Failing the System and Expressing Agency: Curatorial Statement

There are no words to describe the amount of knowledge and critical thinking this class has offered me this quarter. I came in oblivious and, frankly, uneducated about several issues. Reading and analyzing discourse on the connections between race, gender, sexuality and other parameters of hegemonic structure paved a new, informed outlook on life.

Prior to college, I lived in a White-populated suburb near Milwaukee for nine years. I was one of maybe twenty Asians in my high school class. It felt necessary to assimilate, but there were still innumerable times when I felt different—an “other”. To adapt to the school’s social life, I did what any second-generation Asian-American kid might do: I kept home separate from school; I rarely packed ethnic food for lunch; I straightened my hair to wear it like the others. I tried to be as White as I could which meant betraying my culture as best I could and perhaps seeking the “invisibility” of being White.

The worst part of all is that I never stopped to think about whether I was doing something wrong and at some point, I stopped questioning why and simply followed the system.

Coming to college made me realize there are so many things wrong about America, the place where inclusivity is not always progressive. For instance, our campus at Northwestern is segregated and as a person of color, I struggled (and still am) making friends from all backgrounds. To the average person, it is easy to see that the minority groups on campus are close-knit communities, like how members of KASA, CSA and SASA seem to only hang out with those in their respective clubs. They say Northwestern is diverse, which is true, but is it inclusive? Well, that’s a different question.

As a young Asian-American woman who has yet to experience love (and many other things in the world), I noticed relationships and couples more often. This fueled my interest in delving into why romance is difficult to navigate as a person of color. On campus, it is obvious that the heterosexual, typically White couple is the norm, but I also noticed more same-sex and queer couples (than back home), but even those have underlying heteronormative structures. I rarely encountered queer people of color. Additionally, the dynamics of interracial couples involving Asian-Americans were interesting. I often saw East Asian-American female and White male couples, but few East-American male and White female couples. From Chou, Espiritu, Slaying the Dragon and others, I learned that my baseless observation was actually a product of Western media stereotypes of Asian-Americans, immigration regulation, White colonialism and the racial frameworks that impact immigrant families.

The central preoccupations that drove my first two blogs stemmed from this frustration with media portrayals of Asian-Americans and the difficulty of traversing romance. From scrutinizing Master of None and close-reading Singareddy’s article, I recognized Asian-American culture as something separate from home culture and American culture. It was necessary to forge our own identity— an in-between— and maintaining a balance is difficult. Media has a big impact on our lives because the few Asian-Americans on screen have the huge responsibility of representing the multiplicity and heterogeneity of the Asian-American community. And even then, Hollywood might not want that. Thus, shows like Master of None do well in breaking stereotypes and enforcing visibility; however, what is the guarantee they won’t create new false notions or portray only certain types of people? For instance, Ansari’s role in Master of None broke the asexualized Asian-American male stereotype but still enforced masculinity over femininity.

As Ansari’s character shows us in Master of None, navigating romance as a person of color is difficult, especially in interracial couples where there is cultural tension. Singareddy made me realize that as an Asian-American female subject to White male fetishization, I must acknowledge racial biases and uphold my individuality first in order to reach a place of self-love and confidence.

The last two blogs primarily centered on family dynamics, home culture and the political work second-generation Asian-Americans should do to change hegemonic structures. From Alok Vaid-Menon’s artwork as a trans individual of color, I learned the reasons why queer people of color stand by their home cultures, even when their families reject them. It takes considerable effort to undo what white racial frames spent decades enforcing on immigrant families. Nevertheless, addressing prejudice within our own people is important because no one should lose their family due to hegemonic ways of thinking.

That last thought really hit me, because I realized that I’ve never challenged the prejudice within my own family, which is the place of most possibility. From Chou’s influence, I became intrigued of the views minorities have on other minorities. This led me to have a conversation with my mother, which showed me firsthand the effects of the White racial framework. When reading about Chou’s strategies to combat racism, I realized I often resort to one strategy the most: the “It Ain’t My Job” strategy, which I ended up utilizing in my discussion with my mother. Having meaningful discussions was more difficult than I had thought, especially when the other side is so adamant of being correct. But, I will try again.

In the first class, we talked whether we always have agency. To me, this inquiry started off as something unclear, confusing and unknown, but now I’m beginning to understand it. What I’ve learned is that my Asian-American identity is multi-faceted: it represents the oppression of a community, the intersectionalities of race, gender and sexuality, and the necessity of political work to undermine social constructs. So, to betray that and not question yourself and those around you is wrong.

Alok Vaid-Menon, who I find very inspirational, tells us in their Ted Talk that living up to society’s expectations of oneself and what one is supposed to do is violent, but by failing, we can break the successful systems that have dictated our lives. For me, the idea of achieving success by following the system was the only method of justifying my parents’ journey across the ocean. This system that I followed for my entire life does not bring real success— it told me to mask my identity, to believe that stereotypical portrayals in media bring visibility, and to not question the problems it perpetuates.

Change is brought by challenging this system. And while it’s easy to “talk the talk than walk the walk”, the feeling of being educated and aware about the world is too strong to simply overlook. Volunteering, voting, protesting, speaking, reading— there are so many ways to fight. Treading slowly, I plan to speak out, express my agency, and fail while doing so.

 

See Alok’s Ted Talk here:

 

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