Strange Affinities: The Gender and Sexual Politics of Comparative Racialization

Strange Affinities: The Gender and Sexual Politics of Comparative Racialization

by Grace Kyungwon Hong (Editor)


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Representing some of the most exciting work in critical ethnic studies, the essays in this collection examine the production of racialized, gendered, and sexualized difference, and the possibilities for progressive coalitions, or the “strange affinities,” afforded by nuanced comparative analyses of racial formations. The nationalist and identity-based concepts of race underlying the mid-twentieth-century movements for decolonization and social change are not adequate to the tasks of critiquing the racial configurations generated by neocolonialism and contesting its inequities. Contemporary regimes of power produce racialized, gendered, and sexualized violence and labor exploitation, and they render subjects redundant and disposable by creating new, nominally nonracialized categories of privilege and stigma. The editors of Strange Affinities contend that the greatest potential for developing much-needed alternative comparative methods lies in women of color feminism, and the related intellectual tradition that Roderick A. Ferguson has called queer of color critique. Exemplified by the work of Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, Barbara Smith, and the Combahee River Collective, these critiques do not presume homogeneity across racial or national groups. Instead, they offer powerful relational analyses of the racialized, gendered, and sexualized valuation and devaluation of human life.

Victor Bascara
Lisa Marie Cacho
M. Bianet Castellanos
Martha Chew Sánchez
Roderick A. Ferguson
Grace Kyungwon Hong
Helen H. Jun
Kara Keeling
Sanda Mayzaw Lwin
Jodi Melamed
Chandan Reddy
Ruby C. Tapia
Cynthia Tolentino

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822349853
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 08/24/2011
Series: Perverse Modernities: A Series Edited by Jack Halberstam and Lisa Lowe Series
Pages: 382
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Grace Kyungwon Hong is Associate Professor of Asian American Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of The Ruptures of American Capital: Women of Color Feminism and the Cultures of Immigrant Labor.

Roderick A. Ferguson is Associate Professor and Chair of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique.

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Strange Affinities



Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4970-9

Chapter One

Lisa Marie Cacho

Racialized Hauntings of the Devalued Dead

The ghost is hungry and selfish ... and lost and bearing all the weight of the world it carries. And no one understands. —Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters

This story is about a road that never ends. It begins with a car crash.—Rubén Martínez, in performance, April 22, 2000

On March 24, 2000, my cousin Brandon Jesse Martinez died in a car accident in San Diego, California. He was nineteen. When Brandon was alive, he frustrated teachers, counselors, employers, and even his friends and family. He took drugs sometimes, drank sometimes, and sometimes slept all day. He liked low-rider car culture and Tupac Shakur. He was quick witted and too clever, thoughtful and impulsive, well intentioned and reckless. His teachers thought he was lazy and a troublemaker; he proved them right by never graduating high school. He lied on job applications and didn't pay his bills on time. He believed that one day he would go to prison even though he never planned to commit a criminal offense. He didn't donate his free time to religious or social activism; instead he smoked, drank, and joked a lot. These were the memories Brandon left me, his parents, his sister, and the others who loved him. It made it hard to share stories about him that didn't also characterize him as a "bad kid," a "deviant subject," or an "unproductive citizen."

Our conflicting memories and feelings about Brandon's "deviance" evoked deeply felt tensions at the memorial service and the gatherings afterward as we struggled but failed to ascribe value to Brandon's life and life choices. We were nostalgic for the days of his childhood, and we were upset over losing his future and the person that he would never become. We shared our most recent memories of him as a teenager and young adult in carefully crafted fragments thick with anger and anguish. For some of us, his death became the pretext for teaching moral lessons: Don't drink and drive. Go to school. Listen to your parents. Pray. These lessons attributed meaning and purpose to Brandon's death. His death could be instructive for his friends and cousins because for those he left behind, "it was not too late." But these lessons also taught us to devalue his life because they depended on understanding Brandon as an example never to emulate or imitate. His life was narrated as important because he provided us with a constructive model to evaluate, judge, and reject. The first line of a poem written by his sister Trisha Martinez echoed loudly, persistently, and honestly in the space of his haunting: "You just don't know how much he meant" (T. Martinez 2000). In many ways, we didn't, because we didn't know how to valorize the choices we warned him not to make or how to value the life we told him not to live. How could we explain to others and ourselves how much he meant when his most legible asset was his death?

