- The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday by Ju Yon Kim
Everyday behaviors are critical to understanding constructions of race and racism. This is the key point within Ju Yon Kim’s persuasively written book, The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday. Kim examines a diverse array of material, including theatrical performances, films, novels, newspaper articles, and YouTube videos. Similarly, she draws from an eclectic assortment of theorists to support her argument. Among the most critical to her study are Bertolt Brecht, whose discussion of theatrical alienation provides an important method of defamiliarizing the everyday; Michael Omi and Howard Winant, whose groundbreaking work on racialization serves as the jumping-off point for Kim’s discussion of race; and Pierre Bourdieu, whose conception of habitus as an embodiment of social structures is central to Kim’s demonstration of the ways in which individual and collective behaviors contribute to larger historical patterns. Kim’s application of these theoretical frames provides insight into how performance can intervene and/or elucidate the ways Asian Americans are represented and understood vis-à-vis US culture.
Kim’s conception of “the racial mundane” seeks to examine the space between quotidian behaviors and perceptions of those behaviors. She focuses her attention on Asian Americans, noting how everyday activities by specific racialized bodies inform perceptions of assimilation and alienation. Race is often involuntarily performed, and seen as representative of a certain grouping of people regardless of the intentions of those being observed. As Kim states early in her introduction, “The mundane, as something enacted by the body that is not necessarily of the body, inserts a productive uncertainty whereby the prerogative to manage racial others can be channeled into efforts to change their behaviors” (4). In other words, the fact that racialized bodies perform certain behaviors does not mean that they will always perform those behaviors. Also, the meaning of particular behaviors might change if taken up by someone from a different racialized group.
However, while addressing the anxieties associated with modes of conduct, Kim is quick to observe that the focus on what specific bodies do often obscures economic factors, which are just as relevant. A clear example of how such factors can figure into the discussion is seen in chapter 3, which focuses on interracial conflict between African Americans and Korean Americans in New York and Los Angeles during the early 1990s. Journalists reported on cultural differences that were seen to be at the root of misunderstandings between Korean shopkeepers and their customers in predominantly African American neighborhoods. It was said that Koreans did not look their customers in the eye or make physical contact when giving back change—a behavior seen as rude by African Americans and as respectful by Korean Americans. But while these interactions may have contributed to an animosity between these demographic groups that eventually led to boycotts and violence, they do not account for existing structural problems, such as the difficulty many African Americans experienced getting a loan to start up small businesses within their own neighborhoods.
Kim interweaves a cogent analysis of various factors contributing to the so-called “Black-Korean conflict” with a discussion of Elizabeth Wong’s Kimchee and Chitlins (1993) and Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1993), two dramatic works that reflect upon these same issues, often through an examination of quotidian details. According to Kim, “While conventions may go unremarked in the everyday, their reenactment in theatrical performance makes it possible to examine their relationship to social and political concerns” (135). Wong’s [End Page 184] play centers on a Japanese American TV reporter covering the boycott of a Korean American–owned store, and stages not only what is broadcast, but also what gets edited out of her stories and interviews because they are not seen as newsworthy. Smith is well known for her style of documentary theatre, in which she reenacts the speech and mannerisms of her interview subjects...