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The latest in a series of interviews about philosophy of race that George Yancy is conducting for the New York Times blog.
George Yancy: A great deal of philosophical work on race begins with the white/black binary. As a Korean-American, in what ways does race mediate or impact your philosophical identity?
David Haekwon Kim: In doing philosophy, I often approach normative issues with concerns about lived experience, cultural difference, political subordination, and social movements changing conditions of agency. I think these sensibilities are due in large part to my experience of growing up bicultural, raced, and gendered in the U.S., a country that has never really faced up to its exclusionary and often violent anti-Asian practices. In fact, I am sometimes amazed that I have left so many tense racialized encounters with both my life and all my teeth. In other contexts, life and limb were not at issue, but I did not emerge with my self-respect intact.
These sensibilities have also been formed by learning a history of Asian-Americans that is more complex than the conventional watered-down immigrant narrative. This more discerning, haunting, and occasionally beautiful history includes reference to institutional anti-Asian racism, a cultural legacy of sexualized racism, a colonial U.S. presence in East Asia and the Pacific Islands, and some truly inspiring social struggles by Asians, Asian-Americans, and other communities of color.
It’s a challenge to convey this sort of lived experience, and this, too, has shaped my philosophical identity. So little has been said in philosophy and public life about the situation of Asian-Americans that we don’t have much in the way of common understandings that are accurate and illuminating. Making matters worse is that the void is filled by many misleading notions about race in general, which includes such notions like our country being beyond race, that critiquing white privilege is hating whites, that any race talk is racist, etc.
There is also problematic discourse about Asian-Americans in particular, like the Model Minority myth. This popular notion posits Asian-Americans as being successful along many indices of assimilation and socioeconomic well-being and thus a model for other non-whites. Its veracity aside, its actual political function is to excuse anti-black and anti-Latino racism and prevent interracial solidarity. In any case, I believe the invisibility of Asian-Americans in our culture has been so deep and enduring that Asian-Americans themselves are often ambivalent about how they would like to see themselves portrayed and perhaps even uncomfortable about being portrayed at all. [continue reading]
Copyright 2015 George Yancy. First published in the New York Times.
David Raekwon Kim is an associate professor of philosophy and the director of the Global Humanities initiative at the University of San Francisco.