Assimilate or…?

Random snippets behind this post include this quote I came across on Twitter [link]:

“Getting rid of your Chineseness by losing your accent, it’s like grinding away your face.” —Richard A Lou, artist; from the book War Baby/Love Child

It makes me think of a former and historical/egalitarian “cosmopolitanism” or mixing of cultures in an urban setting, with a neo-cosmopolitanism today which demands assimilation and a class attainment that goes unmentioned.

I’m thinking of the mediation of this demand to “grind away your face”, from the classist Hee Haw to the Disney Channel, where everyone speaks with a “California lite” accent and has Consumerism as their religion.

Ironically, this kind of minstrelsy is often seen by the targeted group(s) as “empowering”; I’m thinking here of The Sopranos or The Jersey Shore or Glee (etc.).

There was a day when alternatives to mainstream media existed; now seemingly long gone….

I want to ask or at least muse out loud: What is your advice for dealing with a society that demands of us that we “assimilate or…”? Expand or challenge at will….

14 thoughts on “Assimilate or…?

  1. I am thinking of a story of a late discovery adoptee, the musician Brule who went back to his Dakota Lower Brule Nation in South Dakota and had a friend “reverse assimilate” him. Assimilation is invisible, yet it’s subtle, a form of mind control. To choose to be reverse assimilated, to be taught new thought, to reimagine how it is to be Dakota, that was exciting to me – and I question if it’s possible for every adoptee. I wish I knew.

    • Amanda Baden et al have coined this reculturation in a good a paper called Reclaiming Culture: Reculturation of Transracial and International Adoptees.

      I think it holds true for all adoptees removed from their mother and culture whatever it may be and reculturation (reverse assimilation) may be a way of healing the implicit traumatic memories.

  2. Has he written on this at all that you are aware of? That is very powerful. I feel like I’ve done something similar for myself, though I could not have picked a worse country to attempt such a “reversal”—Lebanon does not enforce its official language, for example; education is more likely in English or French than Arabic; it is extremely easy to live outside the culture of the place.

    The hardest part of being “taught new thought” is to attempt to fill in the ruts and fissures of “old thought”. The moments when I sense I am wholly “in” the realm of “new thought”—reacting viscerally or instinctively in Arabic, for example—catch me off guard and frankly scare me to death. To the point that I am loathe to recommend such a path to other adoptees. At the same time, I sense that my own sense of sanity requires it….

  3. I think that I am maybe on the road to this reverse assimilation. I have spent a life time feeling rather like a two dimensional sculpture where the façade is in 3D but the back is flat and un-carved.
    Society has tried to chew my face off, hell even I tried to chew my own face off when I was younger. But it remained. In the same manner that having been brought up in the culture and society of white privilege with the expectation that I would embrace and assimilate; but at the same time no matter how much education, how much orientation and submersion in white and western culture, I was never ever going to be white. I would never ever be able to reap the benefits of the white privileged culture that I was brought up in.
    I think that we have to take back that which was lost, that which was taken from us. Assimilation is a slow death as those with power and money consciously or subconsciously seek to conquer all.
    If you remove the children of a race and wipe their minds of emotional, cultural and linguistic memories or connections, it’s as if they never existed, as if they don’t matter. A way to control, subjugate and keep the oppressed, oppressed.
    We must continue to challenge and find our own ways home

  4. “Assimilation is a slow death”. I would agree with your powerful statement. It seems to me that attempting to push back or fight back opens us up to a targeted “quick(er) death”—and that many choose the “slower” version purely as a means of self-preservation. Have you felt yourself “targeted” for not assimilating? How did/do you deal with that?

  5. Because I view identity and culture as performative and not essentialist, I find it easier to assimilate and re-assimilate without feeling like either threaten the very essence of me.

    I’ve been reading a lot of Augusto Boal this week and I like how he says (paraphrased) that you are not you but you are everything that you are capable of doing in particular situations. I find this concept very liberating. Of course, in a racist society, some situations can still be quite limiting.

    I find there to be a difference between hegemonic assimilation that is foisted upon minority groups and a personal journey type assimilation that could be part of the rematriation process, for example. And a lot of this, for me, relates to my sense of self worth. If I truly believe I am the authority of my own performative identity instead of a dominant culture or even my Korean culture, then transitioning is easier for me.

    • Wow. Thanks for the reference to Augusto Boal…are you familiar with Jerzy Grotowski, who wrote Towards a Poor Theatre? I have his book, and I appreciated his notion of the merging of stage and audience; the “discarding of masks” as he put it….I have only thought of the “performative” aspect of identity in terms of “affectation”…can you talk more about how you see this as empowering? Because for me this is the site of my “adoption fatigue”….the desire to shed or be rid of this “performance”….

      • Yes, familiar with Grotowski as well. I don’t believe that we can truly discard all masks, we change one for another based on our needs and the demands of a culture.
        I don’t think that the performative nature of identity is empowering, I think that the knowledge that it is performative to be empowering. This awareness allows us to expand beyond the limiting idea that we are inherently this or not enough of this as a fixed state. It can be applied to not just aspects of our socio-cultural identity but also with regards to our sense of self worth, value or talents we think we have.
        Example: I work with Korean learners of English who were told their whole life that they simply weren’t good at English. It’s pretty hard to teach someone or get them to improve and grow when they believe this is a fixed part of their identity. I have seen many students blossom and grow after I convince them that being good means what they do, not who they are. And they can always do more to be better students.
        On a related note, I am collaborating with a life coach here in Seoul who talks about how she destroys her relationship every day with her partner and then uses that day to create and build something new. It may sound hyper-dramatic, but I love this. We are not who we are but all the possibilities of what we can be in any given moment.
        I’m reflecting on this a bit as to why I have managed to embrace this when so many others are struggling. I think it has to do with the fact that I was raised in a state against cultural essentialism. We cooked a lot of Korean food in my house, for example. My parents had Korean family friends. I wore hanbok for non-Korean events just because I felt like it and my parents were supportive of that. When I moved to Korea, I was surprised to find out that I had more experience cooking Korean food than some of my new Korean friends (the current generation is cooking less because they are working more, etc). And I thought, wow, sometimes I don’t feel very Korean and sometimes I feel more Korean than Korean people feel, and all that is totally okay. It’s changing minute to minute and there is totally space for all of that to exist.

