Do we want a world where ethnicity is relative?

Rich Manieri

I confess that I had never heard of Oli London.

London is a British-born “influencer.” I’m not sure how one becomes an influencer but London, who identifies as “nonbinary” and “transracial” is an influencer. I’m pretty sure I’m not an influencer. I am sure that I’m white, as is London.

“Hey guys, I’m finally Korean. I’ve transitioned!” London recently announced.

Yes, thanks to 18 plastic surgeries and a fractured take on ethnicity, London is now Korean, at least according to London. But the transition has come with a price — death threats and estrangement from family, London said.

Various published reports indicate that, for some reason, London wanted to look like Korean popstar Park Jimin. This created somewhat of an uproar and triggered another debate over cultural appropriation.

In a culture in which gender is a matter of personal preference, why not ethnicity?

To be clear, London is no more Korean than I am, which is not at all. London claims to have a genuine love for the Korean culture which, plus the surgeries, is enough, at least by London’s standards for racial identification.

I suppose London could have skipped the surgeries and simply declared Koreanness, much in the way Michael Scott, in an episode of “The Office,” declared bankruptcy. Scott simply announced, in a very loud voice, to his employees, “I declare bankruptcy!”

London claims to have invented transracialism. Sorry, Oli, you didn’t. Transracialism is neither new nor unique. In 2017, a white man named Adam, from Tampa, Fla., announced to the world that he would henceforth live as a Filipino and changed his name to Ja Du. When asked, “Why?” Ja Du said he identifies with the Filipino culture.

“Whenever I’m around the music, around the food, I feel like I’m in my own skin,” he said. You might also remember Rachel Dolezal, who ran a Washington state chapter of the NAACP. For years, she represented herself as a black activist, until it was discovered that she was actually white. Both her parents were white. Dolezal didn’t understand why this was a problem because she identified as black. So, Oli, you’re way behind the curve. When the Dolezal story broke in 2015, she was excoriated, lampooned, and called a fraud. In retrospect, she now looks like a visionary.

I happen to love Scotland. Therefore, I plan to put on a kilt, knee socks, complete with sgian-dubh, and change my name to Angus MacDougall. By modern standards, this will make me a bona fide Scotsman.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Aberdeen. I was struck by the sudden realization that no matter how I alter or adorn myself, I still won’t be a Scotsman and thus will not be competing in the sheaf toss at this year’s Highland games.

Disappointing as this is, there’s nothing I can do about it because it’s the truth — not just my truth but truth. “I am what I am,” as Popeye said. There’s wisdom in Popeye if you can look past the sailor suit and freakishly oversized forearms.

Why should I care if Oli London wants to be Korean? What’s the harm? Fair questions. After all, aren’t London, Ja Du and Rachel Dolezal free to be whomever they want?

The problem, it seems to me, is that we’re on dangerous ground as a society when we view something as objectively true as one’s ethnicity as subjective. (We can have the gender discussion another time.)

Cultural identity is important as are discussions about culture as it relates to education or economics. But if the outcomes are not as favorable for a particular group, transracialism allows us to simply change teams. It’s a slippery slope and a short journey to ridiculousness.

Should my white daughter declare herself a Pacific Islander in order to qualify for a minority scholarship?

If culture and ethnicity are subjective and pliable, why not? There doesn’t seem to be much daylight between that and a white woman claiming she’s black so she can work for the NAACP.

So, given where we are, Oli London isn’t really that countercultural after all, which might be the most disturbing part of the story.

Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. You can reach him at manieri2@gmail.com.

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