I feel bad that I spent the better part of our reunion railing about white liberal feminists and other scholars who frustrate the hell out of me. And that when you asked what it was about their work that bothered me, and what was I was looking for from them, I could not muster a coherent response.
So after a few days of thinking about your questions, this is what I’ve come up with.
Some specific things that bother me include:
- that many Asian and Southeast Asian Studies departments are organized along Area Studies lines, focusing on regional security and economic development.
- that my university’s department is still predominantly composed of white males, something that seems true of most Asian studies departments, based on conference attendance.
- that readings lists in introductory classes are largely organized around the works of white scholars. Works by “natives” like Reynaldo Ileto get relegated to optional or recommended reading, much in the same way many Intro to Women’s Studies classes tokenize Audre Lorde and bell hooks.
My issue is not that these scholars and activists are assholes. It’s that Western schools of thought on history and development studies (or worse, “Oriental Studies”) have an extremely poor track record of interpellating their former colonies. And our narratives still end up shoring their legacies of liberalism, neoliberalism, and colonialism.
You asked me what I want from them, what it would take for me to work with white scholars.
First, I hope that they would recognize that anyone engaged in Asian and/or Southeast Asian Studies is coming from positions of privilege. I hope we all could acknowledge how we continue to benefit from colonialism, both in professional and deeply personal ways.
Second, I hope that we could critically examine our own research engagements, our motives for doing research. This hope is inspired by my less than pleasant exchanges with white anthropologists who were “interested in Africa.” Why Africa? Why Asia? Why that specific country, this specific group of people? What colonialist or capitalist scripts do you carry with your research?
Corollary to the second point, I hope that scholars engaged in such research recognize that their own knowledge scripts will necessarily be limited. That there are different epistemologies, myriad ways of knowing. That learning and respecting such scripts is crucial in order to conduct research that is based not on reproducing imperialist and colonialist forms of knowledge, but on forming coalitions with people.
Of course, these hopes do not guarantee that a Westerner who’s “interested in Asia” would not turn out to be an ass. But at least, there’s a chance that s/he would engage in research that is oriented towards the crucial task of, as Jacqui Alexander puts it, “becoming fluent in each other’s histories.”
I believe that interdisciplinary fields like Women’s Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Asian Studies could provide crucial spaces to challenge how social institutions, including the university, continue to reproduce the foundations for Western cultural production and empire. These fields could nurture old and new forms of knowledge production—ones that challenge the ongoing globalization and financialization of the world. But all of us in these fields need to ensure that our own research practices do not muzzle these subversive potentials.
Otherwise, these fields will continue to be dominated by scholars and activists like a well-meaning white classmate who professed a commitment to gender and development issues in Southeast Asia. He argued for strong neoliberal interventions (microcredit, privatization, etc) to lift poor, Third World women out of poverty.
“Why should we worry if the subaltern can speak,” he asked. “Shouldn’t the first concern be if the subaltern can eat?”
It’s frustrating how much time and resources still get wasted in the effort to make colleagues like him see that these two questions are not at all separate.