere week after I wrote a post swearing off of sharing fan news, the fandom insidiously pulled me back in.
This week, rumours began circulating that Tilda Swinton was in casting negotiations for Marvel’s upcoming Dr. Strange film starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role. Swinton is being considered for the role of the Ancient One, a nearly-immortal Tibetan sorcerer who becomes the young Dr. Strange’s mystic tutor and personal mentor.
That’s right. Tilda Swinton — a British actor whose Wikipedia article notes that she can trace her Anglo-Scot heritage back to the Middle Ages and who is about as far from “Tibetan” as one might get — may be cast to play a racebent and genderbent version of one of the few Asian characters of prominence in the Mystic Marvel world.