I thought Shriver would stop and go away, seriously. But here we are. In case you missed it, here’s her Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. Which is in response to her first horrible speech on the Guardian. I’m hella pissed, but I actually want to start by following along with Shriver:
Maybe, for me, being Asian isn’t an identity.
In some ways, this isn’t too far-fetched an idea. The more time I spend with Asian-Americans, the more the category ceases to be meaningful in ways it previously held meaning to me.
Previously, to be Asian-American perhaps meant something tangible to me: it meant bamboo, paper cranes, Chinese New Year’s, the kind of food I ate, the kind of music I liked, the people I hung out with. But as time goes on, these tokens, these appropriable “cultural” objects have ceased to hold the same meaning to me. Even when controlling for a more limited scope, like my Japanese or Chinese-American identity, culturally located objects have shifted from the center of my “identity politics,” and I’ve been living out my cultural identity through my art, through my love for people of color, through my community-building efforts.
Which is to say: as the efforts of whiteness to infringe upon and control the culturally significant objects of my childhood continue to become exacerbated by the opponents of a so-called “identity politics,” my understanding of identity is moving away from that which can be known by an outsider; and I see it escaping into something else, away from objectness, away from my raced body (which too can be considered as object), and into a more fugitive, transient sort of space that exists between myself and an object, or between myself and those whom I love.
Identity, in this scenario, is not my body, or the object that, through repetitive & metonymic language transactions, has become attached to me (regardless of whether I accept or reject this attachment): rather it is my relationship to the paper crane, the history of that relationship, and the affective charge generated by and through that relationship that forms my “being Asian.”
Likewise, when I enter into conversation with an Asian person, it is different than entering into a conversation with a white person. What is that difference? It is the assumption that this is a person who has lived the experience of having a body containing a history of bodies shaped by an environment that never meant for them to survive; and in many cases, actively and aggressively reminding them of that fact, on a day-to-day basis.
Do I make this assumption in conversation with a white person? No. Can a white person be a good ally? Yes. Can a white person know what it feels like to have lived in a body replete with hundreds of years of of colonial imperialism and the violent fallout of such a history? No. Asian-American history is a history of Asian bodies at the center of white conquest, white destruction, white conflict, white exploitation. As a white person, you are implicated in every single narrative. Your presence has shaped the entire project of “identity politics.” Your continued assertion of Asian similarity, Asian homogeneity, your continued metonymic collapsings of kimonos and firecrackers: You MADE this. Your reductions, your groupings, your categories: you put us in this room together. You literally can’t be mad that we’ve been talking.
This is where any criticism of “identity politics” inevitably fall short:
When “identity politics” obscures white labor and the erasure of that labor; when whiteness sees itself as neutral, and not at all as enacting its own “identity” project; when whiteness is “permission” without ever having asked for permission; when whiteness is “allowance” when such consent was never given; when whiteness believe itself not to be “viewing the world and the self through the prism of advantaged and disadvantaged groups;” ultimately: when whiteness sees itself as outside of identity politics.
Which brings me back to my point: being Asian may not be my identity, because being sees identity as inherent in the body; identity as inherent in the objects attuned to our bodies; for me, my identity is shifting towards: acting; doing; saying. Of course, I still feel the inscription of racial markers, the configuration of my body in space, the limitations imposed on me, the micro-aggressions, the reduction of my identity to my body; but this is not my identity in total; it is simply one part of it.
Asian identity, then, can be seen first as the acknowledgement of the accrual of actions of historical significance upon our current bodies, the acknowledgement of a metonymic convergence across a multitude of diverse people led by white exploitation and white convenience; and the acknowledgement of privilege and difference, across these varying patterns of violence.
But, following those acknowledgements, Asian identity ceases to be definable; as it is simply the way a person responds to the world, given the configuration of affective economies in which they exist; it is their relationships, their loves, their dislikes.
So when we say “cultural appropriation,” what we really mean is “white failure.”
White failure to know us the way we know us. White failure to see us the way we see us. White failure to capture our stories, our histories, white failure to present our narratives, our characters, our people, in a way that resonates with us. Appropriation is white failure, and the failure of whiteness to see that failure. The failure of whiteness to acknowledge that failure. Appropriation is the failure of whiteness to admit its shortcomings, its central involvement in identity politics, in the making of stereotypes, in the creation of racial myths. When a white woman wears a sombrero, she is failing to take part in Mexican culture, because she lacks Mexican relationships, loves, dislikes.
