Cameron Crowe’s romantic dramedy Aloha, now out in theaters, is yet another whitewashed Hollywood flop. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is neither rare nor surprising. What was unexpected to me — and, at first, delightful — was the outpouring of criticism from mainstream sources. I eagerly clicked on all the reproachful links. As I read on, though, I began noticing a disturbing pattern. Take a look at some of the titles:
From Entertainment Weekly: I’m not buying Emma Stone as an Asian-American in Aloha
From Complex Magazine: WTF ‘Aloha’: Why Is Emma Stone Asian, and Other Problems
From The Huffington Post: Emma Stone Plays A Part-Asian Character In ‘Aloha,’ And That’s Not Okay
Whether the titles were the choices of their respective authors or editors or publishers, it doesn’t matter. Asian. Asian. Asian. Asian. Many of the articles do address Native Hawaiian concerns, but always as a side note. They are all centering Asian Americans at the expense of Pacific Islander voices. These “critical” pieces are, in fact, perpetuating the same oppression as the film itself: the erasure of indigeneity.
The movie introduces Allison’s ethnic background as a quarter Swedish, a quarter Chinese, and a quarter Native Hawaiian. “Look at Emma Stone!” everyone seems to be exclaiming, “Her blonde locks! Her buttermilk face! Her green eyes! She can’t possibly play an Asian character!” But listen: the epicenter of the problem is not what Emma Stone looks like.
First of all, multi-racial Asian people can be white passing. Many multi-racial Asian people have blonde hair, buttermilk skin, and/or green eyes. Second of all, even the authors and journalists who bemoan the casting calamity are ignoring the character’s indigeneity. The character is Asian! Emma Stone is not Asian! They should have hired an Asian actress! An understandable critique with years and years of repulsive Hollywood history behind it. But wait a moment… The character is not just Asian. She is Native Hawaiian as well.
Why are there so many authors on the critical race/pop culture beat who don’t seem to realize that “Asian” does not equal “Pacific Islander”? Why is there such a lack of understanding of Hawaiian history?
When the movie trailer first came out, it was immediately criticized by Native Hawaiian activists like Janet Mock. “This is a direct message to those with power and influence in media who use Hawaii as a backdrop and its language and concepts without properly framing the history and current state of its people, language and culture,” wrote Mock.
As the criticisms of Aloha build up steam, however, the indigenous Polynesian voices are being pushed further and further back. One Asian American writer even blithely disparages those activists who are speaking up: “Meanwhile, Aloha’s already caught heat from Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders for appropriating its title from a word laden with meaning and history. The outraged should be more incensed that for a movie set in Hawaii, there are precious few non-white faces onscreen.”
“Should be?” She is literally telling indigenous activists that their anger and disappointment is incorrect. She is saying that she believes the ongoing colonization of Native peoples is less important than her own face represented on the silver screen.
The Muse article from Jezebel proclaims the character as “half-Asian” in the title and “a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese” in the second line of the article. This ignorance is galling. How can you be writing critical racial justice articles and not know that Native Hawaiian does not equal Asian? (Not that Native Hawaiians cannot be Asian or Asians cannot be Native Hawaiian. Many people, like the Ng character is supposed to be, are both.)
Similarly, on Entertainment Weekly, another Asian American author directly references Allison Ng’s “half Hawaiian, half Chinese father” and white mother, yet calls her “bi-racial.” The last time I checked, the meaning of “bi” was still “two.” How can she be “bi-racial”? He later laments, “If Ng’s Hawaiian pedigree is so crucial to the movie’s plot, why not simply cast an actress — Olivia Munn for instance — whose racial profile is within the genetic ballpark? Or, if the endgame was to hire a proven box-office draw like the Birdman and Amazing Spider-Man co-star, why not back-burner the issue of Ng’s race while focusing dialogue around her cultural heritage as a native Hawaiian?” Not only is this horrifyingly ignorant of indigenous history, but the author’s priority is clearly to put Asian-looking folk on the big screen — not to achieve actual racial justice in representation.
My heart leaps for minority representation in pop culture. It really does. I understand the heartache and marginalization of not seeing faces like mine in mainstream culture. I understand how much it means. But it can’t happen at the expense of someone else’s marginalization. Non-indigenous Asian Americans have to recognize complicity in our roles as settlers.
Aloha is a catastrophe of cultural appropriation, tokenization, and erasure of people of color. It is terrifying that the film’s most egregious offense — against the indigenous peoples of Hawaii — is one that is being proliferated by its loudest critics. I understand the heart of these outcries, but I cannot sit by quietly while indigeneity is ignored.
Please do not complain about “Asian erasure” when you yourself perpetuate Native erasure. The “AAPI” community needs to have a frank conversation about whose concerns are emphasized when we fight the good fight, about who is centralized when we speak up and speak out. The attempts to “include” Pacific Islanders in Asian American identity have not been enough. Inclusion cannot mean erasure. To change this, we need to first understand our complicity. Then, we must use that understanding to enact change. Even the words we use, the titles we slap on our articles, can be deeply wounding. As a community, we need to do better — and certainly better than some awful movie.[Headline image: The photograph features a Hawaiian hulu teacher reaching up towards the sky.]