Sharron Angle to Asians: I'm you

The Republican candidate for Senate in Nevada claims to be the state's first Asian American legislator. Wait, what?

This election year, we've witnessed some of the oddest political pronouncements on the nature of identity in recent memory.

There was Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's refudiation of her youthful flirtation with Wiccanism. ("I'm not a witch, I'm you." Unless you're a witch.)

There was Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck's declaration that homosexuality is just an addictive lifestyle choice, like alcoholism or smoking. (Gay people are just waiting for science to develop a patch!)

There was Ohio House candidate Rich Iott's assurance that spending his weekends pretending to be a Nazi did not mean he admired Nazis (though he subsequently defended the murderous SS Wiking Panzer unit whose uniform he sported as courageous "fighters for their homeland ... doing what they thought was right for their country").

But last Friday, to use terms native to her state of Nevada, Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle raised the strangeness stakes beyond the reach of amateurs -- effectively going all-in on the crazy.

You see, Isaac Barron, the faculty advisor of Rancho High School's Hispanic Student Union, had invited Angle to address the group to explain her campaign's use of starkly stereotypical images of young Latinos in their advertising. In a slate of recent attack spots, Angle had claimed that her Democratic opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, favored "open borders" and "amnesty" for illegal aliens -- actions that would allow insidiously perilous elements into the U.S. The commercials were illustrated with pictures of scowling, bandanna-clad men with dark complexions and footage of sinister figures sneaking around fences.

Attempting to soft-pedal the impact of the ads to a clearly hostile audience, Angle suggested that the students had "misinterpreted" them -- that the images might not represent Latinos, and the border being discussed might not be the one between the U.S. and Mexico. "Our northern border is where the terrorists came through -- that's the most porous border that we have," she told them.

The students were obviously skeptical that Angle's primary immigration concern was the nonexistent boundary between Nevada and Canada, so the candidate chose to press the issue using a different tack -- stating that, in our diverse country, it's difficult to even tell races and ethnicities apart: "You know, I don't know that all of you are Latino," she said. "Some of you look a little more Asian to me. I don't know that. What we know, what we know about ourselves, is that we are a melting pot in this country. My grandchildren are evidence of that" -- her daughter-in-law is Latino -- "and I'm evidence of that. I've been called the 'first Asian legislator' in our Nevada state assembly."

An enterprising young member of the audience who'd been capturing cellphone video of Angle's talk immediately uploaded footage of Angle's weird self-assessment to the Web. A thunderous clacking could be heard as jaws across the nation dropped to the floor. The Asian American blogosphere unfurled a giant virtual banner bearing the letters W, T and F. And an already chaotic race, in which unqualified and deeply unusual state legislator Angle has been running mostly ahead of her high-profile opponent, Reid, was thrown into even further turmoil.

The eyes have it

The top-of-mind question is simple: What exactly was Angle trying to imply by claiming some Latinos in her audience "looked more Asian," and that she herself has been called Asian, despite having no discernable roots in Asia?

It's a mindboggling claim. Veteran Las Vegas political reporter Joe Ralston, who broke the story, spoke for the entire Nevada state establishment when he remarked, "That last comment, about her being called the 'first Asian legislator'? I have no idea what she is talking about." And Angle has always been publicly celebratory of her European heritage, even writing a self-published book, "Prairie Fire," about her first ancestors in this country -- German immigrants and, presumably, legal ones.

The explanation Ralston later unearthed made things clearer, if not less weird. Apparently, an unknown reporter had once told Angle that she "looked Asian." Which, by Angle's logic, was enough to support her claims of being a racial pioneer.

This underscores the common factor in Angle's series odd statements: They all reflect a perception of racial identity that's linked to physical appearance. To Angle, apparently, you're Latino if you look Latino; you're Asian if you look Asian. Experience, culture, genetic history, even self-identification? They don't matter.

But what does it even mean to look Latino or Asian? The range of physical appearance in these communities, from Argentinean to Puerto Rican, from Bangladeshi to Korean, is enormous; for both of these groups, the spectrum in complexion, hair color, bone structure and physical stature is nearly as great as that of humanity as a whole.

