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Unbecoming Privilege I

July 13, 2014

This is my first entry on what will likely be a series of reflections on “unbecoming privilege.” I suspect there should be some irritating academic punctuation going on in there — a slash or a couple of parentheses and maybe even an implied “d” at the end — but I’ll leave it for now and let the sound resonate with potential meanings (undoing privilege, privilege is unbecoming, on becoming privileged, on becoming unprivileged, etc.). I’ve been thinking about this topic for years, but I don’t really know how to approach it. It has something to do with the “model minority” myth and processes of social assimilation, liberal multiculturalism, and upward mobility. It has something to do with interracial politics and perceptions of success and blame. It has something to do with the weird ways that class and queerness — gay male materialism — intersect and get manifested in this country. It has something to do with the history of U.S. colonialism in the Philippines and post-1965 U.S. immigration law and occupational preferences. It has a lot to do with the contingency, if not utter randomness, of my family’s history of movement and mobility, and even more so with my own idiosyncratic views toward, discomfort with, various forms of capital (which is not the same thing as power). And at the end of it all, structural conditions of possibility notwithstanding, I cannot discount the importance of that gravest of all abused American moral values: hard work.

At bottom, it has everything to do with inequality and injustice.

A chance opportunity to write a review of Gina Apostol’s eloquent and engrossing novel Gun Dealers’ Daughter (2010/2012) for the American Book Review enabled me to get down a few thoughts, but really from a far far distance (class-wise and geography-wise).

At any rate, I’ll try to record passages from other people’s work — at random, as I come across them, not necessarily because I agree with them wholeheartedly — that get at some of the things I’m thinking about. This one is from the Preface to Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk (2000):

The book you hold in your hand is offered as my flawed attempt to draw from Du Bois as I write of my South Asian American brethren whose presence in the United States complicates the narrative Du Bois offered a century ago. “How does it feel to be a problem?” Du Bois begins Souls [The Souls of Black Folk (1903)]? White supremacy treats black folk as if they are themselves a problem, a history that lingers on as more and more is said about “personal responsibility” and as the U.S. government divests itself and the economic system of any culpability in the genocide against blacks. As South Asians have entered the United States in the past thirty years, there has been a tendency to compare our destiny with that of black folk. If these brown folk can make it, say people like Thomas Sowell, Dinesh D’Souza, and the neoconservatives, then why can’t black folk? A hundred years after Souls, Du Bois’s question remains.

But there is also another question that needs to be asked, and this book will take it as its central problem: “How does it feel to be a solution?” Addressed to all Asians, but increasingly with special reference to South Asians, this question asks us brown folk how we can live with ourselves as we are pledged and sometimes, in an act of bad faith, pledge ourselves, as a weapon against black folk. What does it mean, this book asks, for us to mollify the wrath of white supremacy by making a claim to a great destiny when we are ourselves only a product of state engineering through immigration controls and of the beneficence of more socialized systems of education in South Asia, or when we are but the children of those who have accumulated a certain amount of cultural capital because of those processes? (vii-viii)

Interestingly, Apostol’s narrator-protagonist — the elite-born Sol, the titular gun dealers’ daughter whose father sells arms to the U.S.-backed Marcos regime in the Philippines (c. 1972-1986) that become the instruments with which the government’s counterinsurgency forces massacre guerrilla rebels and their families and local supporters — uses the same language of problem and solution when challenging the even more elite-born Jed and his revolutionary idealism:

We live outside of the country’s rules. We can do whatever we want. We can commit crimes. We can even play at revolution. We could kill people, for all we knew. And then in the end we will always get away. We’re cockroaches. It’s we who are the problem, Jed. Don’t you see? [. . .] We’ll always have our wealth, we will always have our names. There is something suspicious, dishonest, in playacting revolt. We’re cockroaches. We’ll outlast even our crimes. (138, 139)

I won’t give away the plot (the review does, though, spoiler alert). But the novel, at least for me, raises the sort of moral-political question that Prashad seems to be driving at, albeit in a very different context: how can those racialized people who possess cultural capital — and, yes, financial capital — live with ourselves in the midst of extreme inequality and not be deployed as rhetorical and ideological weapons against those who are deprived of such (precarious, contingent) possessions?



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