Why Do They Do It?

by Sita Balani

It is telling that Yellowface, R. F. Kuang’s satirical swipe at the politics of racial impersonation, begins at Yale. In recent years, elite American universities been the site of a spate of scandals in which a prominent figure is revealed to have declared a racial identity to which they can stake no viable claim. These unseemly affairs sometimes crop up in the visual arts, media, and NGOs too, but there’s little evidence people make fraudulent claims of this kind beyond these ivory towers. After all, in most spaces of work or leisure, there is little capital — even of the more amorphous social or cultural variety — to be gained from pretending not to be white.

In Yellowface, the cut-throat and apparently diversity-obsessed literary world supersedes the Ivy League as the central elite setting in which the protagonist June competes with her friend, the dazzlingly successful Athena Lui, for plaudits, power, and prestige. Kuang kills off the annoyingly perfect Asian American novelist in the opening pages, giving the jealous narrator an opportunity to swipe her unpublished manuscript — for The Last Front, a sweeping experimental novel about the Chinese Labour Corps in World War One — and begin a madcap spree of authorial theft, self-deception and social media high jinks. In the spirit of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl,which took aim at the media circus generated by ‘missing white women’, Kuang organises the public culture’s rank hypocrisies into the relentless churning rhythm of a second-rate thriller.

As June does not pass herself off as Asian American (though she does use her ambiguous middle name ‘Song’ as a convenient decoy) but as the true writer of her friend’s literary war epic, Kuang’s publishing industry caper is ostensibly focused on the appropriation of ideas than identities. But its confessional, knowing first-person narration is soaked in the questions of authenticity, opportunism, and entitlement that surround stories of racial fraud.

These stories have made headlines with near comic regularity over the past few years. In February, a diversity executive for a Philadelphia-based Quaker organisation, The American Friends Service Committee, was exposed as having misrepresented her background, claiming to be of South Asian, Arab, and Latina descent. Her mother described her as ‘white as the driven snow’ but offered no explanation for why her daughter might have done this, nor why she, as her parent, felt compelled to speak to the press about it. In 2020, in a post on Medium, Kansas-born associate professor of history at George Washington University, Jessica Krug unspooled a tapestry of lies she had woven over many years, first claiming to be North African, then African American, then a Bronx-born Puerto Rican.

In Canada, accusations of false claims to indigeneity happen so frequently that a term has been coined: ‘pretendians.’ Anishinaabe author, Drew Hayden Taylor, has made a documentary for the national broadcaster exploring the phenomenon. Notably, we are yet to see such a story in Britain, where, despite what sections of the press would have you believe, the architecture of cultural and political institution have remained significantly less moved by demands for representation than across the pond.

The most famous case of racial impersonation was Rachel Dolezal, whose biography acts as an ur-story, condensing the key elements that reappear over and over into a single, sprawling, often tragic narrative. In his critique of the identitarian orientation of campus politics, Asad Haider observes, ‘Passing [. . .] is a universal condition. We are all Rachel Dolezal. The infinite regress of “checking your privilege” will eventually unmask everyone as inauthentic.’ Another graduate of the Ivy League’s student rebellions, Olúfẹmi O. Táíwò, shares Haider’s concern, insisting that identity politics have been subject to ‘elite capture’ in which the most socially advantaged members of a group are empowered (or commanded) to speak for the whole community, with whom they may share very little. Kuang’s frothy tale makes a similar point, albeit in a more acerbic and unforgiving tenor: the novel is awash with Asian American characters who are as deceptive and self-serving as the narrator. Do they have a more convincing claim on the experiences of Northern Chinese men who died in the trenches in World War One than a white novelist? Yellowface makes uproarious mockery of the question.

The fiction of authenticity makes liars of us all. But there may still be something distinct about Dolezal and her fellow travellers. Tracing the circumstances under which it becomes possible to falsify one’s heritage is necessary but not sufficient: it cannot account for what motivates someone to actually tell — and then try to live — a lie. The question of what desire the impersonator seeks to fulfil by mimicry remains unanswered. Though Yellowface depicts its narrator as paranoid about accusations of bigotry, and haunted by the racial implications of her plagiarism, it ultimately swerves the question of how the dangerous mythology of race might come to shape our self-conception. Instead, it simply concedes that June is desperately hungry for fame. She is forced to settle for notoriety.

In its focus on her desire for professional recognition, celebrity, fortune, Yellowface misses an opportunity to consider the more intimate desires that might motivate someone like June. While her experience of sexual violence and family upheaval are rolled into the plot, there’s little attempt to connect them with questions of race. Yet, if race has come to function as the master signifier of legitimate suffering, perhaps we might speculate that in claiming a position of racial subjugation, these women are trying to seek recognition for their pain?

Perhaps we might wonder what kind of alienation is being expressed — however bizarrely — in these spaces of prestige, political virtue, or education? To get under the skin of racial impersonation, a satirical romp will not suffice. We must hope for a novelist as concerned with the existential as the political to take up that challenge.