Theory of [my] Flesh: A Curatorial Statement

We’re awkwardly sitting in Olive Mountain, the only two people in the entire restaurant. He’s a half-Chinese half-Italian guy that I agreed to go on a first date with a mere four days after the recent election. I think more than anything, I just wanted a brief, fun distraction from what was happening in the world. Not knowing what else to talk about, of course, he brings up the election. I should have been relieved when he started talking, as we seemed to have similar political beliefs, but for some reason when he tried to engage me on the topic I could barely get out two words. I don’t exactly remember what he said, and at the time I didn’t know why I had felt so uncomfortable. It was the fact that he was being so rational about the whole thing, so easily dismissive of the real lives being effected and the real hurt and fear people were experiencing. I remember agreeing with the words that came out of his mouth, but it was the tone that didn’t sit well. It was too easy for him to explain away the lives of individuals who were still feeling and healing from the results of the election. As Chrystos writes in the “Theory of the Flesh” chapter of This Bridge Called My Back, “There is nothing easy about a collective cultural history of what Mitsuye Yamada calls ‘unnatural disasters’” (19), and this election, the validation of the racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia that Trump preaches, is an unnatural disaster of the type Yamada writes about.

Coming back to the theory of the flesh, I understood my discomfort with that conversation. Chrystos writes, “A theory of the flesh means one where physical realities of our lives—our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings—all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity” (19). In other words, everything comes back to people and lived experiences. During our conversation, he seemed dismissive of the way his sister called him crying that she was scared, and I felt like my feelings and experiences were being dismissed too. If real life experiences are ignored, there’s no way to create the just world we imagine. Furthermore, there’s not only discrimination, but sexism built into this rationality discourse that ignores the physical realities of certain lives. I learned later that he is expected to be the “man of the house” at home where his father is older and trying to retire. He is supposed to get a “good job” after college so that he can provide for his mom and his sister. I can forgive him a little more when I remember that we live in the same word where we are told that men are supposed to be strong and neoliberal values equate making money with being the “man of the house.” He was raised learning that boys don’t cry and being trained to be rational. This pressure is compounded by the fact that he is an Asian American man who is already expected to be more effeminate. I also return to Chou’s “Structure Is Bigger than the Individual” strategy, and I have to remember that “systematic racism and the white racial frame are so powerful that whites and people of color will resist the truth about racial oppression” (Chou, 188-89).

I am lucky to have taken classes that provide me with the counter frames and analytical frameworks to try to make sense of my own experiences, and I recognize that not everyone gets to take these classes. I have to forgive the man I went on a date with not only because “the structure is bigger than the individual” but also because I know how lucky I am to have positive counter frames. I watched my mom struggle a lot in our white neighborhood before she moved away from the neighborhood and met other individuals, particularly proud women of color who she could identify with. I know my grandmother and I know how hard she tried to make my mother as white as she could. She still praises me when I come home after fall and winter in Chicago for how pale my skin is. She’s so happy that my father is white, and of course, she wants me to only date white men, god forbid she actually meets one of my brother’s boyfriends. Reading Mare Woo’s “Letter to Ma” as a betrayal felt natural to me, because sometimes I also see my own habits as a betrayal. I have never dated anyone who’s white. I don’t know if it’s my grandma’s insistence to do so, or my mother’s example of dating only white men (none of which are relationships I have seen turn out well). However, in this betrayal, I’ve found my own counter frames and “worked diligently to construct [my] own identity and self-definition” (Chou, 187). In the same way that Miko gains a voice and shows agency and self-definition separate from Ben in Shortcomings, I learned to define myself in other ways than what I saw my mother and grandmother doing, and this was able to help me understand the way that the man I went on that date with acted.

While I am understanding of the reasons for his rationality, returning to the theory of the flesh also involves returning to the action that it demands. And if I’ve learned anything from this class, it’s that and understanding of the reasons and the ways oppressions play out, comes with a responsibility to act, whether that action is through art, activism or academia. The rationality discourse continues to silence certain voices and makes lived experiences of Asian Americans invisible. But as Yamada points out, this invisibility is an unnatural disaster. As someone who is privileged in many ways, especially having the education I have and being read as white, I need to use my knowledge from this class and continue to make visible the experiences of my family members and make visible my own Asian American identity and experiences. I hope to spend my life as a journalist amplifying these voices and experiences, and continuing to question the best ways to fight systematic oppression, and I need to remind myself to continue to question my own Asian American sexual politics along the way.

 

 

 

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