When Joanne Rowling wrote her first book in the "Harry Potter" series, her publisher suggested she use a gender-neutral pen name (J.K. Rowling) to avoid putting off young male readers. Two decades later, when Rowling switched genres and wrote "The Cuckoo's Calling," she again opted for a pen name (Robert Galbraith), this time to avoid the hype and expectations that come with being one of the world’s best-known writers.

There is a long history of writers using pseudonyms, but where—if at all—is the line drawn between disguise and deception?

In early September, the editors of "The Best American Poetry," a prestigious anthology of contemporary American poetry, released their annual volume of best poems. Outside of literary circles, the release of a new edition typically receives little attention. But this year’s publication proved particularly controversial. The reason? One of the poems, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” was revealed to be by a white poet named Michael Derrick Hudson who had published under the Chinese-sounding pseudonym of Yi-Fen Chou.

The reaction was swift and mostly critical. Ken Chen, executive director of the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, called the incident a blatant example of yellowface and accused Hudson of taking away one of the few literary opportunities available to Asian Americans. Chen explained that while nearly 70 percent of New York City residents are non-white, only 5 percent of writers reviewed by The New York Times are people of color.

Aside from the troubling racial disparities in the literary industry, what was most telling to me about the incident was how the editor of "The Best American Poetry 2015" responded. In a blog post, editor and noted Native American poet Sherman Alexie wrote that despite the Chinese-sounding name of the author, the poem “didn’t contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity...by referencing Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus, I’d argue that the poem is inherently obsessed with European culture.”

In short, Alexie was fascinated by the cross-cultural dimensions of a supposed Chinese American poet who wrote about European and Christian imagery. As The New Yorker's Hua Hsu observes, perhaps it was refreshing for Alexie to read something from a presumably Chinese writer that had nothing to do with being Chinese. It’s also possible that Hudson knew this and played into Alexie’s fascination by using a distinctly foreign-sounding name like Yi-Fen Chou, instead of a more Americanized Asian name like Ken Chen. Regardless of the intent, Hudson’s use of an “authentic” name like Yi-Fen Chou privileged him the disturbing fantasy of taking on the guise of the other.  

Now, surely it would have looked bad if it appeared that Alexie backtracked and removed the poem on the sole basis of the author’s revealed identity. But we should also wonder what it means when a white person can perform literary yellowface and effectively get rewarded for it.

Alexie was in a bind, and in order to halt accusations of any editorial bias—namely, showing a preference for writers of color—he made the binary claim that he chose the poem because of the quality of its content rather than the skin color of its author. It’s a tiring and reductive argument to make, in part because we often do implicitly consider a person’s race when we make judgments on his work. But perhaps Alexie was thinking of race on a more superficial level when he says he wondered about the poem as “the life story of a Chinese American poet.” If that is true, should we think that differences between the “life story” of an Asian and white man can simply be boiled down to his name?

Hudson certainly seems to think so. In fact, even before "The Best American Poetry" incident, he claimed to experience greater publishing success for his poems using his Chinese-sounding pseudonym than when he used his actual white-sounding name. Hudson's Orientalist profiteering could potentially implant the same idea in the minds of struggling writers looking for a quick fix. (I would, however, like to stop and point out the comical image of literary publishers fighting among themselves to fill their book shelves with Asian American authors.)

Hudson is surely right about one thing: in a world far from a post-racial state, seemingly superficial differences like our names continue to affect how we are perceived and treated in meaningful ways. But these differences are built on the assumption that they are real, and when we try to manipulate or game the system to our advantage, we undermine the stories and experiences of those for whom race has been a source of marginalization.