Rachel Dolezal, Vijay Chokalingam (Mindy Kaling’s brother, who became known after pretending to be black on medical school applications), and now Michael Hudson.
Running through these racial disguises is a common, disturbing thread: the notion that racial identity — composed of all the nuanced struggles and complex interactions that come with navigating America as a racialized person — consists of nothing more than a name or skin tone change.
Pretending to be Asian is, of course, markedly different than pretending to be black, by nature of the fact that different racial groups face different kinds of oppression. But regardless of the differing dynamics of privilege operating here, all three individuals believed that a racial identity could be co-opted, donned, and shed at one’s convenience.
They also all profited from their masquerades. However, while Dolezal’s scholarships and opportunities were byproducts of her fetish for being black, Chokalingam and Hudson had far more calculated, insidious and ignorant intentions.
Chokalingam explicitly pretended to be black in order to get accepted into medical school (whether his feigned blackness had anything to do with his ultimate acceptance, we’ll never know), then published a website about his “experiment” and is seeking to publish a book on it.
Similarly, Hudson proudly states in his Best American Poems anthology biography, as if heroically unveiling some kind of injustice, that donning a Chinese name was “a strategy for ‘placing’ poems [that] has been quite successful for me.”
Michael Derrick Hudson’s shameless, bold-faced biography in the Best American Poetry Anthology. Source: The Best American Poetry Tumblr. “There is a very short answer for my use of a non de plume: after a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it send it out again. As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me. The poem in question, ‘The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve’ was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen-Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen, the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.”
Is feigning minority status a “strategy for success” now? If so, I’d gladly welcome Hudson to step into the shoes of an actual Chinese-American woman with the name Yi-Fen Chou and see how wildly different his world feels without his white male privilege. I’d also welcome Chokalingam to step into the shoes of an African-American man. How strategic is it to be a person of color in the United States?
These individuals have exploited the ways in which people of color have been marginalized and silenced for centuries. Dolezal, Chokalingam and Hudson took advantage of the meager “privileges” POCs have today, “privileges” that exist precisely to remedy the systematic lack of privilege POCs have experienced since America’s founding.
In an age of neoliberal, “post-racial,” multicultural rhetoric, is this what the popular conception of “diversity” has come down to? Hudson’s actions seem to rest on three popular misconceptions:
Misconception 1: Racial identity comes down to superficial markers like name
Reality: Racial identity is incredibly complex.
Navigating society and one’s own heritage as a racialized, or otherwise underrepresented, person from birth is uniquely nuanced. Every interaction, from hearing the infamous “ching chong” taunt at 12 years old to hearing a supervisor say, “Chen, Park, Sung — these are some strange names we’ve got here” as a young professional in the workplace, chips at and subtly shapes your perception of self and the world. Every absence and every stereotype in pop culture and media feels palpable. Every seemingly innocuous, often unintentional, slight is a tiny reminder that you do not belong, made worse by the fact that the reason you do not belong is tied to something you cannot control (e.g. your sex, race, etc).
But you’re often not just carrying your own personal interactions and nuanced experiences. Your parents and ancestors, too, have experiences and histories, whether in America or the countries from which they immigrated. And all of these (hi)stories shape your perception of self and the world, affecting how you navigate, interpret and act in it, whether that means applying for medical school or writing poetry.
Ironically, Chokalingam actually did get a taste of what being a black man in America is like. Dolezal, too, I’m sure faced anti-black racism as the NAACP chapter president of Spokane. Yet the gravity and complexity of racialized experience still seemed to go over their heads.
Dolezal persisted in claiming that she “identifies as black” (despite not having passed as a black female until adulthood and, even then, always having her whiteness to go back to in the privacy of her home). After Chokalingam clipped his eyelashes and shaved his head, “clerks and strangers mistook him for black and treated him badly…Yet these insights about racism haven’t led Chokalingam to a deeper understanding of the reasons for affirmative action, and why black students and Indian-American students with similar résumés might not always be equally deserving.”
What Dolezal, Chokalingam and Hudson all failed to realize is how integral these nuanced (hi)stories and experiences are to racial identity. The latter two especially failed to realize that it is this variety and richness of (hi)story, not a quota of ethnic names or skin tones, that affirmative action policies are attempting to cultivate in the workplace and schools.
Misconception 2: “Diversity” today means adding token people of color to fill a quota
Reality: Diversity means uplifting differing experiences and backgrounds and fostering meaningful understanding among different people.
As a POC in the U.S., you are told from birth of your inferiority, ugliness and non-normativity. So, yes, it is refreshing and commendable when a person of color somehow overcomes the “ambient self-doubt that trails most people from the margins who enter into spaces where they were never encouraged to belong” to succeed.
