A Seat at the Table
Posted On March 17, 2020
Judith Butler, an American philosopher, has spent her academic career discussing gender theory (among other things) with a strong emphasis on what it means to “perform gender”. That is, that we act and do things in accordance with our gender whether we ascribe to those norms set forth by society or not. She calls this performativity. I am always performing, whether I like it or not, in the spaces that I am mindful I must. In my recent admissions essay to the MFA program, I wrote, “The roles I play in my life dictate how I speak and ultimately, how I write. There are moments when I recognize that the truth hurts; it makes people feel uncomfortable and can easily offend.” I am very conscious of my performativity and rarely let loose my tongue to speak truth. This, I’ve come to realize, has come from decades of listening and watching others from a sideline only relegated to those of us who do not hold power. We learn this, over time, in school, on playgrounds, from the media, from our peers, from our friends. I do not have a seat at the table and if I do try to pull one up, it cannot be without someone waiting to question me on why I would choose to pose questions and responses to that which troubles our nation. I am nearly fifty, and this is what’s it like to be me. Nearly fifty years of someone saying, “Wait, what?”
I do not have a seat at the table.
Power and privilege are difficult topics to discuss and oftentimes, despite having a specialized PhD that afforded me the power to speak to privilege, I usually don’t, especially on social media platforms that are bereft of listening. But to be fair, sometimes, we shout. Sometimes, we write in all caps with memes and retorts and over-intellectualized thought-springs that flood the fields of otherwise innocuous shares of kid pics, pet videos, and truly lovely content. I am guilty, lately, of the former because I am angry. I am tired. I am concerned. I am sad. And, I am worried.
For the first time since feeling the anti-Asian sentiments of the Vietnam War, I feel the crosshairs of a target I am incapable of moving from my body. I am again holding my breath in grocery stores aware of my Asian features being a marker of identity that I have spent a great deal of my life trying to erase, if only to assimilate—to fit in—to be someone that others could see as more than my ethnic heritage. And for those reading this who might say, “I do! I do not see your color, your features, your heritage!” with all the best intentions, saying so also dismisses who I am. Vietnamese. Cambodian. Chinese. It is those markers of identity that I am most proud of right now. It was the aptitude of my Vietnamese father as an architect and builder that wove strands of his DNA into my hands and vision. It is my Khmer features that I most represent with hair curls and skin color I am learning to love despite the pain it’s caused me. It is the fighting spirit of the Han, my grandparent’s ancestral lineage, that keep me daily toiling to improve my life and the lives of others.
Racial tensions are nothing new to us standing on that margin. We see that center, and we know when we are welcome to stand within it, next to it, alongside it. We may wish to even take it over, asserting our power into spaces we know we should also belong, but a gentle reminder from those who are in power does much to put us back in place.
It has been nearly 50 years. I do not have a seat at the table. Do you?