The Politics of Identity
by Bunkong Tuon
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,
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
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.
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
“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.