By Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda
Last month, yet another white man infuriated the Asian-American community by writing an article for the Wall Street Journal called “Why Anyone Can Be Chinese.” In this badly written article, author Daniel Bell makes so many false claims that it isn’t worth recapping in its entirety. Suffice it to say that Bell pulled the classic move of self-victimization, a favorite tactic of white people everywhere, especially since Donald Trump’s election.
Bell’s narrative of white victimhood went something like this: I, a white Canadian man, have lived in China long enough to a) learn to speak Mandarin fluently, b) pass a basic cultural competency test, and c) marry a Chinese woman. Why, then, he laments, should I not be considered Chinese, along with the rest of the country’s 1.4 billion people? After all, plenty of residents in China appear Chinese but do not speak Mandarin, and plenty of overseas Chinese immigrants, who might also appear at first glance to be Chinese, have lost the ability to speak the language and no longer have any strong identifying ties with the country at all.
Why should they be considered “Chinese” and not me, although my competency in Chinese culture and language is allegedly higher than these two groups of people?
Two years ago, Dolezal, a white woman, caused an uproar when sources revealed that she had falsely claimed Black ancestry, lied about her family origins, and used skin tanning cream to darken her white complexion to “pass” for Black. Using these false markers of Blackness, Dolezal eventually worked her way to the top of Spokane’s local NAACP chapter, from which she resigned when it was revealed that she was not, in fact, Black.
There are, in fact, parallels between the stories and claims of Bell and Dolezal. However, one major difference stands out, and that is the fact that “Black” is most often used as a racial category, whereas technically, “Chinese” is a national identity, not a race. China is a country that is home to approximately 56 distinct ethnic groups, and collectively among them, 297 languages are currently spoken.
The comparison between Bell and Dolezal rubs me the wrong way because as much as white men claiming POC identities are cringeworthy, so too are race-based conceptions of national identity.
Claiming that Daniel Bell’s actions parallel those of Rachel Dolezal ignores the specificity of anti-Blackness and ultimately conflates race and nationality because it assumes that “Chinese” is a racial identity based on distinct physical features, rather than what it actually is — a nationality that encompasses many different ethnic groups.
It’s worth recounting the distinctions between race, ethnicity, and nationality here because they are often conflated, especially when it comes to the complex political histories of East Asia.
Race is a socially constructed way of differentiating between groups of people based largely on their phenotypical traits. It is more often than not a label applied by others to you. Ethnicity, unlike race, is more often self-identified, and more likely to be defined by geography. Many ethnic groups share the same language, traditional religion, a “homeland,” and other common aspects of culture.
This is obviously not true of race, which is a much broader category that incorporates many more identities.
Nationality, unlike race and ethnicity, refers to the arbitrarily defined, state-sanctioned borders within which you were born and/or reside. It is purely a geographical construction, and makes no indication as to the race, ethnicity, language, religion, or customs of its inhabitants. Nevertheless, many modern nation states have claimed to be based on a monolithic conception or race or ethnicity in order to bolster their legitimacy.
Thus, conflating Dolezal and Bell is a dangerous claim to make because the People’s Republic of China, at least in its current form, has itself used race-based conceptions of nationalism (conflating Chinese nationality with Han ethnicity, the dominant ethnic majority in China) in order to inflict violence upon other minority ethnicities, particularly Muslim people such as the Uyghurs, and to expand its imperial grasp. Elsewhere in East Asia, virulent race-based nationalism has been wielded against other ethnic groups as well, in order to exclude them from full citizenship status.
Ultimately, however, the false equivalence between Bell and Dolezal reveals the misconceptions that arise when one tries to apply a anti-Black racial logic rooted in the history of the United States to an entirely different geographical region such as East Asia, where conceptions of race and ethnicity are based on very different histories and ideas.
For Daniel Bell to claim that “anyone can be Chinese” in the United States, and for him to make that same claim in the People’s Republic of China, imply two very different outcomes.
For Bell to make that claim in the context of the United States is absurd, because the reality of living as a person of Chinese descent in the United States necessarily implies living within the context of white supremacy, as well as a painful history of legal exclusion which continues today in people of Chinese descent (and many people of Asian descent) being perceived as “perpetual outsiders.”
For Bell to claim that he should be considered “more Chinese” than people of Chinese descent in the United States makes no sense, because the experience of being of Chinese descent here is rooted in racial logics constructed by white supremacy, rather than something like language ability.
But for Bell to make the claim that “anyone can be Chinese” in the context of the People’s Republic of China—at least in its current state—means something very different. In China, the political dominance of people of Han ethnicity over those of other ethnicities living within the current borders of China has meant that those who cannot read or write Mandarin Chinese, those who practice Islam (such as the Uyghur people residing in Western China) as well as others who do not fit into the framework of citizenship constructed by the Han majority are severely persecuted for their differences.
In other words, the criteria for belonging is based on a different kind of oppressive logic that demands conformity–not to whiteness, but to Han-ness.
I am not arguing that Bell should be absolved of his obviously egregious white privilege. He absolutely should be, and his complaints of not being “accepted” as a “fellow Chinese person” are rooted in the same claims of white victimhood that all white people who fail to understand the global legacies of white supremacy tend to make.
But in our rebuttals to Bell, we would do well not to respond in a way that reinforces racial nationalism by conflating Han Chinese identity with Chinese identity at large. In resisting the entitlement of white supremacy as it shows up in someone like Daniel Bell, let’s not reinforce a logic of racial purity that can also be used in the service of Islamophobia and other violences against marginalized communities in the People’s Republic of China.
Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda is a queer, mixed-race writer, academic, and activist living between Berkeley, California and Tokyo, Japan. She is currently completing her PhD at UC Berkeley and has written on race and politics for Truth-Out, Huffington Post, Wear Your Voice, Equality for Her, and Mask Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @lhkuroda