Newly Minted

Newly Minted
Right after I was hooded

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Aggregation: An issue of social justice

Posted October 4, 2009...Started July 17, 2009

I was at a diversity training a couple of weeks ago. The facilitator, in response to a faculty participant's resistance to the phrase "people of color", suggested that we accept such terms in their ambiguity as positive aggregations. His position was that these are not stereotypes or broad classifications (isn't that what an aggregation is) rather they are aggregations (no further explanation given). As an African National, I found it unsettling that he would accept and advocatge for a system that ignored or denied his nationality. If I understood his position, he would no longer be African royalty (something he is rightfully proud of); he would be aggregated black. That makes no sense to me...

The first reading I offer my students in my prejudice and discrimination class is about labeling. In the first three paragraphs the authors talk about aggregation as a form of labeling - labeling in this article is portrayed as a kind of harm. The paragraph about aggregation goes on to talk about African-American and Hispanic categories being a harmful aggregation of many places of origin and histories of people.

Yesterday during our Alumni Weekend which was carefully scheduled so that current students had the chance to interact with alum, one of our Asian Pacific Student Union members was talking about her experiences on our campus. We had all been talking about racist or racialized encounters we had all experienced during our time here. Alum, staff and students were being very open and emotions were raw. This young woman had not spoken all day so when she raised her hand I jumped to acknowledge her. Like a lot of our stories, this student had experienced a white student who approached her and made fun of her by calling her Chinese. Part of her sadness came from the fact that the white student was with his black roommate who thought making fun of her was not only acceptable, he participated. "Instead of realizing I was experiencing what he (the student of color) experiences on this campus, he just made fun of me too". My student was more deeply upset, however, by this miscategorization of her race/ethnicity which she took as intentional. She went on to tell us how painful it is that America and our college not only wants to aggregate all Asians, South Asians and Pacific Islander's into one category; but that they want to aggregate them in to one category called Chinese. What stands out to me most is that at the end of her statement she said: "This causes me pain". And I thought, yeah it is painful when some one reassigns your identity. It is painful when someone tells you that you cannot be who you KNOW you are.

Through this student's story, a framework presents itself for me to better articulate some recent thinking around the right of self-identification as a matter of social justice. My assertion is that when a person is denied the right to self-identify (race, gender, orientation, nationality, etc.) they suffer a real harm. My guess is, once I have had the chance to spend some real time with this, I will find that identities that are "non-normative" or "non-binary" are cumulative identity structures. By that I mean, these are not identities that individuals come to through inheritance; rather, these are identities mediated by lived experience, politics, and social theory (in a non-academic sense). Denying these identities is akin to denying a persons experience, awareness of self, intelligence, and individual/familial history as valid. And, in defense of these identities, I would suggest that they are better thought out than those identities that seem accepting of aggregated categories and more important the PROCESS of aggregation. The process of aggregation is a process of negation, deletion, and erasure. We know in other historical and social contexts that processes and practices of negation, deletion and erasure have certainly been located as issues of social justice.

On a local level, these aggregated categories are the reason my students are unable to identify my performance of blackness AS black or African-American. I believe once an identy accepts it's aggregation, that category is immediately mediated by ones own performance of that category/race/ethnicity. My student's experience suggests that on our campus Asian-American has become Chinese. Similarly, for my students of color African-American has become urban New York City and other people of color who do not share that culture do not fit into that aggregated category. The conflict and harm come in when an identity that shares that aggregated category, or is forced to, frames it differently as mediated by their own cultural differences. This conflict has played itself out in my student interactions by students telling me that I am not black. At the same time, the government tells me there is not such thing as mixed race. I am clearly not white. What does that leave me? Where does an identity like mine fit in? Where does my non-chinese student fit in? Aggregation limits who we can be, rather it limits who other people will allow us to be. That is harm.

I have a lot of things to say about this, most of which I have not yet been able to think through. As this thinking evolves one of the things I want to flesh out is how I believe the aggregation of blackness helped formulate my mixed race identity. Aggregation seperates me from my family, from my mother, sister and daughter. They become white and I become black, we become culturally/ethnically/racially different and unrelated. If I were seperated from my family in another way, as I was through my transracial adoption, people perceive (and have legislated against) that kind of seperation as a harm. The Heritage Act of 1970 made the argument that transracial adoption severed a child from their heritage. This severing was considered not only a harm, but an issue of social justice. What I am suggesting is that aggregation generates the same severing, the same harm, especially for bi-cultural/bi-racial people.

I think I am done with this for right now. I would really enjoy hearing other people's opinon on aggregation. More sooon...

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