Sheep in Wolves' Clothing

Rachel Dolezal 2.0 could learn a few things from a high school mascot

ROCK PAPER RADIO is a dispatch for misfits & unlikely optimists by your favorite hapa haole, beet-pickling, public radio nerd. It’s a weekly email newsletter that shares three curiosities every Thursday - something to hold on to, something to read, and something to listen to. Themes include but are not limited to: rebel violinists, immortal jellyfish, revolution. Thanks for subscribing and spreading the word.
Sheep image courtesy of suju, Pixabay.

SOMETHING TO READ

So there is another white woman who has been pretending to be Black. Like her foremother Rachel Dolezal, she also made herself an Expert of Blackness. A professor. An author. An Activist with a capital A and an accent.

Jessica Krug’s takedown on social media over the last week was swift and merciless. The initial wave of enraged and baffled responses has now given way to mockery. I’ve seen whole declarations by writers and thinkers I have long admired making fun of her lips, her ass, her dancing.

I wonder what the response would look like if the fraud had been a white man instead. I see Twitter is speculating that Shaun King might give us a chance to find out. What a time to be on the internet.

There are endless hot takes about Krug everywhere right now, but the essay I keep thinking about is one that stunned me in 2015 by Jenny Zhang: They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don't Exist.

White poet Michael Derrick Hudson had just been honored with inclusion in the 2015 edition of the Best American Poetry anthology. The problem? His poem was accepted under the “pen name” Yi-Fen Chou, a Chinese name that neither matches Hudson’s gender or race. That same poem, submitted under Hudson’s real identity, had previously been rejected 40 times. From Zhang:

I won’t be scandalized by a white man who hasn’t considered that perhaps what helped his poem finally get published was less the fake Chinese woman he pretended to be, and more the robust, unflappable confidence bordering on delusion that he and many privileged white men possess: the capacity to be rejected forty (40) times and not give up, to be told, “no we don’t want you” again and again and think, I got this.

Zhang’s essay is eviscerating and deeply human. She writes about being part of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she is jealously assured that her otherness as a Shanghai-born Chinese American will be an asset to her writing career. She writes about the irony of white flight from neighborhoods that become too Black (their children will be in danger), and also too Asian (their children’s academic standings will be in danger). She writes about a successful white classmate at Stanford who wrote a story entitled—wait for it—The Dim Sum of All Things. She asks questions that I still think about a lot, five years later:

Why, for example, is the English-speaking literary world mostly interested in fiction or poetry from China if the writer can be labeled as a “political dissident”? Even better if the writer has been tortured, imprisoned, or sentenced to hard labor by the Chinese government at one point. Surely there are amazing Chinese writers who don’t just identify as political dissidents just as there are many amazing white American writers who don’t identify, or rather, are not identified as one thing. Why are we so perversely interested in narratives of suffering when we read things by black and brown writers? Where are my carefree writers of color at? Seriously, where?

I don’t know about carefree in this current Uncertain Time, but unlikely optimistic writers, creatives, academics, and makers of color, now is our time. We’re not waiting for Krug’s response to the backlash. We’re waiting for us. Come through and speak up, we need us now more than ever.

SOMETHING TO LISTEN TO

Tomboy teenager Navey Baker also has an alternate identity, but she didn’t steal it or lie about it. She’s a tiger. That is, she’s her school’s mascot when she’s not her awkward self hiding in the back of her classrooms, too shy to order at Taco Bell.

This charming 11-minute story, Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, is lovingly narrated by Navey’s cousin, This American Life producer Elna Baker. By the end of the piece, it’s impossible not to be rooting for Navey as she attempts a cartwheel—first out of costume, and then as the tiger.

Spoiler: she nails it in costume. Which makes me wonder how much of the identity we put on when we’re grasping for freedom or affirmation eventually becomes who we are. I think Jessica Krug and Navey might have different answers.

SOMETHING TO HOLD ON TO

Remember orca mom Tahlequah from the Loneliness in Lockdown issue? After opting not to stage a catastrophic gender reveal stunt, she gave birth to her calf last week. So far baby J57 is “robust and lively” according to the New York Times. We’re thrilled for both of them and their pod, and are sending out our well wishes through smoky skies and into the sea.

BE YOURSELF. HUG YOUR BABIES.

That’s it for ROCK PAPER RADIO issue 7, friends. Thanks for listening/reading/holding on. And thanks too for subscribing and sharing. ROCK PAPER RADIO is new, so to all of you signing up and spreading the word in these early days, thank you! You are my misfit crew. If you liked this issue, please forward it to a curious friend or send us some social media love.

See you next Thursday.

K.

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