September 12, 2015

"White" = ordinary and bland

You may have heard of this controversy. A white poet gave himself a Chinese name to get his poem published. It entered the Native consciousness because Sherman Alexie was the editor who selected the poem.

You can Google the controversy, but here's an interesting take on why so many white people wanna be something or someone else.

White guys’ yellowface envy: Underneath bizarre acts of racial subterfuge lurks a twisted desire to stand out

Michael Derrick Hudson believed he had a better shot at literary stardom as "Yi-Fen Chou"—and he's not alone

By Arthur Chu
Tom MacMaster’s viral hoax, interestingly, started with random posts arguing with strangers on the Internet and the skeleton of a novel–just innocently experimenting with trying on an identity more exciting than “boring white dude” and increasingly becoming addicted to it. His outing led to the outing of “Paula Brooks,” the lesbian founder of the Lez Get Real blog that hosted Arraf’s writings, as married straight man Bill Graber. Graber’s justification for his deception was similar to MacMaster’s–he was passionate on LGBT issues but felt his own stance as a sympathetic straight ally wasn’t interesting enough to hold people’s attention. He needed to fabricate a version of himself, a younger gay woman, who had life experience, who had credibility, who was less ordinary than him.

Look at the discussed-to-death case of Rachel Dolezal–keeping in mind that whatever reasons she gives for identifying as “transracial” today, she sued Howard University in 2001 because she thought her artwork was overlooked because she was white. Look at William Ellsworth Robinson, a.k.a. Chung Ling Soo, a stage magician so hungry for success that he ripped off not just the act and the shtick but the entire identity of rival Chinese magician Chung Ling Foo. Look at the stunt Kent Johnson pulled on the poetry world in the 1990s as “Araki Yasusada,” giving his poems the added historical weight of supposedly coming from the recovered notebook of a Hiroshima survivor. Take the mysterious, reclusive woman playwright who writes about women characters, Jane Martin, widely suspected to be well-known director Jon Jory using a pseudonym.

It’s an identifiable pattern. A white man in the arts trying to be someone other than a white man in the arts. A creative person, an artist, who wants their art to mean something because of their unique life experience–growing up in war-torn Syria, being taught magic by Chinese mystics, fleeing the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing–rather than being the result of the boring, workaday process of making shit up.

“Whiteness,” after all, in our racial system simply means ordinariness, unmarkedness, blankness. Same with maleness–being a guy means getting to be the default, being just a “writer” rather than a “female writer,” being just “in tech” rather than a “woman in tech”.

Ordinariness has tons of advantages. Being seen as ordinary means you don’t get stopped for shoplifting, it means you don’t get detained or shot or left to die in prison nearly as often. People don’t think twice before reading your résumé or renting your AirBNB. It’s much easier for you to wear what you want and buy what you want and live how you want without getting shit for it.

But ordinariness that’s maintained by constantly comparing yourself to other people who are not ordinary can be stifling. “Whiteness” can mean, in people’s minds, that you’re basic–that you’re a sheltered, boring person, that your point of view is the same as the default point of view everyone else has already heard, that you’ve got nothing interesting to say compared to what an exciting exotic foreigner might say. It’s a powerful force, the force that drives this thing we call “cultural appropriation,” this thing that makes people insist their little “affirmative action” scheme is what’s getting them published, this thing that makes other people concoct elaborate hoaxes almost guaranteed to blow up in their faces.
Comment:  See also Ward Churchill, Elizabeth Warren, Andrea Smith, and every other wannabe who (usually) claims to be Cherokee.

For more on Indian wannabes, see Manson = West Virginia Sioux? and Andrea Smith the White Savior.

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