Updated: Sep 2, 2020
I am intertwined in narrative to express who I am.
Learning is a guided process, one that is subjective in that it is driven by what one already knows and what one chooses to pay attention to; this form of cognitive structuring can be found through the act of storytelling (Moon 2010: 35). Narratives provide an important insight into the process of forming self-hood. Using narrative as both a personal and professional practice is an effective tool in communication; it allows both reader and writer to experience, view, and interpret life through another lens (Moon 2010: 65).
Before empathy, there exists imagination.
Imagine if I were a person like you, would that anger you? Would you learn to hate your reflection as much as I have?
“Social agents are embedded in a range of networks, personal and impersonal, each embodying and enforcing specific norms” (Crossley 2007: 35). This entails group or collective understanding of practices, behaviours, and actions, in which the self emerges through specific dispositions and codes of social conduct (Crossley 2007: 38-39).
Even if you could imagine you were someone else, you could never fully grasp the reality of a life outside of yours.
I make the invisible visible again. I make the everyday unfamiliar. I “grasp history and biography and the relations between the two in society” (Mills 1959:6).
We exist in the world that is relational and is relational insofar as we are able to use language to reflect those relations. I and It, and I and Thou are operational relations that establish a mode of existence. For Buber, the I and It is a mode where one understands their self as bounded by things, by objects which make one’s self limited (Buber 1999: 55).
I am saying; I am a (brown South-East Asian) non-binary person. I am a poet. I am queer.
I experience what and who I am in relation to things, to objects, to particular ideas of the world. But this is not enough. These experiences are not enough to bring the world to me, or you, or anyone else (Buber 1999: 55). And while all those things that I am are true for me and perhaps true of my experience in the world, I and Thou conceives of existence as one that is not bounded by things. “Even as a melody is not composed of tones, nor a verse of words, nor a statue of lines – one must pull and tear to turn a unity into a multiplicity” (Buber 1999:59).
I am unity of all my experiences but this essentially is multiplicity of the self, and all the different “selves” I have been, am, and will be.
The idea of I and Thou is a removal of Subject/Object. It suggests that actual encounter with another human being is the ability or the vulnerability to acknowledge one’s self, but to also remove one’s self to be engaged with someone with a meaningful interaction. It is a reciprocal relationship. To speak is to be heard and to speak is to exist with connection to another. It is an interchangeable position, where beginning and end no longer exists (Buber 1999: 70). To make myself a subject, in this sense, is to reconsider the ways in which I am situated in relation to the world, to others, and my place in society, and to reflect upon the ways that this subject has multiple bearings.
The Limitations of Language as the Medium for Identity
My first introduction to Martin Buber was in first year university, and alongside other thinkers throughout the course. My tutor for this class was named Nayana.
I learnt more from her outside the classroom than I did within. We’d have coffee and talk, sometimes we’d share stories.
She was a high school English teacher before she decided to do her PhD. Teaching was something to keep her parents happy, but what she really loved was acting. There was an audition for the play Romeo and Juliet, and she went for the role of Juliet. They all agreed she auditioned well.
I immediately thought of film Cinderella staring Brandy. Whoopi Goldberg and Victor Garb played the Queen and King; Paolo Montalban was the prince even though the actor was Filipino. It was a diverse cast, and it was fun movie with Whitney Houston as the fairy Godmother. It mattered to me as a child growing up to see a movie like that, to see something relatable. To see a beautiful princess and a handsome prince who didn’t have pale skin.
But, that movie was made in the late 90s and rarity. Nayana had brown skin and it didn’t match the traditional concept of Juliet. She told me “I was rejected, not because I couldn’t act, but because of how I looked…As if brown people can’t love…” She didn’t have to finish her sentence because she knew that I would understand; how racial identities constrain personal aspirations, how it dilutes the range of human experiences and concentrates it on an essentialised self, contained in cultural markers and physical signifiers.
She told me I’d have to work harder because people are going to see your gender, your ethnicity, your skin, your class, and will judge you for that first before they see you.
The experience of the world is twofold, as Buber explains, but what he fails to acknowledge is what it feels like to embody “It.” Reciprocal relationships or perspectives are not processes that are easy for everyone, and in many regards, living in this liminal space of “It” - object bounded by things, by labels, by ideas - can be dehumanising. To experience that most of the time, people don’t see you or maybe they do but can’t look past the colour of your skin, your race, your ethnicity, your accent, as though that’s all we are; all I am.
If I ever noticed the colour of my skin, it was only because I did everything I could pretend it didn’t matter. And in that pretending, I denied the cruelty and history of my place within the world. I am no longer asking to be seen or heard, I am fighting for justice.
How does one begin to theorise about a group of people when they are present, when they can speak and provide counter-arguments? Gayatri Spivak once argued that the subaltern cannot speak, the subaltern “Third-Word” woman is reduced to misrepresentations by the West, a figure needing to be saved (Spivak 1985). Perhaps, today, it is not so much that they cannot speak, but it is that they are not the loudest voices or maybe, it is because they are not heard (Maggio 2007).
There are more of us that are seen and heard. But where do we go from there? Where is the justice for our kin, our ancestors?
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