As a result, to make such a statement is to invoke radically simplistic signifiers of appearance. For Latinos, the most prominent of these is "brown skin." The equivalent for Asians is "slanted" eyes. (Dark hair and eyes are other stereotypically Asian features -- but since they're also stereotypically Latino features, Angle couldn't have been referring to those.)

If you look carefully at pictures of Angle -- if you squint -- you can vaguely see what led that anonymous reporter to make that almost certainly tongue-in-cheek suggestion. Her grey-green eyes have a faintly almond shape, which to the casual observer might suggest Asian ancestry. For reasons best left to evolutionary biologists, so do those of some members of the Rancho High Hispanic Students Union, making them, in the almond-shaped eyes of Sharron Angle, fellow Asians as well.

Looks can kill

The Angle campaign has struggled to dismiss the incident as trivial, and to place the blame on the media and the Reid campaign for blowing it out of proportion. And yes, it would be easy to put this incident in the box of what the French call le racisme ordinaire -- petty, readily overlooked bits of insensitivity that reflect clumsiness rather than hate, ignorance rather than prejudice.

Angle wasn't seeking to insult her audience by calling them Asian, nor did she imagine she'd offend Asians by claiming to be one herself.

But reducing race to simple signifiers can have terrifying consequences. The constant thrum of warning -- to paraphrase UPS, "What will brown do to you?" -- has made anyone whose natural skin color is in the darker range beyond beige a potential threat. You may be American-born and educated and patriotic to the core. But if you "look Latino" or "look Indian" or "look Arab," you may as well be a thuggish illegal, a job-stealing visa parasite or a terrorist sleeper awaiting final instructions.

Meanwhile, with fear of China and North Korea at a contemporary peak, the flattening of Asian identity into a set of slanted eyes is similarly striking caution in the hearts of those who know how quickly the seeds of the schoolyard -- "Can you even see through those things?"; "Wow, you could use dental floss as a blindfold!" -- can blossom into full-fledged hate-mongering propaganda. The difference between the "chink face," eye-corners pulled upward and outward, and the diabolical caricatures portrayed in 19th-century anti-immigrant broadsides, jingoist World War II posters and xenophobic editorial cartoons of Asians today is a just a matter of scale, not nature.

And that's the fundamental racial hypocrisy of the populist right. Like their rising star Angle, they espouse the notion of the "melting pot" -- of chocolate and caramel swirled into and subsumed within America's vast vanilla social fondue. But however much people of color assimilate, most of us still "look" Latino, "look" Asian, "look" black. And that means when we're pulled over by Arizona troopers, or we hang out in the wrong Detroit bar, or we force the jammed door of our own home in Cambridge, Mass. -- we instantly unmelt from the pot.

As playwright David Henry Hwang -- whose most recent work, "Yellow Face," is all about paradoxes of racial appearance and affinity -- remarked to me in response to the news reports, "It's easy for Angle to say she looks Asian, but I bet she doesn't ever need to worry about being mistaken for an 'illegal' alien. Race may be superficial -- skin-deep -- but people still judge others and take actions based on that superficiality. If Angle really thinks she's Asian, why does she support racist laws and rhetoric that encourage the harassment of immigrants?"

The truth is, those who proclaim the virtues of the melting pot, who demand an end to the identification of humans by ethnicity and color, are often the first to dial 911 when they see a dark-skinned stranger, and the ones who pull their purses closer and roll up their windows when passing through a nonwhite neighborhood. They want to ignore race in the name of eliminating racism -- but only selectively, when it benefits an entrenched and unequal power structure.

After all, the real troubling thing about Angle proclaiming herself the first Asian member of the Nevada assembly is that the state with the nation's fastest-growing Asian American population has never, to this date, elected a real one.

And while Nevada's Sen. John Ensign has in the past proudly proclaimed his one-eighth-Filipino heritage, let's just say that we'd be happy to throw that one back.