On Disability (Professor Cynthia Wu’s 12/1 Lecture)

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As a disclaimer of sorts, I spent not just a little bit of time during the lecture feeling kind of intimidated by the atmosphere of adult in the Wildcat Room, like, wow is this what more formal/official academia and intelligent conversation is like, I feel smarter already just by being here. But also, she brought up points faster than I could type and follow while simultaneously trying to grasp at whatever was in the midst of flying over my head, so please forgive me for any incorrect claims I make here.

I want to start by addressing how I became just that much more enlightened in the application of intersectional analysis and clarified in my own misconceptions of it. In this talk, Professor Cynthia Wu connected her two most prominent fields of studies into Disability and Transnationalism. Although we started the course talking about the plurality of individual identities, in the GSS classes I have taken thus far, the primary variables considered were consistently race, class, gender, and sexuality, which I had unconsciously deemed as the only ones to consider ever. Under this model, I applied a function of multiplication when considering the overlapping of certain features, which is how we were taught and came to understand, at least in the Roots of Feminism class I took sophomore year, the compelling words of bell hooks in verbalising the need to develop black feminism. So, when adding status of disability, I had ignorantly assumed what I now understand to be a problematic, additive model of intersectional analysis: if someone is both of colour and disabled, then they are naturally, doubly marginalised.

Of course, this effect can often still apply due issues such as the “exploitative gaze” of medical authorities, who frequently seize control of these bodies and affect interpretation thereof that may monopolise general public opinion (Kuo 2015). This has been considered in analysing the treatment of intersex individuals and the belief of homosexuality as a disease (Intro to Sexuality Studies, F15). Connecting this to our discussions of trans identities, the biology of an individual body can be harnessed and/or changed in order to enforce globalised constructions such as the gender binary, which is what the work of trans postcoloniality does (“Transsexual Empire”, Hsu). Part of the problem even now in disability studies, though, is that “there is very little work (in ethnic studies) that addresses the ways in which the categories of race/ethnicity and disability are used to constitute one another” in the way that trans postcoloniality was used to reveal how trans bodies became citizen bodies – through sex reassignment surgery and the reinforcement of femininity as womanhood (James and Wu 2006). Indeed, some analyses conflate disability with racial identity, effectively erasing those who are both non-white and disabled.

Doing this work of meaningfully engaging in the analysis of how various intersecting identities produce unique subject positions, what Professor Wu argues is that, physical difference can challenge society’s idea of individual belonging. Specifically, in her book on the figures of Chang and Eng Bunker, these Thai-American Siamese twins who assimilated into American society through their glaring physical difference, ultimately settling into their own slave plantations and marrying white women, were able to “display themselves in ways that were off limits to others of Asian American descent” (Wu, 12/1 Lecture). In fact, it was the Bunkers’ anatomical and racial differences that enabled them to challenge the “myth of U.S. national belonging” (Kuo 2015).

changandeng
Chang and Eng Bunker, looking dapper. Read their Wikipedia article here.

This argument is further complicated in the body of another individual, historically removed but theoretically connected. She argues that Daniel Inouye’s usage of his image as a disabled veteran helped him ascend to the position of U.S. Senator as a Nisei for Hawaii, and his use of this position advanced Japanese-American rights as rightful (assimilated) U.S. citizens post-WWII, effectively erasing indigenous Hawaiians’ advocacy for sovereignty. In what is hopefully not just a flippant, inverted analogue to Eng’s focus on making whiteness visible, Inouye’s hypervisible site of patriotic sacrifice (in the lack of his right arm) exceptionalises the East-Asian identity as the standard of model citizenship, erasing the efforts of native political activists and establishing this symbolic order where dissenting voices who are actually also of colour, are discredited, an effort more generally echoed by Asian-American subscription to neoliberalism and the American Dream, which is especially evident in the Tiger Mom’s autobiographical account of how she raised her children in the “immigrant” way.

daniel-inouye
Daniel Inouye with an empty sleeve.

I am unfortunately not at all familiar with the political background surrounding Inouye’s text, but, by the end, I was at least able to recognise why Professor Wu called his book Journey to Washington, “trashy campaign literature”. When considering the problematic fact that Hawaii is thought to be the paragon of multiculturalism done right, as an example of the colour-blindedness all of society should aspire to emulate, when there are so many underlying issues of settler colonialism that are forgotten with this image, her remarks on the value of “reckoning with texts that are compliant and accomodationist” were especially compelling: when reading, to prioritise seeing resistance, even in the voice of a pathologically heterosexual figure as Daniel Inouye.

Outside Texts

James, Jennifer C., and Cynthia Wu. 2006. “Editors’ introduction: race, ethnicity, disability, and literature: intersections and interventions.”  MELUS 31 (3):3.

Kuo, Karen. 2015. “Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture by Cynthia Wu (review).”  Journal of Asian American Studies 18 (3):378-380.

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