Of all the “get out of your seats and move” ice breakers I’ve endured throughout my education, there’s only one that gets my antisocial blessing.
This was Introduction to Religious Studies, and the professor had a knack for transforming her 100+ student lecture halls into dynamic discussion spaces. Her ice breakers had a purpose – not “let’s see how physically uncomfortable we can make everyone” – but were aptly woven into the subject material for the course. The focus of a class like this inevitably boiled down to the concept of shared identity.
We were asked to separate ourselves into the four corners of the room, each labeled with a particular term or terms. The labels were, “Human,” “Religion,” “Man/Woman,” and “American.” We were to stand by the label which we felt formed the strongest basis for our identities.
The largest, in a great wave of shuffling students, filled the corner under “Human” and watched with amused grins as the rest of us filed into our sections. Predictably, in this Californian public university, a single-digit quantity of people headed for the “Religion” section. A sizeable group occupied the “Man/Woman” section, and without a glimmer of hesitation I strode toward the last remaining corner and planted myself squarely in the American sector.
I am not a patriot.
And neither were the other members of this group.
We were aware of the glances from the other groups and once the intergroup discussion was underway it was clear that the other sectors held the least amount of affection for us. The vast majority of the class, barring international students, was born-and-raised American too. But there was something about acknowledging this as the most critical part of our identity and our thought processes that provoked the judgment of every other person around us.
It was like pointing out a kind of shared, dirty secret that no one wanted to admit.
We had a moment to speak within our groups before the larger discussion, and the curious thing we found in common was that most of our group had lived or worked overseas for a considerable period of time. We had all been removed from what was largely invisible to us in our daily lives – what ran as an undercurrent to American life – and saw it from the outside-in.
“Everything about the way we act is American,” one girl said. “You can’t avoid it.”
“The way we talk, the way we think, the way everyone else sees us,” I added.
“There’s no way around it.”
I am a mixed race, gender-ambiguous agnostic ace who grows vegetables for a living, and I am undeniably American.
We’d consumed the same media, we were fed the same histories and heroes and lessons and language and laws and rhymes and riddles as nearly everyone else in the room. But beyond that, we were marked with experiences of culture shock, of miscommunication, of grappling with this identity stamped onto us like scarlet letters. We realized how all of us from the cis-het white male student to the mixed race genderwhats, contained distinct socio-cultural markers that were to a great degree shared among others within our country, and thus contrasted against others beyond our borders. Regardless of how the media or other prescriptive powers defined our bodies (and how any of us can feel othered from this society) we still talked the American talk, and walked the American walk, in a manner of speaking. Essentially, the sharedness of a crucial social American identity ran deep within our bones – and yet we were the only ones who owned up to it.
People just, didn’t feel very American.
Counter-arguments to our group identity included accusations of homogenizing this vast country. Nationalists. Flag-waving sheeple. But there was nothing that compelled me to emigrate from my group. In stark contrast to our very practical explanations of our unifying social identity were the arguments by the “Human” group which suggested that they could, on the basis of shared specieshood, relate to anyone. People were generally all alike.
Somehow, the idea of homogenizing all humankind was preferable to homogenizing just one country.
At the back of my mind, one word on repeat: Projection, projection, projection.
“All alike,” but you mean, “All like you.”
We returned to our seats and I watched the parting Humans with a feeling of vague hopelessness. They were the largest group and they had maintained, steadfastly, that what they thought and how they behaved was common to the human experience. As if the experiences that made up their lives could be rolled across the rest of the map, as if these experiences could never be met with horror and uncomprehending silence by another human being just across the pond. They had even convinced a few members from the other groups to switch and join their corner.
I had little love for the Man/Woman group who declared, “If you’re not a man or a woman, then you aren’t, like, anything,” but the Human group struck me in a peculiarly threatening way. And over time, after leaving the American corner of the world more and more, I know why that mentality haunts me.
There is something unquestioningly bully-ish about a mentality that holds that the experiences of the loudest person in the room must be the experiences of everyone else. This mentality isn’t coming from the largest group in the room, like during the activity, but as Americans we hold the reins to the information highway. What we generate flows outward onto one-way streets, where the stories and realities of the rest of the world are drowned in our outgoing tide of stories exclusively about ourselves.