She fails to write a Mexican character, because she believes culture is commodifiable, is surface, is fungible. She believes that representation amounts to cultural difference, that culture is ahistorical, that identity is ahistorical. She flails about in the white mythology of free speech, as if her op-ed in the NEW YORK TIMES were evidence of censorship. As if we had granted her permission and allowance to degrade our people from the beginning, and we changed our minds.
She fails, and this failure is not only a personal failure, but a failure that damages those whom she commodifies. In her failure, she reinscribes white failure by further reinforcing the violence of that failure. What she fails to realize is that her failure has violent consequences. Her failure as a fiction writer, as a creator of art, as a creator of systems of perspectives and values inherent in her creation, is to continue an unflinching violence against people of color, an objectness, a commodification.
“The answer is that modern cliche: to keep trying to fail better.”
She acknowledges failure, but fails to acknowledge the effect of that failure. The effect of creating characters that are failed characters. Here is her description of a part of her story:
“In The Mandibles, I have one secondary character, Luella, who’s black. She’s married to a more central character, Douglas, the Mandible family’s 97-year-old patriarch. I reasoned that Douglas, a liberal New Yorker, would credibly have left his wife for a beautiful, stately African American because arm candy of color would reflect well on him in his circle, and keep his progressive kids’ objections to a minimum. But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research. As the novel reaches its climax and the family is reduced to the street, they’re obliged to put the addled, disoriented Luella on a leash, to keep her from wandering off.”
This is not even appropriation – it is a failure beyond limited scope of white failure that I’d attribute to appropriation – this is flat-out segregation-era caricature fucked-up racist ass shit. To protray an African-American woman as anything more than, on one hand, a sex object, and on the other, a burden? Are you kidding me? In what world should a writer be allowed to do this? In an ahistorical world, where identity acts as interchangable cosmetic difference, then sure, such precaution as to avoid simply rehashing destructive stereotypes with lived consequences for real black women outside of the world of your fiction might not be necessary. But in this world, with this history, you cannot justify this character. To believe this is appropriation, even, is beyond me. This is just plain laziness.
Shriver even complains: “The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing.”
The burden of your inability to imagine a Black woman who isn’t simply a stereotypical ascessory to your privileged white family’s story is too great? How about the burden of reinforcing the same fucking bullshit that Black women have lived with every fucking day for their entire lives?
In any case, I am writing this not because I want to destroy Shriver; I want to hold her up as an example of white failure, and posit a way forward. I want to return to the main theme of my writing: that perhaps we can concede that being Asian isn’t an identity. My identity is untouchable; and because of this, white people will always fail to do what I can. To make art how I do.
What I want to shift the conversation towards is:
Cultural appropriation is not about hurting my feelings.
Cultural appropriation is really what we can call a specific kind of white failure: one that hurts us not because we are protective of our “culture,” but because we are protective of our lives, our bodies, our lived experiences. When you appropriate, my feelings are not hurt. Your failure, itself, does not make me angry. It is the damage that that failure has the potential to do, the continued peddling in racist stereotypes, the continued erasure of whiteness from the “identity politics” narrative, that makes me angry. It is your accidental dehumanization of my people that makes me angry. It is your mistaken adherence to a white colonial fantasy that sees culture as ahistorical, as disinvolved from narratives of white exploitation and conquest. It is the boo-boo of: oops, this hat, on my white body, has become metonymically associated with drunkenness, laziness, the obscuring of white labor to create the conditions of the exploitation of people of color. My bad, guys, my bad.
EDIT: I never thought so many would read this post! Thanks to everyone for sharing & reading! Because of the immensity of the response, I believe I have a responsibility to share my inspirations in writing this piece, and to give my own thanks to those whom have influenced my own line of thought.
Sara Ahmed’s piece on Affective Economies, as well as pretty much everything that she has ever written, has been bouncing around in my head for days, and I wanted to direct everyone towards her work. Her work is consistently brilliant and life changing, and the driving force behind my ability to reconsider Asianness in the current framework I’ve set up here.
Jose Esteban Munoz’s piece, Feeling Brown, Feeling Down, was the first essay I read that really got me thinking about the potential of a queer racial affect, and his work has changed my life in so many ways. I also recommend reading Cruising Utopia, which is the first book of criticism/theory that ever made me cry for being so beautiful. ❤
Eunsong Kim’s piece Found, Found, Found: Lived, Lived, Lived, as well as the many other pieces and conversations that I’ve shared with her have been so incredibly important to me. She is a driving force in tying what I’ve learned from Ahmed & Munoz together with cultural appropriation. I am deeply indebted to her for all that she has shared with me.
Again, thank you for the overwhelmingly positive response! Much love ❤ ❤ ❤