We couldn't translate his value into language. We couldn't talk about Brandon as valuable not only because he was marked as deviant, illegal, and criminal by his race and ethnicity but also because he did not perform masculinity in proper, respectable ways to redeem, reform, or counter his (racialized) deviancy. Even if we had attempted to circumvent the devaluing processes of race and gender by citing other readily recognizable signs and signifiers of value, such as legality, heteronormativity, American citizenship, higher education, affluence, morality, and respectability, we still would not have had evidence to narrate him as a productive, worthy, and responsible citizen. Ascribing (readily recognizable) value to the racialized devalued requires recuperating what registers as deviant and disreputable to reinterpret those devalued beliefs, behaviors, and bodies as misrecognized versions of normativity who deserve so much better. Value is ascribed through explicitly or implicitly disavowing relationships to the already devalued and disciplined categories of deviance and nonnormativity.

Lindon Barrett theorized that value needs negativity; the "object" of value needs an "other" of value as its "negative resource": "For value 'negativity is a resource,' an essential resource. The negative, the expended, the excessive invariably form the ground of possibilities for value" (Barrett 1999, 19, 21). In other words, the act of ascribing legible, intelligible, and normative value is inherently violent and relationally devaluing. To represent Brandon as the object of value, we would need to represent ourselves as the devalued other. On some level, the violence of Brandon's death was perversely and disconcertingly a "source of value" for us because it valorized the life choices that each of us made that he did not; it naturalized how and why he died while simultaneously reaffirming our social worth and societal value. His violent death validated the rightness of our choices and the righteousness of our behaviors: "The relativities of value [are] ratios of violence" (28).

Because value is made intelligible relationally and violently, it makes sense to employ a comparative method to analyze the "not-value" of Brandon's short life and long haunting. A comparative analytic centers relational, contingent, and conditional processes of devaluation, which makes it particularly useful for examining the ways in which interconnected processes of valuation, valorization, and devaluation (i.e., race, gender, sexuality, class, nation, legality, etc.) work interdependently to reify value and relations of inequality as normative, natural, and obvious. Although it is informed by the differential devaluation of racialized groups, this approach does not necessarily entail an explicit comparison of two or more racial groups because relations of value are not always explicit. Oftentimes processes of differential devaluation work invisibly and implicitly, or they may be referenced abstractly (i.e., we are not "illegal aliens," "terrorists," or "criminals"). On the other hand, because race is rarely the only and certainly not a necessary signifier for devaluation, sometimes a comparative analytic obliges us to examine the ways in which gender, sexuality, nationality, citizenship, and class function to differentially devalue people within aggrieved groups as well as between and among them. In a sense, a comparative analytic assumes that in the United States, human value, legally universalized as normative, is made legible in relation to the deviant, the non-American, the nonnormative, and the recalcitrant: the legally repudiated others of U.S. value.

Examining how value and its normative criteria are naturalized and universalized enables us to uncover and unsettle the heteropatriarchal, legal, and neoliberal investments that dominant and oppositional discourses share, which work to render the value of nonnormativity illegible. We could not disentangle the various intersecting, differential, contingent, and relational processes of valuation and devaluation that made the value of our lives and the choices we made to become valuable dependent on the devaluation and violent invalidation of Brandon. Although he was devalued by legally protected norms and disciplined by many of us many times, we never disowned, abandoned, or rejected him—his death was too painful for us to realize that it also validated our social value. The empty space he left behind in each of us necessarily destabilized the value binaries and hierarchies that formed the foundations for each of our lives; still empty, the space of his absence still holds ruptural possibilities.

He was profoundly valued, but we could not tell you why.

