When Saymoukda asked me to write for this incredible series, I struggled to find a center for the piece. While I make visual art and poetry, my primary art these days is writing in service to my Ph.D. I spend a good deal of time thinking about how storytelling is central to the process of making knowledge, and wanted to consider these things with you all. Here, I ask how power and identity shape the interactions of scholars and community members, and the effects of structural violence on expertise and one’s access to their stories and truths.
“I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’—the compass of what they know—while men write wide and bold—the big canvass, the experiment with form.”Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?
“…the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism. Indeed racism and sexism work by disregarding evidence or by rendering evidence unreliable or suspicious – often by rendering those who have direct experience of racism and sexism unreliable and suspicious.”Sarah Ahmed, feministkilljoys, “Evidence”
In the many years I have been in grad school, I have become acutely aware that who I am and what I make is experienced by others through their assumptions about me. As a cis woman. Or a white-passing mixed Sikh American. Or a queer person. I also know, now more than ever, that these assumptions directly impact what I am “allowed” to make—in my writing, my visual art, my scholarship.
Many of us experience this. On the positive end of the spectrum, what we make, the things we do and know, cannot be detached from us, our politics, or our communities. We cannot fight xenophobia, say, “Abolish state and federal policing,” or draw attention to local and national politicians’ insistence on curbing trans and non-binary folks’ and cis women’s medical rights without our ancestral and communal histories, presents, and futures being right there too. This is good—it gives us a chance to identify and address long-standing violences, to establish our stakes for ourselves and loved ones. However, what we make also—and much more problematically—cannot be detached from how we are perceived by others.
I do community-engaged research with Vietnamese/ and Cambodian/American1 fisherfolk in Southeast Louisiana. We talk about the terrifying ways the folks I work with are sacrificed to government-produced climate change, disaster, and oil extraction, how fishing is a link to identity in diaspora, how so much of U.S. immigration policy is predicated on long-standing anti-Asian xenophobia. My research and what I write about has overwhelmingly been treated as “soft” because I work with other Asian Americans. Because it actively responds to community needs. Because of my gender, age. Because of all sorts of things that have nothing to do with my ongoing policy-level efforts to support the people with whom I work, or my contributions to larger scholarship on environment, racism, immigration issues, etc.
Several years ago, I was effectively kicked out of a graduate program because, according to several people, my scholarship wasn’t rigorous enough. While this was a painful experience, it taught me two very important things: one, value, while entirely arbitrary, is set by whomever is in power, and two, devaluing what we make and do (this includes experiences, languages, faith practices, community building and storytelling, and on and on) is the easiest way to devalue us. Together, this process allows power to be consolidated across generations, borders, and resources and makes white, cis, hetero, able-bodied dominance seem “natural”.
Like so many Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Chicanx, and APIA movement leaders have told us, dominant categories like whiteness don’t exist because of their inherent value; they are formed in direct opposition to what is deemed without value, by being proud of what they are not: us.
Institutions shape the stories we are allowed to retain from our ancestors, what qualifies as a “valid” story, and how we tell stories about and for ourselves—more often than not, by telling them for us.
Yes, I’m describing colonialism. Yes, colonialism is how we got and stay here because it never pulled up roots, just started calling itself things like education and capitalism and governance.
In case it sounds like I’m letting myself off the hook as a researcher, please let me be clear: all community-based research is extractive, self-serving, and violent, including my own. There are ways to think and act creatively, to center the voices of the people who actually matter. In my work, I do this by centering the expertise of the folks who gave me so much of their time, history, pain, and joy. I ask them to review ideas prior to publication, and maintain a job that directly supports their businesses and families. I use my resources to advocate for the people I care about at the state and federal level, hoping to make some small dent in anything.
I do this, too, by admitting at every turn that these things are not nearly enough because I am invariably the one profiting—in by-lines, by fulfilling the requirements of my degree, and in so many other ways. No matter the nonsense I have experienced in the academy, my expertise is assumed long before that of Asian Americans who have been fishing for generations, who have knowledge of currents and tides and hurricanes and oil leaks unsurpassed by the most seasoned marine and climate scientists.
And this is the truly destructive force of expertise: as Winterson explains, some are allowed to know and articulate the warp and weft of the universe; others are relegated to passively experiencing it. As folks who likely exist on the spectrum of tenuousness, I encourage us all to remember our expertise of self, of ancestor, of story, in our acts of resistance and survival.
However, I ask those of us who have institutional, passing, and all other kinds of privilege to critically think about our access to expertise. When, as I said earlier, we have the chance to identify and address the long-standing violences that we and our loved ones experience, what structures of power are we replicating? What opportunities do we take to address or do away with the violences our affiliations, assumptions—bodies—carry? How might we use our privileges in service to everyone without re-centering ourselves (for example, by using the term “ally”) in the process?
For me, the equally easy and complicated answer is to bring my knowledge into conversation with the folks I work with, rather than asserting its primacy. Because I know—and the folks I work with know—that I don’t know anything without their knowledge and generosity.
The answer is to keep reminding myself that while I am just handed the mantle of “expert,” their experience is their expertise. That there is no binary between the two. That binarizing witness and pain is just another tool of institutional violence.
We have so much work to do, but when we refuse binaries, reclaim our own stories as expertise, and, most importantly, assert the same to others from our various and varied positions of power, we might have the beginning of a revolution.
This piece was commissioned and developed as part of a series by guest editor Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay.