Rachel Dolezal was a white woman who felt she was black, and, using various cosmetics and hairstyles, successfully passed for black. She in fact became head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington before in 2015 she was outed as white by her white parents. She was summarily fired not only by the NAACP, but by the university in Washington where she was teaching and by the Spokane City Council, where she was a police ombudsman. And she was vilified and demonized.
I don’t understand why, if race is a social construct (Native Americans have claimed that Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test was irrelevant to her claim to be Cherokee, which supposedly has nothing to do with genes), and if gender is a social construct, one can justifiably claim to be a male in a woman’s body (or vice versa) but not to be a black person in a white person’s body.
In fact, when feminist philosopher Rebecca Tuvel published an article in the journal Hypatia that asked this very question about “transracialism”, she was demonized and exorcised, with some of the journal’s editors apologizing for the article, and many academics calling Tuvel a racist and a transphobe, demanding that the article be retracted (it wasn’t).
The question still remains, at least to me, a valid one. I really think that Dolezal felt she was black with the same honesty and intensity that some transgender people feel that their gender identity doesn’t match their bodies. And, as of a year ago, the Delaware school board was weighing a policy that let students self identify as to not just gender, but to “race”.
Now the controversy has bubbled up again. Congressman Ed Case, who represents the Honolulu area in Congress (a district with an Asian-American majority), declared at an event feting Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters and members of Congress that he is “an Asian trapped in a white body.” You can read about it at HuffPo, which clearly finds his statement horrific. (Their article, by Asian Voices editor Kimberley Yam, begins with the words “Oh… oh, no.”) There are many other articles about Case’s supposed gaffee (e.g. here, here, and here).
Now Representative Case may not be trying to look Asian or pass for Asian, but his statement was meant to say that he feels as if he were Asian. From the article (there are a lot of articles about this):
Case spokesman Nestor Garcia said the congressman had been commenting “on what his Japanese-American wife sometimes says about him.” The Democrat, whose state boasts the largest percentage of Asian-Americans in the U.S., told HuffPost in a statement that he has “absorbed and lives the values of our many cultures.”
Is this a big deal, then? Words like Case’s would in past times have been accepted as saying something informative about the man—something not pejorative.
No longer. You cannot make the claim—even in a state where the majority is Asian and that majority wields much of the political power, and Asians aren’t an oppressed minority—that you’re a white person who feels Asian. Somehow that claim is ideologically unacceptable, and seems to many to verge on racism. But why?
(One could argue that it’s political and patronizing, but Case said the claim comes from his Asian-American wife.) And so the dogpiling began on social media and in the public eye:
No, Ed. No. https://t.co/s73oJX7SKo
— Angry Asian Man (@angryasianman) January 16, 2019
I wonder if Tilda or Scarlett will play the Asian trapped in Ed Case’s body https://t.co/hoVLxbi41z
— Rekha Shankar (@rekhalshankar) January 16, 2019
"I'm an Asian trapped in a white body" 🤔 pic.twitter.com/MnXLTorn68
— Jun Naito (@thisjunnaito) January 16, 2019
WTF. As a haole who lived in Japan for 7 years and now lives in Hawaiʻi, I couldn't imagine saying something like this. Check your privilege Ed Case. https://t.co/7kLkFFGOGx
— 増給期成会 (@808socialist) January 16, 2019
And so on. . .
It didn’t take long for Case’s comment to reach an audience online, as well, where the reception was a collective head shake.
“I just oof’d so hard I blacked out for a sec,” one Twitter user wrote.
“As a haole who lived in Japan for 7 years and now lives in Hawai’i, I couldn’t imagine saying something like this,” another said, using a Hawaiian term for someone who is a foreigner. “Check your privilege Ed Case.”
A CollegeHumor writer wondered whether Tilda Swinton or Scarlett Johansson would play the Asian trapped in Case’s body, a reference to the whitewashing scandals that ensued after the actresses were cast in the roles of Asian characters.
And Case apologized:
[Case] continued: “I regret if my specific remarks to the national API community on my full absorption of their concerns caused any offense.”
In the same email, Case spokesman Nestor Garcia clarified that the congressman was commenting “on what his Japanese-American wife sometimes says about him.” Garcia also noted that Case is a returning executive committee member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
His full apology is here.
Truly, I don’t understand all the rancor about this. Is it racist to say something like this? Is he guilty of emotional cultural appropriation? Perhaps Asian readers can explain why this is offensive.
Now Case may not feel that he’s an ethnic Asian but rather a cultural one, but does that matter? (And indeed, there may be the white/Asian equivalent of Rachel Dolezal out there.)
Making a big stink about this, to my mind, accomplishes very little save allowing Asian-Americans to say that they have a 100% monopoly on “feeling Asian.” Does that eliminate bias against Asians, which is not that pervasive in America? What, exactly, does it accomplish?
And that is my problem with much of identity politics. It’s not that identifiable groups have no justifiable complaints about bigotry and oppression, or shouldn’t try to rectify this and obtain equal treatment and opportunity. No, what bothers me is that the way groups often go about this accomplishes nothing. (Remember the kimono fracas in Boston?) It’s a claim of ideological purity and not a way to achieve social progress. It is divisive rather than unifying.
Finally, Case made his statement in a spirit of goodwill and unity: what good does it to do hound and demonize the man? Does intent count for nothing?
Further, if you claim that ethnicity and gender are social constructs having nothing to do with biological reality but with personal feelngs, then you must be consistent, and you can have no valid reason to criticize what Case said—unless you think he was lying.
Feel free to correct me or explain this further in the comments, but, as always, please be civil.
Here’s an explanation from The Mary Sue. After reading it, I wasn’t sympathetic to their views: they’re hectoring a man for no good reason, flaunting their own ideological virtue, ignoring Case’s good intentions as well as the fact that Japanese people, especially in Hawaii, are not subject to “systematic racism and oppression”. This is language policing, pure and simple:
Here’s the thing: Case is not pulling a Rachel Dolezal here. He knows he is white, and he clearly has enthusiasm for Asian culture. But he’s going about it in a wildly insensitive and wrongheaded way. When a white person proclaims themselves to be a nonwhite race/ethnicity trapped inside a white body, they are discounting and dismissing the systemic racism and oppression that is inescapable for folks of that race or ethnicity.
It is peak white privilege, and it shares the same cultural voyeurism of straight women saying that they are “gay men on the inside.” These are marginalized communities that have suffered under discrimination and mistreatment since time immemorial, not a fashionable token to brag about how woke you are.
Race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, gender: these are not accessories to fit your mood: they are lived experiences and identities. If Ed Case really feels an affinity for Asian culture, he should know better than to insult it in this way. Fellow white people, it’s only January. Let’s be better than this, yes?