The real problem with the white poet who used an Asian name to get published

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Newsflash: People of color have been ‘acting white’ to get level the playing field for years.

It’s not often you hear of a poetry scandal on the Internet, but a poem from unknown writer Yi-Fen Chou—“The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” caused controversy after making this year’s anthology of Best American Poetry. After being notified the poem was accepted in the volume, poet Michael Derrick Hudson outed himself as the true author of the piece in a letter to its editor, Sherman Alexie, revealing the logic behind his orientalized pseudonym.

According to Hudson, 40 different journals passed on a poem from a genealogist from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and as the Washington Post reported, he thought it “might have a better shot at publication if it was written by somebody else.” Hudson chose the name of a high-school classmate.

Hudson’s actions set off a flurry of responses on Twitter from poets, writers, and social media users on the reality of “racial nepotism” vs. of white supremacy—which is nepotism by another name. The sad state of the writing world is that, especially in short-form and essay writing, it’s really a buyer’s market. Writers are expected to make “content” and be excited about “exposure” in lieu of compensation. This, coupled with the sad fact that four out of five working artists in the U.S. are white and white people in the U.S. as a whole have far more wealth, makes it difficult to imagine that writers of color are given much latitude in how they present or market themselves. 

Part of “making it” as an artist often means making work that gains popularity or a following among white people. 

Michael Derrick Hudson is not an isolated incident of a white man thinking reverse racism is getting in his way. He’s actually part of a complex history of the messy relationship between writing and race.

For writers and other artists, this means part of “making it” as an artist often means making work that gains popularity or a following among white people. It doesn’t necessarily mean all writers of color will adopt the same strategies to make that happen or that writers of color all choose to “sound white” or “write white.” But it’s rare to find a black or brown artist who has never run up against the question of how their work might read to white audiences and how that impacts their long-term sustainability.

But this isn’t just true of writing—it’s a symptom of the job market itself. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that having a “white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience.” In contrast, having a “black-sounding” name meant fewer callbacks and actual job interviews, which is one example of how something as simple as the name printed at the top of your resume can be tied to structural racism (though different from racism against Asians).

Our name often carries a hint as to our race and gender—which makes it difficult to have a truly color-blind or objective application process. From the Brontë sisters and George Eliot to J.K. Rowling, we continue to see women writers publish under male or “genderless” pen names. As Charlotte Brontë—who published Jane Eyre under the name Currer Bell—explained in 1850, “We did not like to declare ourselves women because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’—we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”Bronte recognized that we are dealing with something as subjective as art, there’s no such thing as objectivity. Hudson’s stunt obscures the real issue here, which is one of access: being a marginalized person comes with more disadvantages than advantages. If Hudson were actually the Asian-American poet Sherman Alexie thought he was, his story would be very different.

In performing whiteness, there’s a broader cultural phenomenon beyond just your name. It’s not as easy as simply Americanizing your name, but it extends to changing your behavior.

For Asian-Americans, we internalize—from a very early age—the message that we need to overcompensate for being the “Other.” In grade school, Yi-Fen Chou might have been pressured to learn “proper” English or shamed for eating Chinese food. Many students even take an “American” name due to the social pressure to assimilate.

In performing whiteness, there’s a broader cultural phenomenon beyond just your name. It’s not as easy as simply Americanizing your name, but it extends to changing your behavior. Asian Americans are expected to study up on white culture to network. Since you don’t look like the grandson of the older white male partners at the firm you want to work for, then you might as well be able to behave like their grandson might.

In addition, Western standards push Asian Americans to not only behave and sound white, but to look white. The backlash directed at Burmese-Chinese journalist Julie Chen for admitting to her double eyelid surgery (a double standard that doesn’t exist for the many white entertainers who get plastic surgery to alter their appearance) perfectly displays the impossible double standard of having to be as white as possible, while being “authentically” Asian.

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In an essay published in the New Yorker last year, Pulitzer-Prize winner Junot Diaz explained that this process—of performing whiteness—is something that writers of color, whether of Asian descent or otherwise, particularly internalize. Discussing the relationship of writers to institutional MFA programs, he argues it’s not just that the faculty, students, and curriculum in most MFA programs are white—though that’s certainly deplorable. It’s that the default subject of “Literature with a capital L” is a straight white man:

Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.

Michael Derrick Hudson isn’t the first poet or writer who has made a racial switch to access resources. That’s a game writers of color (and people of color generally) have to play all the time, either by changing their names, appearances, accents, attitude, or mannerisms. And in that latter case, the motivation is not trying to get into an MFA program or one anthology—it’s about continued survival in a culture and an industry that tells your work might have a better shot at publication if it was written by somebody else.

Names are not empty. They carry histories with them—including people and places. As much as we’d like to isolate the relationship between race and art in stories like Hudson’s, the truth is more complicated. There’s much more at stake here than Michael Derrick Hudson’s work. There’s questions of whose labor is valued, who gets a place in archives and history books, who gets opportunities, and who gets an audience at all. 

Let’s not talk about the single yellowface poet, but the droves who’ve had to put on whiteface to make it.

Suey Park is a writer and activist based in Chicago.

Janani Balasubramanian is a writer and designer and one-half of the performance duo DarkMatter. Read more at www.darkmatterpoetry.com.

Photo via Takashi(aes256)/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)