Exclusion & Homogeneity

In recent years, many scholars and critics have launched vigorous, interdisciplinary investigations into the powers and privileges bestowed upon Americans who happen to be classified as “white.” Often taking cues from earlier work in Critical Race Theory, historians have shed light on the history of white racial formation; sociologists and anthropologists on its contemporary formations; legal scholars on its juridical ramifications; and scholars of literature and film on representations of whiteness in various modes of artistic production. One result of these investigations has been clarification of the effects of white hegemony on both minority identity formation and on the attempts of racial minorities to participate in various largely white social realms.

Social theorist Pierre Bourdieu provides a useful shorthand for these effects in his notion of “symbolic violence,” which he generally defines as quiet, unrecognized forms of violence that function by way of hierarchically-arranged sign systems. As Bourdieu writes, “In a society in which overt violence... meets with collective reprobation and is liable to provoke a violent riposte from the victim or force him to flee, symbolic violence, [is] the gentle, invisible form of violence, which is never recognized as such.” The meaning and significance of a social sphere’s signs, and of their hierarchal arrangement, are often taken for granted, unquestioned and unchallenged by those operating within the sphere; as a result, the violent exclusions of alternative meaning that occur within signifying systems tend to go unnoticed.

The American visual arts spheres operate with a system of tacitly agreed-upon signs. As my performance and video pieces strive to indicate, the signs within this system become subtly, yet violently exclusionary when they implicitly favor the perspectives and artistic production of certain groups of people, and disfavor those of others. As an Asian-American woman, the self that I represent in the monolithic (white) space of the art world, and in social spaces, is usually decontextualized by others. They do not do so because of my presence as “artist” or “culture producer,” but because of my differently coded presence in each or all of these culturally coded situations. Thus, my presence in the various settings posited by these works challenges the presumption of individuality by exposing the implicit drive toward homogeneity of our socio-cultural systems.

©Suk Ja Kang-Engles

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