While my classmates were known as “Class Clown” or “Most Popular,” my white peers reduced my unspoken class superlative to “that Asian girl.” I knew when people talked about me, my race preceded my name, and the stereotypes I tried desperately to avoid in class were automatically stitched onto my “yellow” identity. I could easily name those who spread rumors that my family and I ate dogs for dinner or identify faces of strangers who told me to go back to my country. However, as political philosopher Iris Marion Young explains in her “Five Faces of Oppression,” oppression does not stem from a single person. Instead, it is a structural concept that emerges into five faces, or five categories, that prevent people from developing and exercising needs, thoughts, and actions for themselves simply because they are a part of a group.
Through long-established systems and generationally passed social views, privilege for groups of people results from the five faces of oppression onto others. Iris Marion Young writes that the first face of oppression is exploitation which “occurs through a steady process of the transfer of the results of the labor of one social group to benefit another.” Second, marginalization includes individuals, or “marginals,” who are “expelled from useful participation in social life.” Third, powerlessness means individuals who “must take orders and rarely have the right to give them.” Fourth, violence manifests through threats or physical acts of violence that are systemic because of its social tolerance. The fifth face, in particular, is cultural imperialism which means a) the erasure or ignorance of other cultures and b) the universalization of a dominant group’s experience and culture and its establishment as the norm.
As an Asian-American girl, cultural imperialism split my identity into two: looking too Chinese at school and acting too American in my immigrant household. With immigrant parents who rebuilt their lives in America by creating a Chinese restaurant in Ohio, food was the cultural love language my family and I spoke. My parents’ love letter send-off for my first day of kindergarten came in a package as my favorite snack, sticky rice rolls with pork floss (see Fig. 1). However, just as I finished my first bite, my classmates immediately pointed and taunted me that it looked like I was eating piles of hair. The hot flush of shame that rushed to my cheeks and the stinging burn that welled in my eyes was the moment I gained self-awareness that I was different from the kids around me. Different, I realized, was something I never wanted to experience again.
Figure 1: Pork floss is sweet-savory dried pork meat refined to the thinness of a crunchy cotton candy texture. It was the perfect snack for my ballet classes, road trips, and after a full day of jumping on the trampoline with my neighborhood friends.
Although it was the reactions to my Chinese identity I actually despised, I signed off the feeling as my hatred for my Chinese identity. So, I willingly erased my cultural ties by diminishing my Chinese appearance and rejecting Chinese food. I was jealous of the golden girls who passed me in the hallway with their golden blonde hair and golden tan skin. So, I traded my silky black hair my mom loved for a head of bleached hair and split ends. After avoiding my dad’s 12-hour brewed bowl of pho that always exclaimed “I have good news to share,” or my mom’s congee on my sick days that said “feel better,” I realized strangers who ate at my parents’ restaurant started to know the words better than I did. Soon, I forgot to speak the Chinese language altogether. As Marion-Young explained, I gave into the universalization of the white experience as the norm and tried to whitewash myself as much as possible to fit that mold.
Oppression is committed not in an individual sense but a structural one embedded in our social practices as “unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols,” and Marion-Young offers a possible solution to how we can stop this cycle. She explains that we can slowly break down the structure of oppression and replace it with solid foundations for systems that give back autonomy to all people. By making space and creating empowering sets of systems that enable people to express themselves freely, we can begin to unravel its deep-rooted sources, debunk the cultural norms it created, and take a step closer towards a future where all people can enter the world free of a pre-determined social label. Now, in college, my ties with my Chinese identity are slowly reforming as I have found these safe spaces to rediscover what my Chinese identity means to me, not what it means from the white experience. I am taking Chinese classes to re-learn the language, getting involved in Chinese cultural clubs, and appreciating my family’s home-cooked meals. Like my parents’ homemade cooking, my Chinese identity now brings me comfort and love for who I am. So instead of seeing my Chinese identity as something I could not help being, it has become a title I feel lucky to own.