Drinking Suspected

When Brandon died in a car crash with his two friends, Vanvilay Khounborinh and William Christopher Jones, news media coverage of their accident criminalized them and the racial masculinities that they each embodied. They became part of the preexisting news narrative that had devalued their lives when they were alive. As Isabel Molina Guzmán reminds us, "News media draw upon routine professional practices and socially available and widely circulated narratives to tell their stories ... stories that perform beyond the function of information" (Molina Guzmán 2005, 182). To apprehend how such widely circulated narratives about criminalized men of color function beyond disseminating information, it is productive to also examine the inundation of stories about white men and women in positions of power. Ruby C. Tapia argues that such news stories are never inconsequential because the media does not just honor the memory of public figures; it also passes on social values, "immortaliz[ing] ideologies of patriarchal capitalism and white supremacy." Tapia encourages us to read the erasure of "non-spectacularized lives" in relation to or against "hypervisible whiteness, along with its haunting figures and social consequences" (2001, 263). These representations aid in constructing the "norms of gender, sexuality, and domestic space" that Nayan Shah contends are necessary to prove one's "worthiness" of political rights and social resources, which means these stories too form and inform the representational and narrative violences that make discipline and punishment of the racialized unreformed seem natural and necessary (2001, 254).

For these reasons, the erasure of Brandon's, Vanvilay's, and William Christopher's nonspectacular lives and devalued deaths in print media might best be understood through a comparison with the haunting figures and social consequences of white masculinity. By juxtaposing the San Diego Union-Tribune's representations of Brandon's accident alongside the fatal accident of the San Diego Padres' fourth outfielder Michael Darr, we learn that the "facts" of people's behaviors have little significance for determining whose deaths are tragic and whose deaths are deserved. The detailed descriptions of these drunk-driving accidents provide us the shortcut ideological codes used in deciding which human lives are valuable and which are worth-less. In effect, the articles written about Michael Darr evoke public sympathy by representing his embodiment of straight white masculinity as socially valuable and by depicting his friends' and family's grief as a universal experience, while the article about Brandon, Vanvilay, and William Christopher activated racial anxieties over criminalized youth and young men of color.

On March 25, 2000, the San Diego Union-Tribune printed an article about Brandon's car accident titled "Three Men Killed When Speeding Car Hits Trees; a Fourth Walks Away" and subtitled "Drinking Suspected; Auto Was Traveling Without Headlights." Joe Hughes, a journalist who often reports on local crimes and drunk-driving accidents for the San Diego Union-Tribune, described Vanvilay's driving as reckless and irresponsible joy riding, claiming that witnesses corroborated police officers' suspicions that the car was "speeding and may have been racing other cars" (J. Hughes 2000, B1). Vanvilay was driving Brandon's 1984 Mustang, which was not a racing car and in fact was not even a car that ran very well, but in San Diego, "racing" alludes to a racialized car culture, predominately practiced by young Asian men in high school. Along these lines, it seemed not to matter to police, witnesses, or Hughes whether or not the examiner's report would reveal alcohol in Vanvilay's blood; even if he was not legally intoxicated, he was represented as definitely recklessly driving (if not, then as if) drunk. The accident was framed as inevitable and deserved through construing their illegal behaviors (underage drinking and driving) as a daily pattern, connoting both immorality and criminality: "In addition [to detectives learning that the four had been drinking that evening], alcoholic containers and mixing beverages were found in the car's mangled remains" (J. Hughes 2000, B1).

In contrast, even after the examiner's report was completed on Michael Darr and police had confirmed that his blood alcohol level was ".03 above the legal limit [of .08]," the Highway Patrol officer on duty still doubted that Darr's accident would be considered a result of drunk driving: "Did alcohol play a role? ... It may have. We described the cause as inattention. He was driving in the flow of traffic. He was not speeding. He was not weaving." Although Darr was intoxicated and not wearing a seat belt, he was still portrayed as a good driver on the night of his fatal accident ("not speeding" and "not weaving"). The Padres' second baseman Damian Jackson was also quoted to distance the drunk driver from drunk driving:

"I can't justify the amount of beer that he had," Jackson said. "But I believe that alcohol was not a factor.

