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Journal of Asian American Studies 5.1 (2002) 13-29
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An Apology To Althea Connor:
Private Memory, Public Racialization, and Making a Language
I a characteristically perceptive essay entitled, "Strategic Anti- Essentialism in Popular Music," George Lipsitz asks under what conditions cultural borrowing and cross-identification are either appropriative or appropriate: "which kinds of cross-cultural identification advance emancipatory ends and which ones reinforce existing structures of power and domination? When does identification with the culture of others serve escapist and irresponsible ends and when does it encourage an enhanced understanding of one's experiences and responsibilities?" 1 Lipsitz here refers to the phenomenon of musical borrowings by white musicians, but I want to wrench the question from its context and put it in another. Such questions have almost always been posited as describing the problematic of white privilege, covering the spectrum from fashion influences to corporate visions of liberal multiculturalism to the religious pastiche of New Age spiritualisms. But if we take seriously the contention that Asian Americans are as a group, "a crucial, interstitial element that breaks apart the black/white dichotomy," 2 then a question such as the one Lipsitz asks needs to be posed in relation to cross-identifications involving Asian Americans, who have been positioned variously along the ideological arc between black and white.
Model minority discourse has unfortunately supplied many of the terms for talking about Asian American-white American relations, and [End Page 13] Asian Americans' relations to other racialized groups have historically been refracted through the Asian-white dyad. Thus, the public discourse available for analyzing Asian American-African American cross-identifications is one whose paucity directly reflects the success of the model minority framework, which functions in tandem with the crude toggle-switch of ethnic mimeticism: you're either "acting white" or you're "acting black." What falls out is a way of talking about comparative racialization, as well as how we might answer Lipsitz's questions in relation to Asian Americans. How are we to understand the positioning of Asian Americans whose identification with African Americans may "advance emancipatory ends" and "reinforce existing structures of power" at the same time? What happens when Asian Americans "enhanc[e] understanding of their experiences" through cross-identification with African Americans, but may not have to, finally, bear the costs and responsibilities of doing so?
When I submitted my initial conference proposal for this paper, I had been thinking for some time about something that happened almost thirty years ago. Between the time of submission and acceptance, I started and re-started this paper, circling around, but not getting any closer, to what I wanted to say. I began to realize the problem was that moving from the outline of memory and anecdote to articulated discourse necessarily involved the shift from the private to the public. And not only does a public discourse hardly exist for thinking through Asian American-African American relations, but there seem any number of social investments in maintaining the disjunction between private and public realms, between stories and discourse.
I want to use that difficulty to talk about the ways in which we do not and cannot talk about relations between African Americans and Asian Americans in the absence of obvious and extreme circumstances. Ask most people, of any ethnic or racial background, to give you an image of African-Asian American relations, and what you will get is the ubiquitous Newsweek visi-bite of "gun-toting Korean Americans" and "store-looting African Americans" during the LA uprising of 1992. A rare few may be able to recall that in the picture taken as Malcom X lay dying from an assassin's bullet, a young Japanese American woman, Yuri Kochiyama, [End Page 14] cradled his head. But these are only fragments, not a language. And the trauma of American race relations, as with all trauma, is that there is, really, no language for talking about what happens between communities of color, for talking about how racialization happens between people of...