Shortly after being sworn into office two weeks ago, Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) told his new staff: “I feel the aloha.”
He may be feeling less of that aloha this week, after some remarks he made drew controversy at an event for Asian American and Pacific Islander voters in Washington on Tuesday night.
At a reception intended to be a “celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander members of the 116th Congress,” Case reportedly told the crowd that he was “an Asian trapped in a white body,” according to National Journal fellow Nicholas Wu.
It’s unclear what the pretext for Case’s speech was, but Wu tweeted a picture showing the congressman speaking at a lectern, indicating that he had been invited to give remarks.
It didn’t take long for Case’s comment to reach an audience online, as well, where the reception was a collective head shake.
“I just oof’d so hard I blacked out for a sec,” one Twitter user wrote.
“As a haole who lived in Japan for 7 years and now lives in Hawai’i, I couldn’t imagine saying something like this,” another said, using a Hawaiian term for someone who is a foreigner. “Check your privilege Ed Case.”
A CollegeHumor writer wondered whether Tilda Swinton or Scarlett Johansson would play the Asian trapped in Case’s body, a reference to the whitewashing scandals that ensued after the actresses were cast in the roles of Asian characters.
In an emailed statement to The Washington Post, Case said he was “fiercely proud” to represent the ethnically diverse state of Hawaii. His district includes greater Honolulu and is the only U.S. district where the majority of the population is Asian.
“Like so many others from Hawaii who treasure our multicultural heritage, I have absorbed and live the values of our many cultures,” Case said. “They and not my specific ethnicity are who I am, and I believe that this makes me an effective advocate on national issues affecting our API community."
He continued: “I regret if my specific remarks to the national API community on my full absorption of their concerns caused any offense.”
In the same email, Case spokesman Nestor Garcia clarified that the congressman was commenting “on what his Japanese-American wife sometimes says about him.” Garcia also noted that Case is a returning executive committee member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Case first served in Congress from 2002 to 2007. He ran twice for Senate but lost in Democratic primaries to incumbent Daniel K. Akaka in 2006 and now-Sen. Mazie Hirono in 2012.
After his second Senate defeat, Case joined the Outrigger hotel chain as an executive in 2013 and indicated that he was starting a “new chapter” that “likely ends any further political career,” Hawaii News Now reported then.
Herman Wong contributed to this report.