True inclusion means ensuring equal opportunity, access and treatment of those who have differing (hi)stories in these spaces. Ideally, diverse institutions do not just have diverse populations, but also foster meaningful interactions and understanding among different people.
Hudson doesn’t seem to be able to fathom what possible (hi)stories an Asian-American poet might have experienced or overcome to get to published status. He shamelessly slapped on the name of a female high school Chinese American classmate to his poem, “as though it were all just a game, meant to be gamed [,] as though it all came down to a name and losing your accent.”
He should know: For all the Asian-American creatives who have overcome the endless microaggressions, butchering of names too “ethnic” for American tongues (like “Yi-Fen Chou”), and sneers at packed lunches to develop the self-worth to write and publish a poem in the Best American Poetry anthology, it was not, and can never be, that easy. His actions and shamelessness reveal a gross disrespect for and misunderstanding of what “diversity” means and why it is important.
Misconception 3: In their farces they are revealing the unfairness to which hyper-represented groups are treated in an era that supposedly touts diversity over “merit.”
Reality: There is no such thing as “reverse racism.” There are valid reasons that diversity, inclusion and affirmative action policies are in place.
I’ve met many people who have expressed similar resentments for “reverse racism” or “anti-affirmative action.” Here is why there is no such thing as “reverse racism”:
A popular understanding seems to be that “diversity” comes down to token quotas for minorities and affirmative action policies that “disadvantage” whites and hyper-represented groups —for Hudson, whites in the literary world, and for Chokalingam, Asian-Americans in the medical world.
According to Chokalingam, affirmative action is racist and blacks and Latin@s get unfair priority treatment. Yet research has shown that a white name “yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience” for the same resume with a name like Lakisha. Black-sounding names are 50% less likely to get a callback for an interview, and this is just one of many ways that systemic racism manifests itself in America:
Educational institutions and workplaces have diversity and affirmative action policies in place to remedy these often subconscious biases and discriminatory practices, the results of which have compounded over the course of history and continue to occur today.
Why did Sherman Alexie, the editor of the Best American Poetry anthology, pay more attention to Hudson’s poem because it appeared to be written by a Chinese-American? Because Asian-Americans have historically been (and continue to be) deprived of representation and silenced in the literary (and other!) worlds. Because literature and writing are overwhelmingly white spaces. Because white people are blatantly overrepresented in mainstream publications, including the New York Times Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, and Boston Review.
So here’s the most irredeemable problem with the Yi-Fen Chou affair: Hudson, a white man, has no dearth of privilege in the publishing realm, and using a pen name from a marginalized group only serves to also earn him those few opportunities specifically given to Asian-American writers — at the cost of undermining actual Asian-American authors, who had far less opportunity than Hudson to start with. “The difference between J.K. Rowling and Yi-Fen Chou is the difference between theater and yellowface,” explained poet Franny Choi. “Hudson exploited one of the few moments in which an editor of color was in a position to give a tiny bit of space to historically marginalized voices — so that one more white man’s voice could be heard.”
These remedies are in place for reasons: to ameliorate for and prevent further damage done to POCs’ self-worth after not seeing reflections of themselves in literature or media; to amplify the important, previously silenced voices and stories of POCs; and to compensate for the systemic racism and prejudice POCs have faced and continue to face.
Contemporary racism: Rooted in resentment?
Hudson and Chokalingam’s new form of cultural appropriation (if it can even be called that) flips traditional yellowface and minstrelsy on its head. A famous example of traditional yellowface is Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, mentioned in the below video, in which he plays an angry Japanese landlord:
In the past, such racial mimicry mocked race and excluded talented minority actors. Yellowface and minstrelsy were rooted in hate.
Cultural fetishization, on the other hand, in the styles of Katy Perry and Coachella goers, exploit power structures to commodify and co-opt race. Cultural fetishization is rooted in exoticization and objectification; in a Jimmy Kimmel interview, Perry said, “I am obsessed with Japanese people. I love everything about them and they are so wonderful as human beings.” The irony is that her Orientalist rhetoric suggests she does not see Japanese people as people at all, but objects, particularly ones that she would like to “skin and wear like Versace.”
What Chokalingam and Hudson have done, though, is neither out of hate nor love, but resentment. They resent the remedies put in place to fight the very oppressions that spawned yellowface and minstrelsy in the first place.
Chokalingam and Hudson attempted to showcase the unfairness of today’s diversity and affirmative action policies. But what they’ve really revealed is their incredible privilege, as well as their blind ignorance of the actual experience of being racialized a particular way.
For work by #ActualAsianPoets, go here:
— AAWW (@aaww) September 15, 2015