"Mike had the tendency to pay attention to other things while he was driving, just like myself. He'd be changing a radio station, or putting CDS in while driving. Carelessness like that I think had something to do with getting off track and trying to overcompensate."

Although Darr had been drinking and driving, the cause of his death was determined to be neither intoxication nor reckless driving but rather "inattention," "carelessness," or "trying to overcompensate."

Sports staff writers, rather than the local-crimes journalists of the Union-Tribune, reported Darr's accident, which is important because sport has become a crucial site for resecuring, as Kyle W. Kusz contends, "the central and dominant cultural position of White masculinity." Because white men are no longer perceived as athletically dominant, sport "enables the fabrication of a crisis narrative about the precarious and vulnerable cultural position of White males" (Kusz 2001, 412). Baseball, in particular, as "America's national pastime," has been "associated with whiteness in the West for centuries" (Nowatzki 2002, 83). Darr's death was thus also empathetically representative of the "tragic" position of white men in contemporary U.S. society.

When alive, Darr received little media attention because he was only a fourth outfielder, but in death he was transformed into a would-have-been-great ballplayer:

Darr, 25, was the Padres' minor league Player of the Year in 1997 and again in 2000, when he shared the award with Jeremy Owens. He ran faster than the average ballplayer, threw farther and harder than the average outfielder and as a minor leaguer posted on-base and batting averages well above the norm.

In death, Darr can be idealized. The various news articles about Darr's life and death draw on testimonies by his trainer, manager, and colleagues (not his wife or family), which idealize him as well as the men he represents. As Dana Nelson has argued, "national manhood" as an imagined white fraternity works best with "absent or dead men" (1998, 204). As a relatively young white athlete, Darr symbolizes (an innocent) white male victimization; his death activates these anxieties while his professional, fraternal relationships tell the shared story of loss: "[Manager Bruce] Bochy said he told the players: 'Let's make every day count, with our family, our friends and what we do on the field. Do it for Mike's sake.... We all should count our blessings. Every one of us. Really, it could have been any one of us." In other words, Darr's death not only mobilizes national manhood ("Do it for Mike's sake") but also mobilizes an imagined white fraternity over and against the absent bodies of women and the abject bodies of racialized others, such as Brandon, Vanvilay, and William Christopher.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction / Grace Kyungwon Hong and Roderick A. Ferguson 1

I. Alternative Identifications

1. Racialized Hauntings of the Devalued Dead / Lisa Marie Cacho 25

2. I = Another: Digital Identity Politics / Kara Keeling 53

3. Reading Tehran in Lolita: Making Racialized and Gendered Difference Work for Neoliberal Multiculturalism / Jodi Melamed 76

2. Undisciplined Knowledges

4. The Lateral Moves of African American Studies in a Period of Migration / Roderick A. Ferguson 113

5. Volumes of Transnational Vengeance: Fixing Race and Feminism on the Way to Kill Bill / Ruby Tapia 131

6. Time for Rights? Loving, Gay Marriage, and the Limits of Comparative Legal Justice / Chandan Reddy 148

7. Romance with a Message: W. E. B. Du Bois's Dark Princess and the Problem of the Color Line / Sanda Mayzaw Lwin 175

3. Unincorporated Territories, Interrupted Times

8. "In the Middle": The Miseducation of a Refugee / Victor Bascara 195

9. Deconstructing the Rhetoric of Mestizaje through the Chinese Presence in Mexico / Martha Chew Sánchez 215

10. Fun with Death and Dismemberment: Irony, Farce, and the Limits of Nationalism in Oscar Zeta Acosta's The Revolt of the Cockroach People and Ana Castillo's So Far from God / Grace Kyungwon Hong 241

11. Becoming Chingón/a: A Gendered and Racialized Critique of the Global Economy / M. Bianet Castellanos 270

12. Black Orientalism: Nineteenth-Century Narratives of Race and U.S. Citizenship / Helen H. Jun 293

13. "A Deep Sense of No Longer Belonging": Ambiguous Sties of Empire in Ana Lydia Vega's Miss Florence's Trunk / Cynthia Tolentino 316

References 337

Contributors 359

Index 363

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