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Diasporic Identities and Diasporic Peoples: An examination into identity categories

By: Kevin Jae

Photo taken by Kevin Jae

This essay is a provocation. It brings to attention a fundamental discrepancy between diasporic identity categories and the diasporic peoples that are described—between language and social reality—and the power dynamics that structure the relationship between the researcher and those researched, the diasporic peoples. Naturally, this has implications for policy; studies of diasporic Canadians inform the development and implementation of policy.

The discipline of anthropology grappled with the same challenges in the past. It was in the 1970s and 1980s that anthropology entered into the moment of the “crisis of representation,” which arose “from uncertainty about adequate means of describing social reality”. Through various critiques from within and from outside the discipline, anthropologists had to reckon with the colonial history of the discipline, and the underlying (but unremarked) power relations that facilitated their research. Anthropologists realized that their descriptions of culture were not innocent descriptions from a detached observer outside of the realm of politics. In the case of many anthropologists, these descriptions were enabled by and contributed to the colonial project through production of knowledge that informed colonial governance.

One of the foundational scholarly contributions that sparked this awareness was Edward Said’s Orientalism; this is a particularly suitable work for setting the tone for the rest of the discussion. In Orientalism, Said examines the Orient as it is constructed in and by the West. It is important to note for our purposes that his study is about the “internal consistency of Orientalism… despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack there of, with a ‘real’ Orient” (p. 5). Said’s Orient, then, is on the level of discourse, and refers to the wide-ranging and interlocking texts that construct the vocabulary, the language, and tradition and history with which the Orient is re-presented to the West.

Yet Said’s study of Orientalism is not about the pure play of texts from a disengaged intellectual in the lofty heights of the Ivory Tower—the Orient is discursively constructed through a particular relationship of power, backed by institutions where the Western self was able to represent and speak for the Oriental other, their colonial subjects.

As scholars of diasporic people, if we squint through this theoretical lens, it is possible to notice some similar patterns in our study of diasporic people and make a soft comparison. Of course, our research is not conducted in the colonial context, and it is not my intention to make a direct comparison. However, as scholars, we too are in a similar business—our texts, studies, and reports construct diasporic Canadians (without permission or consent) as subjects of poverty, of pity, and privilege. This is enabled by configurations of power; our research is sponsored by state institutions that make the population legible for governance by the mostly white or “unmarked” self. This leads to and justifies certain types of state action and certain types of government policy. In extreme cases, state power has been used to subjugate diasporic people as in the Japanese internment camps in Canada. In more recent times, we can look towards Trump’s once-proposed Muslim registry. How might have works that construct Muslims in North America as unassimilable “others” contributed to such proposals?

Of course, many of us too are diasporic people. Ideological and class differences notwithstanding,[1] we occupy a liminal space between the position of the re-present-er and the re-present-ed; we are, to a certain extent, able to convey and represent the diasporic experience and the experiences of our own diasporic groups as a translator. However, the terms of engagement have been pre-determined—diasporic peoples are the “other,” the hyphenated subcategories that occupy the particular category to the universal category of the “normal” Canadian; the euphemistically termed “diverse,” who are mute and spoken for in the public consciousness. Through our work, scholars are in an authoritative position to attribute content, or what is signified, to the signifiers to which diasporic groups are referred. Diasporic peoples lack the means to contest these re-presentations, creating the illusion of a monolith. Here I ask an honest rhetorical question: what happens when diasporic people are seen through our scholarly gaze—is our gaze the gaze of Medusa, petrifying the “diverse” diasporic people as a breathless and bloodless object of knowledge?

There is also nothing “natural” or pre-given by identity categories, as John Lie points out in his work Modern Personhood. Lie attempts to “at once illuminate and to sublate the major categories of modern peoplehood—race, ethnicity, and nation…” (p. ix) and explores the construction and reconstruction of these three major identity categories by the modern nation-state. Through his exploration, it becomes evident that identity categories are “thin,” abstract, and empty signifiers. One cannot take an identity category to be the independent variable that meaningfully determines individual identities and lives, the dependent variable; identity categories do not reveal deep truths about people. A short moment of self-reflection will make this evident: Do you, the reader, think that you and potentially millions of others in the same identity categories are reducible to a set of characteristics and experiences associated with your identity category? Can the question, “who am I?” be readily and easily answered with your identity category? There is always a gap that exists between the re-presentation of the diasporic peoples and individuals. Lie himself suggests a biographical approach to better re-present the rich contours of individual lives.

“So, what is to be done, Kevin, what do you propose?” the reader may ask at this point. By bringing in Edward Said and John Lie into the discussion, my intentions were not to denounce scholars studying diasporic people—I wish only to bring another lens with which to peer through while reading and writing our scholarly texts. There are two observations that I would like to point out in particular. Firstly, we scholars are speaking for diasporic peoples when we invoke their denominations; we are creating an authoritative image of them in the public consciousness. With this in mind, we should not write with the spirit of levity and play—with innocence and a feather quill pen in hand—we are tasked with the burden of responsibility. In the worst-case scenario, our power to create knowledge has deleterious material impacts, especially if weaponized by the state. Secondly, I hope to point out that the categories with which we refer to diasporic peoples are convenient fictions. They are fictions in that same way that anthropologist Clifford Geertz remarked: “they are ‘something made,’ ‘something fashioned’—the original meaning of fictio—not that they are false…” (p.15). These fictions can be useful, like when determining the disaggregate impacts of COVID-19; however, it is important to keep the unspoken and the unwritten in mind. Our assertions and discursive creations may obfuscate the experiences of living, breathing individuals that we claim to speak on behalf of. In both research of and policy directed toward diasporic people, it is my hope that we bring this critical perspective to our work, so to better represent and design policy initiatives for diasporic people.[2]

[1] Access to higher education and advanced degrees is often enabled by and enables entry into a certain socio-economic class; this gives us access to certain types of knowledge, while separating us from other types of knowledge (e.g. the lived experiences of working-class high school graduates). [2] For example, the Government of Canada is launching the landmark Black Entrepreneurship Program (BEP), and is investing $221 million over four years to help Black Canadian business people. On one level, the BEP represents a more sophisticated use of categorization to better target policy efforts; Black Canadians are subsumed under the category of racialized people in Canada. On the other hand, the category of Black Canadian obviates the category of class, and the numerous diasporic communities within. Those who are most in need of support may be excluded because of their lack of access to information and networks and lack of linguistic capabilities. Meanwhile, relatively privileged Black Canadian communities may benefit the most from BEP through their social, educational, and financial capital. Of course, even these finer categorizations of diasporic people may fail to adequately capture individual circumstances; there may always be individuals who fall through the cracks.


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