Commentary | The silence of the marginalized

On performativity, assimilation, and the politics of dress-up

“Beside the waters of the Hudson, I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.” – Zora Neale Hurston, “How it Feels to be Colored Me”

Most mornings before I go out, I dress up as a white person. The donning of the disguise is a subtle and flawed transformation; sometimes, I am barely aware of it, and other times, it is all I can do to bear up beneath the weight of the mask I must put on. On those days, that weight is enormous and repressive, and, beneath it, my voice is crushed into silence. Yet the mask is never perfect. My tinted skin and slanted eyes always peek through, despite perfectly unaccented English and a lifetime of immersion in Western fashion and pop culture. Generations of assimilation and class mobility have done nothing to eradicate the core of my foreignness, which whispers of a homeland distant and unknowable, just as my body is alien and unknowable, an eternal stranger in a strange land.

Last week, Daily contributor Tiffany Harrington wrote an excellent Commentary article (“A haunting disguise indeed,” October 25, page 6) on the cultural appropriation of First Nations images and symbols that we tend to see in Halloween ‘Indian’ costumes. The discourse around racial ‘dress-up’  is an important one, and too often derailed by superficial appeals to ‘freedom of expression,’ because there are deeper issues at play here – issues of assimilation and cultural performativity, which I would like to open a discussion of.

There is a historic tendency on the part of the privileged to mock and dominate the marginalized through mimicry.  We need only look as far as the tradition of blackface as a minstrels’ trope in the American South, the derisive Hollywood portrayals of Asian characters such as the landlord Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s , and the depiction of Aboriginal peoples in any ‘classic’ cowboy movie to see evidence of that. Not only are such portrayals of marginalized peoples ignorant and irreverent, they are an example of the oppressor’s power to define us through the oppressive gaze; to wrest our identities from us and reshape them as caricatures worthy of ridicule or fear. Even when the portrayal is ‘positive,’ it is still a part of that insidious colonial process by which the image of the oppressed is transformed from that of a sovereign Other to something governable, and subordinate to the oppressive power.

Marginalized persons, for the most part, do not have the power to re-define our oppressors through dress-up. There are no ‘white person’ costumes being sold in department stores or Internet catalogues this Halloween. Yet every day of our lives, we must negotiate the landscape of assimilation, must disprove our foreignness and prove our humanity, must act the part of the tamed coloured person who has learned the manners of our master well.

As a child, I learned quickly that English is the language of power: if I spoke and wrote it well in school, I would be rewarded; if I spoke my parents’ language, I’d be punished. I learned to denigrate and despise my foreignness, to hide it as best I could by wearing what the white kids wore and making fun of the ‘FOBs’ (the racist slur, fresh off the boat). Even today, as I struggle to undo the binding placed on my mind by the trappings of internalized racism, I find myself wondering: how much of my true self may I show my white supervisors, classmates, friends, before I become ‘too Asian,’ ‘that angry Asian,’ that minority too loudmouthed for my own good? And, having laboured so long to remove my Asian-ness, who is this ‘true self’ that I am trying to reveal?

We are more than our race, than our gender, than the misrepresentation of our bodies. To see beyond the masks that have been imposed on us, we must fight against the images – on television, in literature, on the streets on Halloween – that mock us, that render us eternal strangers, so that we can be unashamed of our foreignness, so that our foreignness becomes knowable and powerful – so that we can see our true selves and be seen.

Memoirs of a Gaysian is Ryan Kai Cheng Thom’s column on cultural difference, intersectional oppression, and genderqueerness. Contact them at memoirsofagaysian@mcgilldaily.com.


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