Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

The Romance of American Identity Politics

May 29

by Camila Vélez Valencia

"Instintivamente, ya se había adiestrado en el hábito de simular que era alguien, para que no se descubriera su condición de nadie." — Jorge Luís Borges, Everything and Nothing

According to Keats and the Keatsians, Shakespeare was everything and nothing. It’s a seductive story. Shakespeare was an excellent listener, an appropriator of other stories and lives. 

Appropriation is a no-no now. We, who are in or around the liberal academy, are dissuaded from talking in voices that are not our own. If you are a Latin American woman you get given a little more slack. Maybe the censors don’t understand what you’re saying in your funny accent. Maybe they do, but assume that you’re saying it because you are backward and benighted. I’ll come back to that. Anyway, even if you are a Latin American woman-bodied person, you have to appropriate gingerly, with an abundance of care. Shakespeare was not of the liberal academy.

When and why did engaging in what the Greeks called prosopopeia, to make a face—and speak from it—become offensive? Not so long ago I met a student activist at Yale who yearned for the intercession of the censors in elite, private, money-honeyed form. He wanted Yale to patrol Halloween costumes. “Since when is offensive OK?” he asked me.

I think he was upset because Yale had ruffled his feathers. Yale had denied him another holy day on which to show off to a corrupt world his impeccable inoffensivess. Or a particular adult at Yale had. The year was 2016. It was about to be All Hallows.

That same evening, I overheard a team of lady polo-players debating their Halloween costumes. The consensus was that they would all go as loofas—differently colored, yet equally cute. They would be one big waddling Technicolor dream-coat of sponge: blue, pink, purple and green. One suggested she’d be the yellow loofa and they looked at her as if she’d put a veterinary syringe into a baby hyena. Her heart was not made of stone. She was worried by their worry. She said “guys it’s ok, I’m originally from Shanghai.”

I continued to talk to the student activist, and to his dismay, he discovered that I didn’t entirely agree with his cause. But before we talked causes, we talked about his academic interest: (“inappropriate”) representations of human bodies in 20th century Japanese television. The administrators, he suggested, by the way, should look into his Japanese professor. This insensitive man, he told me, had projected in class stock photos of fat and skinny women, to teach the Japanese words for “fat,” “skinny,” and the variants in between. I asked if reproductions of animal bodies, rather than female bodies—plump manatees, slim gazelles—would have been a better choice. He said no, arguing that we shouldn’t use qualifiers like these in the first place, especially to refer to the (sacred?) human form.

He then told me that “race politics in the US can often seem mystifying.” But that I should give “Political Correctness” a go. He used the words ironically, but also worshipfully, as if they were written in capital letters in his mind. There’s “a lot at stake in it.” He never explained what the “stake” was. Instead he sent me an article by Kathryn Dudley, the “chair of American studies here,” to help me understand the “qualification of political correctness” with “less frustration.” I grew up in the colonies and I may not have learned politically correct English, but I did learn that imperialism always comes bearing the best intentions. It kindly enlightens the benighted, as it offers to cure their frustrations. But to be cured, savages must first mime the idiocies of their conquerors: trade when they trade, pray where they pray. I thought of Voltaire’s line: “Every author has two countries. His own and France.”

Kathryn Dudley’s article, “Why we can’t look away,” is a response to an email written by Erica Christakis, another Yale professor. Christakis’s email “Dressing Yourselves” responded to a mass email sent to the entire student body about “appropriate” Halloween-wear. Students, suggested Christakis, might take advantage of Halloween’s transgressive potential, and dress-up without paying sycophantic heed to what was or wasn’t encouraged by the administration. Without wanting to “trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community,” Christakis nudged students to, this Halloween, let their imaginations loose. She urged them, too, to consider the extent to which the university’s email could be seen as sort of “exercise of implied control over college students.”  Lastly, she suggested that students could discuss these offensive costumes with their wearers, or if unwilling to talk, they could maybe, even, look away.

But Dudley and the student protesters did not look away. “Tacitly assumed” in Christakis’s email, claims Dudley, “are the innocence of costumed play and the receptivity of the offender to a critique of their sartorial display.” The cries of the student protesters, she continues, are not the cries of hypersensitive teenagers, but the cries of the citizens America needs. The “burden of shame produced by these scenes,” she continues (dramatic scenes in which drunken dressed-up Yalies bump against each other on beer-lathered dance floors), “is borne not by the offender but by the one who cannot look away.”

Dudley’s article is preoccupied with institutional racism, the sort of racism that, according to her, insensitive costumes perpetuate. I share her preoccupation. We should be made aware of our biases, and we should try to combat them. However, Dudley seems to fear bias the way that citizens of Oceania fear their own thoughts. Her idea of guilt and innocence, that is, seems to me awfully close to Orwell’s “thoughtcrime”—a dreadful, insidious thing that can get hold of you without your even knowing it.

