Final curatorial statement: Deconstructing an essentialized Asian America

Coming into this course, I had a basic understanding of intersectionality. In conjunction with what I was exposed to online and through my courses, I also saw the ways in which race and gender played out in my own life. I felt my alienation in circles of white women as well as discomfort talking to overtly sexist Asian American men. This ever-present feeling of alienation was combined with ways in which I experienced gendered racism, such as when one of my high school friends told me I should have no problem getting a boyfriend because “a lot of guys have Asian fetishes.” However, it wasn’t until I took this class that I really understood just how essential intersectionality is in all forms of social critique and activism. Through the writing of my blog posts, I learned how to be a more critical consumer and view art and media through an intersectional lens.

Although I didn’t intend for this, my four blog posts alternate between examining how whiteness views Asianness and examining art and media created within Asian American circles. My posts on Yuja Wang and Venus Angelic largely focus on how a white gaze reads Asianness. I explore the different manifestations of colonialism and orientalism in the topics surrounding these two vastly different subjects. My post on Yuja Wang discusses the colonial history of classical music and how it was used as an artistic weapon against non-Western musical forms. This history of colonialism is still incredibly evident today, with the establishment of Western classical music conservatories all over the world. In the same vein, I discussed Venus Angelic’s colonialist YouTube persona, critiquing her role as a Westerner in Japan commodifying appealing aspects of Japanese femininity and exporting it back to a Western consumer. While Venus occupies Japan and exports Japanese culture to her mostly Western audience, she also aids in the colonization of hegemonic Japanese femininity, presenting a half-white, half-Japanese look as desirable over a full-Japanese aesthetic.

The effectiveness of colonialism is in part dependent upon orientalism, which constructs the East as deviant. In my post on Yuja Wang, I discuss how the East has been constructed as traditional, backwards, and sexually restrictive; it deviates from the standard of moral modernity set by the West. Another form of orientalism is discussed in my post on Venus Angelic, in which I critique how Venus constructs the East as excess; excess in its obsession with beauty and different technologies invented to obtain ideal beauty. In this context, the East is deviant because it replicates the ideals of the West but then takes it above and beyond what is acceptable. By utilizing the deviant East, colonialism is justified as the imposition of what is normal and acceptable in order to correct unacceptable deviations.

While my critiques of Yuja Wang and Venus Angelic’s personas focused on the white gaze, my other two blog posts on “8 Angry Asians” and “My Mother’s Jade” problematized dynamics within the Asian American community. In critiquing “8 Angry Asians,” I pointed out the sexist depictions of women as emotional and irrational, and the erasure of queer Asian Americans. In critiquing “My Mother’s Jade,” I also focused on the mother’s internalized sexism as she scolds her daughter, emphasizing how a Chinese woman should act and shaming her for behavior that would deter a Chinese man. Both of these critiques call out the heteronormativity entrenched in Asian American communities and reveal that a space devoid of physical whiteness can still be extremely problematic and further marginalize minority groups within a minority.

While I had studied the histories and manifestations of orientalism and colonialism pretty thoroughly through an Asian American Studies perspective, the readings, lectures, and blog posts I engaged with examining issues within the Asian American community made me heavily interrogate my own communities and my own sense of identity. Growing up in a predominately white area always made me very cognizant of my race. It was my race that identified me as Other, my identity as a second-generation Chinese immigrant that constantly reminded me of my difference from my friends and their liberal, former-flower child parents.

Coming into Northwestern, I was eager to finally be in a place where I would feel a sense of belonging, to be at a school with a large Asian student population. However, I quickly realized that I still felt alienated in many all-Asian spaces. I blamed these feelings of alienation on growing up in a predominately white area and being socialized as white, whatever that even means. In conjunction with feelings of not feeling “authentic” enough, I also saw the sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and anti-Blackness that runs rampant in many Asian American spaces.

Out of all the readings we did this quarter, the ones that resonated with me the most are Lisa Lowe’s “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Asian American Differences,” selections from Asian Women United, and Gopinath’s “Queer Diasporic Critique in the Aftermath of 9/11.” These readings fundamentally changed the ways I viewed my own identity and positioning in society.

Before this course, I completely played into the binary of authenticity vs. assimilation and the concept of vertical transmission of culture. I obsessed over the notion of authenticity, working to prove to others and myself just how Asian I could be. I worried about my possible future children, and how I could adequately continue the vertical transmission of culture. I had spent so much of high school privileging my race in my own sense of identity, and I was determined conform my persona to my predetermined matrix of identity.

However, the writings of Lisa Lowe and other Asian American feminists have made me realize that this pressure to act with authenticity is simply a manifestation of the way in which white supremacy has essentialized Asian Americans in a way that oppresses those who do not fit the mold of the straight male model minority. In reality, there is nothing that should characterize how an Asian American should act, and assimilation is not a betrayal of ethnic identity, but rather an unavoidable aspect of being a diasporic subject. I’ve also come to realize that the tired narrative of intra-family culture clash places disproportionate blame on those within our communities instead of calling out the real assailant: white supremacy. The combination of assimilation and authenticity along with the horizontal transmission of culture is what characterizes Asian America. Using a queer diasporic critique, we should work to dismantle the binaries of authenticity vs. assimilation and instead focus on ways to construct alternative forms of collectivity.

In combating essentialism, I’ve realized that we cannot and should not view media and art created by Asian Americans with a less critical eye simply because it was created by those within our communities. It is evident through the various readings we have done throughout the quarter that Asian American spaces are still fraught with oppressive structures, and race, gender, and sexuality all work together in one overarching system. As Asian Americans, we cannot simply fight against racial oppression in hopes of true liberation. While we must critique the ways in which white supremacy oppresses us, we must also use an intersectional lens and critique sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, and recognize the ways these forces act in a gendered, racialized, and sexualized manner to work towards reforming our own communities and combating the further marginalization of Asian American women, queer Asian Americans, trans Asian Americans, and others who do not fit the mold of the straight, male, heteronormative, apolitical model minority.

As someone who does not feel as though I fit into an essentialized Asian America, I have realized that I should embrace my own subjectivity and agency and not feel pressured to fit myself into superimposed boundaries. Among other things, I am a woman, I am an Asian American, and I should not have to compromise either of these identities, because they work in conjunction to shape my existence.

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