The Politics of Identity

by Bunkong Tuon
Amherst, MA

In her essay “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences,” Lisa Lowe points out that the politics of identity is a double-edged sword.  As a tool of oppression and racism, the politics of identity keeps the ethnic within her minority “ghetto.”  If the ethnic person steps out of her prescribed boundary, crossing the border from the underprivileged to the privileged, from the disenfranchised to the agent of one’s fate, from the life of poverty and crime to the life of mobility and leisure, the politics of identity is socially and psychologically administered in order to accuse her of being inauthentic to her ethnicity and to remind her of the “home” across the shore, on the other side of the border, the home that transcends geographical and temporal border.  If we are still working within the binary system, such as the black/white polarity, then we “remain bound to, and overdetermined by, the logic of the dominant culture” (Lowe 81).  As Lowe reminds us, the first word of the binary pair is privileged over the second: white/black, light/dark, rich/poor, authenticity/inauthenticity, home/diaspora, imagined/real, etc.

As a tool for political solidarity and agency, the politics of identity brings people together from different economic classes, gender, sexuality, and generations for a rally against a history of shared oppression and exclusion.  And together, this mixed, hybrid, heterogeneous group opens the door to political affiliations with other groups, transcending racial, ethnic, and sexual lines, to include Native Americans, Latinos, African Americans, Gays and Lesbians, challenging and influencing the established hegemonic power, and determining the forces that establish our present and future political and social condition.  Recalling Spivak, Lowe urges us to strategically shift from a homogenous, discrete, monolithic identity to a heterogeneous, multiple, multivalent identity as each situation requires.

Considering our Cambodian history and our present diasporic condition, the message of solidarity could not be any more clear.  Under the Khmer Rouge regime, we witnessed our brothers and sisters starved to death, tortured to death, worked to death in the Killing Fields.  In the refugee camps between Cambodia and Thailand, we tasted displacement and found it bitter.  But we continued.  In the United States, France, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, wherever our adopted country happens to be, where we become an ethnic minority group, we need to come together and help out one another.  We also need to branch out and affiliate ourselves with other groups who share a similar history of exclusion and oppression.

A recent history of Lowell, Massachusetts, reminds us of the importance of solidarity with other groups.  Lowell has a rich history of immigrants.  In the mid 1800s, Irish immigrants settled in Lowell and neighboring cities to work in mill factories.  They faced anti-immigrant sentiments from local Yankees.  As more and more Irish immigrants settled in the area, however, they soon established a strong Irish community, with local businesses and political representation, epitomized in the construction of St.  Patrick Church.  A century later, Puerto Rican immigrants began settling in the area; by 1987, Latinos made up 10 percent of Lowell’s population.  The early 1980s also saw the arrival of Cambodian refugees who eventually made Lowell home to the largest Cambodian community on the East Coast, and the second largest in the nation, behind Long Beach, California.

Unfortunately, the city did not have enough resources to accommodate Cambodian and Latino immigrants and their children.  Specifically, schools were poorly prepared in terms of bilingual services, facilities, and spaces to accommodate immigrant and refugee students.  As a result, Latino, Cambodian and other immigrant and refugee parents voiced their concerns about their children's education to the school committee.  As Peter Kiang noted in his article When Know-Nothings Speak English Only: “The parents were quickly rebuffed by George Kouloheras, senior member of the School Committee, who declared that they were in an English-Only meeting in an English-Only town in an English-only United States.”  As a result, anti-immigrant sentiments and racial tensions flared between recent immigrants and refugees and whites, who ironically were former immigrants themselves less than a couple of centuries prior.  This tension culminated in the death of thirteen-year-old Vandy Phorng, who was thrown into a river by a white kid who called him racist names.  Still, Latino and Southeast Asian parents continued to work with one another to combat the racism and nativism in their town.  In November 1988, these parents won an historic battle when the School Committee accepted most of their demands.

This historical episode reminds us of the fragile condition of the Cambodian in the refugee and immigrant diaspora.  The Cambodian in Cambodia may not be able to imagine him or herself working side by side with members of groups who belong to other nationalities, but in the United States, we are no longer the dominant group.  We become a minority.  As such, we need to work with other groups who share a similar history and social position to collectively strengthen our voice and action.  To use the immigrant metaphor, we are all in the same boat.

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