      • You were raised without “claiming”, we might say? Perhaps the “claiming” is the issue….and the comparison to locals is true here as well; I speak/understand Arabic better than some of my students, acculturated to be more “American” than I was even raised….a whole other subject. I really appreciate your clarification. Much food for thought….

      • Amy: the clarification, “I don’t think that the performative nature of identity is empowering, I think that the knowledge that it is performative to be empowering” seems crucial.

        Where does cultural solidarity come in, however? Another poster here has described how he can code-switch (my paraphrase) in different circumstances. This is individually adroit and useful and politically problematic.

        Obviously, we all perform all of the time, but mostly this is improvised and non-deliberate, determined by the culture around us, whether we think about it or not. An outsider, therefore, may be especially well positioned to perform alternatives to a culture otherwise invisible to the habitual performance of culture. Still and all, whether conscious or unconscious (to keep the metaphor going), performance rarely (if ever) builds the space where performance occurs, even less often chooses the audience, has no control over the lighting, the advertising, &c.

        I like the performative metaphor, and I know someone who advocates, and perhaps practices, performance in everyday life. And when I’m too aware that she does, human authenticity disappears out of our interactions. Even when I work hard to remind myself that her performance is simply a reflection of her desire for human interaction (in other words, it doesn’t “really” rest on a false foundation), I have to work really hard to negate the sense otherwise.

        I suppose a problem with performance in this sense is how it does not emphasise “ensemble”. It veers towards virtuosic solos, which require and distance me as an audience–even if the performer invites me into “their” performance (rather that “our” performance). And performance then also has a structure of critics and pedagogues and all of the apparatus of discourse that subtly (or not subtly) allows–in the absence of anything else–the “market” to determine what performances (and performativities) warrant applause, and which are better cut short in their theatrical run. I don’t mean here simply in the superstructure of control but even in simply the lived day-to-day experience of popularity and human recognition occurring in the world around us.

        I’m not griping about your post, but more wondering aloud. I’d also suggest that not everyone wants to be a performer (to continue the metaphor); some want to be composers, authors, stage-hands, directors, audience members. My response to this–ala Brechtian theater–would be to ask why we have to pretend that the infrastructure of theatrical performance must remain opaque. Why can’t I, as a stage-hand, simply blunder through whatever “performance” the performativity-geniuses are hard at. Why denigrate the “naive” performance of the role of stage-hand? (Don’t say we don’t. We most assuredly do. We all have a pretty good idea how to act if we want to be “popular”. And it’s a judgment on those who can’t or won’t do it, that they get to starve to death by the side of the road because they failed to play that part.) Why require stage-hands or authors to deliver soliloquies, as it were, in the mode of an actor?

        This clearly has everything to do with changing the attitude of the audience doing the looking, i.e., us. It seems less about empowerment, and more about not allowing habit to go from impression to action without considering one’s possibilities for action. It’s about “you” accepting me saying “you didn’t have to react (perform) that way”. Erf … I’m going to stop myself here.

  6. Not for nothing:

    One day after thousands rallied at the March on Washington 50th anniversary demonstration, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) pitched the Republican civil rights vision…by criticizing minorities for not assimilating into American culture.

    In a Politico op-ed Sunday, Jindal lamented that minorities place “undue emphasis” on heritage, and urged Americans to resist “the politically correct trend of changing the melting pot into a salad bowl” comprised of proudly ethnic identities.

    Jindal insisted that, “while racism still rears its ugly head from time to time” since Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, the major race problem facing modern America is that minorities are too focused on their “separateness”… [link]

    It makes me think of the excellent book The Karma of Brown Folk by Vijay Prashad….

  7. Transracial orphans may simply have the most direct view on the demands of assimilation, whereby the greater the markers one has compared to the dominating white-male-heterosexual-middleclass discourse, the more sharply this becomes apparent (once looked at).

    But one more layer remains to this that orphans particularly may note: the child/adult axis. To be brought into the world against one’s will and then told you must assimilate to the (arbitrary if not fucked up) rules of the culture you find yourself in, those rules themselves being little more than the ruins of efforts by previous generations–I mean to apply this statement to virtually every human culture ever–then we see that assimilation, or even just acculturation, already represents one of the most profound affronts against human identity conceivable. It makes acculturation always already and fundamentally into a variety of Stockholm syndrome, which then gets “lovingly” passed on to the next generation.

    Every new human being represents a literally irreproducible and unique instance on the planet, and assimilation takes as its task the destruction of the variety (in human experience) that that uniqueness offers. This happens foremost by a massive reduction of cognitive potential into the narrow channel of one (or more) languages; the necessity of establishing communication with the (alien) child serving as the staging ground for all subsequent narrowing of (behavioural) variety.

    And the failure to accommodate these impositions is, yes, death; either (in the trivial case) biologically, or in the more disastrous and nontrivial case, socially.

    Little throws the destructiveness of this into stark relief more than adoption, and transracial adoption in particular.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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