All I wanted, growing up, was to know where I belonged. I wanted to plant my flag in an identity, stand on a desk, let loose a barbaric yawp and cry, "Yes, this is who I am!"
I never really got that. Still, as an adult, I don't feel as though I have an identity I am fully grounded in. Well, except for Appalachian. But that's a regional and cultural identity -- as a child what I longed for was a clear racial or ethnic identity of my own. One that linked me to a group of people I could call my people; a group of people with whom I shared a history and a story.
I am a mixed race American. I am the "Changing Face of America" according to National Geographic.
I am lost. Or, at least, have felt that way.
My mother is white as white can be. A tiny woman with fluffy blonde hair, blue eyes, and freckles. My father is not. Though his father was of white and Native American background, his mother came from India -- her mother a black Spaniard and her father an Anglo-Indian.
If you throw a dart at a world map there is a fairly good chance you will land on a country from which some of my ancestors sprang. (My mother's parents were of Welsh-French and German-Irish backgrounds.)
Who am I? (Not Jean Valjean.)
I have never identified as white. I don't really understand what that necessarily means, but I don't feel white. Whenever we had to take standardized tests in school and the question of race came up I checked every box except Pacific Islander. In high school I started making my own box -- multiracial, I labeled it. When one teacher told me I had to fill in the race boxes that were there I told her I wouldn't because they didn't reflect who I am.
I have four brothers. I think all of them identify as white. (If I am wrong, brothers, please correct me.) I never really understood how they could plant their flags there so firmly. I know I look white. I know that I pass as white. I know that, for some, I am white.
But I'm not. I've always hated that I've passed.
Passing as white, people assuming I am white, completely erases half of who I am. It erases my father and his family. It reduces me to something I simply am not. It is frustrating and sometimes infuriating.
You can imagine my response when I read about the controversy surrounding Cameron Crowe's Aloha.
For those of you in the dark, Crowe decide to cast the talented, and white, Emma Stone as Allison Ng in the film. Ng is a character who is supposed to be 1/2 white, 1/4 Hawaiian, and 1/4 Chinese.
Stone meets half the requirements for the role.
Crowe apologized, basically saying he thought it was okay to cast Stone because the role was based on a real life woman who, like me, was frustrated by her ability to pass.
So, sure, the logical thing is to cast a white woman in that role. Why not embody the frustrations of multiracial individuals by casting a white actor to portray those frustrations on screen?
It's not like there are any actresses of mixed heritage who could have brought the character of Allison Ng to life. *ahem* Olivia Munn, Natassia Malthe, Berenice Malohe, Amber Midthunder, Kristin Keuk, Sandrine Holt, Chloe Bennet ... I could do this all day.
Maybe some people see this as a trite thing, a thing that doesn't really matter. "It's just a movie," they might say.
Sure. Sure, you can think that. But doing so ignores the systemic whitewashing Hollywood has perpetuated for years when it comes to the casting of characters of color in films. It ignores the erasure of the experiences of people of color from much of popular media. It ignores the flow of power and influence that perpetuates the marginalization of people of color and women in the entertainment industry.
This isn't just about politics.
Media representation matters. It helps us understand who we are and who we are not. It helps us anchor ourselves more fully in our world. Seeing ourselves reflected in popular media in a way that feels true to our lives helps us feel we belong where we are.
Casting a white actress to play someone of mixed race tells those of us who are multiracial that our experiences don't matter. That our lives don't matter. That our experiences can be whitewashed and that, maybe, we should be whitewashed, too.