Dudley is against Halloween costumes that appropriate the cultures of marginalized people. But aren’t all costumes appropriations? Isn’t that the point of a costume? “No,” says Dudley. Appropriated costumes offend with “the full force of blunt trauma." I suspect that Dudley has never been to a carnival (or, for that matter, been hit with a blunt object).  Dudley has the authority to write what she does because she has been the victim of the dominant constituency. What she says, she says “as a white woman who grew up queer in the Midwest, raised by a single mother of limited means.” She has seen the biases of academics who “wear the costume of privileged smartness in order to produce shame in others.” But isn’t that exactly what she is doing here?

Consider the current political climate. In the post-Obama era, blatantly racist attitudes are increasingly excused under the mantle of identity politics. Like “queer white Midwestern women,” “straight white Midwestern men” feel that a majority (an imagined brown majority, in their case) has made them into a marginal, disenfranchised set. Like Yale’s offended undergraduates, they are demanding “safe spaces” in which they can be safely fascistic. Amanda Delekta, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, asked for a “safe space” in which she could “express her [racist] opinion safely." A misunderstanding of safety in the first place led to a misunderstanding of safety in the second. Identity politics has the advantage of having a broad semantic content. Its flexible form can be reemployed to contain anything. It’s not surprising that its broadness, first used by the left as a rarefied way to fight oppression, is now being used by the right as a rarefied way to promote it.

More to the point, I am of suspicious of identity politics’ wariness of appropriation. It encourages a certain kind of faux-activism based on self-examination at the expense of social interaction. It endows the gross majority with a keenly felt license to be exceptional (we Latin Americans are all too familiar with American Exceptionalism, but perhaps this is one of those things that is only truly seen from a distance). But aren’t all social interactions by definition two-sided and mimetic? Don’t we learn to be human by copying other humans? I don’t think it would more offensive if Yale students were a little bit more like Mexicans and a little bit less like themselves. In Dudley’s account, all that is needed to be a right-thinking leftist is to recognize that one is “privileged” and to examine how this privilege works within one. Finding ways to make this privilege less prevalent in a grander, social scale is of secondary importance.

Identity politics’ emphasis on introspection (an emphasis that leads to the discovery of one’s particular, non-sharable identity) suggests that one should be recognized as a distinctive and important individual, for no other reason than the fact that one has a racial, sexual, or financial identity (which is, basically, everyone). Dudley is aware that “social inequalities” are “actively produced and performed." However she is most condemnatory of the more passive of these actively constructed inequalities. Instead of asking students to fight against Yale’s actively hierarchical practices (such as Yale’s privilege to not pay taxes), she asks its students to “examine the social sources of their privilege and power.” But how can students truly examine the social sources of their privilege in a culture in which asking others where their money comes from is considered a microagression.

The literary analog to contemporary American politics is not the picaresque hero, whose provenance has traditionally been the “Global South,” but the romantic one, stripped of his romance. This culturally sensitive romantic hero is not interested in getting his hands dirty in the exterior, social world. To live in the exterior world, as picaresque heroes do, would be to live in a world composed of differences, but Yale’s heroes are trained to be silent about what is different—to be hyper-cognizant and hyper-aware of what is other, yet also completely forbidden from talking about it. Publicly acknowledging someone’s difference could be potentially traumatic, according to the quorums of the campus.

Romantic heroes are solipsistic and self-interested, free to be that internally special someone that resides within all of us. But this freedom to be someone, anyone, is less free than it appears. Even the most anti-social of the romantics is bound to a time and a place—Thoreau, in the midst of profound (self-imposed) isolation, failed to forget that he had schooled at Harvard. The politically correct romantic hero, because he is introspective and individualistic, ignores the extent to which his identity is forged by society. Yet, paradoxically, he wants his uniqueness to be collectively recognized. Thus he emerges as a social phenomenon, to the acclaim of those around him.

“Identity” emerges from the imitation of others as much as it does from self-examination. By denying the extent to which identity is boys and girls being socialized, identity politics also denies the extent to which socially-imposed categories can be transgressed and manipulated. Costumes have the power to reveal the artificial boundaries that we use to make difference neat—to organize the chaos that by definition difference is. Yet they also have the power to reveal this maddening chaos—the fact that true difference cannot be assimilated, copied or appropriated. If the only thing that stands between a Gringo and a Mexican is a sombrero and a fake mustache, then perhaps, Mexicans and Gringos are birds of a feather. If, on the other hand, a costume reveals—through its failure to convince—that cultural difference transcends the realm of the sartorial, then it also reveals that which makes a given culture unique. Maybe it takes more than a sombrero and a bottle of Patron to make an American Mexican (or maybe it doesn’t). 

In our own time and our own place, at the university especially, we might do well to remember de Tocqueville’s line that “le systeme democratique ménace de renfermer chacun dans son propre Coeur” (the democratic system threatens to enclose each person in his or her own heart). Even as some sort of dusk seems to be falling on American democracy, or because of that, we would all be well-advised to attend to the varied and external social world that surrounds us. We should strive for variety and our ability to reproduce this variety, without fear of overstepping ourselves and entering the pseudo-realm of “cultural appropriation.”

Camila Vélez Valencia is the founder of Mitos MagazínShe studies comparative literature at Yale.

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