The problem isn’t necessarily that we are talking about ourselves – it’s that A) we are consistently the loudest group of people talking about ourselves, which leads to B) the fiction that our attitudes and experiences are applicable to people everywhere. Surely, everyone must conceive of their asexuality in this way, otherwise I personally would have seen compelling evidence to the contrary within the bounds of this American culture or on this American-dominated information highway. In English.
When you couple this with the idea that our language is the language of the “developed” world, and that our culture seeps into every corner of the world (whether people like it or not), people beyond the US start to look to US culture for the answers to their society’s questions. And why shouldn’t they, considering how much we invest in this idea of our universality and wisdom?
I can’t quite describe the mix of emotions I feel when I see AVEN’s complete description copy-and-pasted onto the budding asexual facebook group for the South American country I’m now working in. A country that in many parts, doesn’t have running water, nor reliable electricity, but they are 100% set with a definition of what it means to be asexual. Granted, it’s great that these resources are visible and that people at least have a starting point to know, “What I feel is felt by other people too, and I am not broken,” but local models and identity-formation are often replaced by, compared to, or stifled beneath our distinctly foreign models.
It might still work, and movements for visibility might still proceed, but what is ultimately injected into these cultures are models formed from American perceptions, American communicative processes, and American ways of navigating a social landscape. At the very least, the expectation that these models must be followed and striven for is exerted upon the population. Except, there is no guarantee that the dialogues that persist in our culture will be appropriate or communicable in any other place.
Ask me how anticlimactic it is to attend your first queer pride rally in the capital of a developing conservative country, and finding that the immediate public could care less. A couple doomsdayers, a handful of bored onlookers, and two police officers who leave within minutes to take their tea break. I hang around to support the only asexual I know, remarking on how all the chants are directly translated from what we chant, the imagery reflections of our images, and the actions interpretations of how we act. Flashbacks to rallies on Castro Street. It is flamboyant and jarring against its surroundings, and at first I’m swept up in the pride of the moment, until something starts to needle at my confidence. It is failing to hold the attention of any non-participants passing by. There are photo-snapping journalists collecting images for internet publications and papers – for a populace that overwhelmingly does not have internet access, and doesn’t read the paper.
Whom is this message for?
I’m reminded of viral tumblr posts and pictures of queer activism from around the world. Most poignant of all are the stories from the developing world, where we interpret the most resistance, and we are thus the most moved by their manifestations. But what strikes me as the most critical part of all of this is that we are viewing, delighting in, publicizing, spreading, and furthering the dialogue around images that aren’t even transmitted to people in the country in which they originate. The general public, beyond the egregiously few who are connected to international news sources and online communities, are not being engaged. These images are being granted relevancy in a paradoxically insular cross-national information exchange where the parameters for relevancy have been defined by western voices. Where we have posited our culture and our history as universal, people are asked to imitate it, sidelining swaths of their populations that hold significant cultural wealth, and whose participation would shift the dialogue back towards something unique for their people. Whose models for queer sexuality may already include and are strengthened by their own historical framework.
I ask myself if, on this speeding track toward a global western-dominated culture, we are at all being fair by claiming “internationality” of our communities and resources. They are “international” because of this regulated cultural flow, not because we have necessarily opened them up to international voices, but because we are positing our voices as coming from a fictitious, culturally-neutral origin which can be stuck on top of any culture. And because, historically, it pays to fall in line American culture, the erasure is two-tiered: We spread ourselves to occupy space and exclude dissimilar experiences, and those seeking relevancy model their own experiences to reflect ours, in the process erasing their own cultural fingerprints.
Our attitudes are exercised in places in which they did not originate, challenging indigenous models and identity-building processes. In the context of queer activism, this means generating a “standard” LGBTQIA activism that is rooted firmly in American sexuality politics and appeals to attitudes of American individualism and conceptions of the self. And this activism may work, eventually, but only because entire cultures are made to shift to reflect our own, and they happen to absorb our sexuality framework in the process.
In recent months, there has been a call specifically for Americans and other western voices to recognize our role in shaping and regulating asexual dialogues. In understanding our complicity in the globalization of activism and identity politics, we are asked to give space to others to deconstruct our notion of our own universality, and listen to others’ experiences. Participation in our communities requires a competency of our own models, and yet the reverse is never true – we are largely (myself included) ignorant of and oblivious to non-western models, speaking over everything doesn’t make sense to us. It is not enough to ask that others create their own spaces – because our voices and bodies crowd every virtual room. Generating equity will mean quieting down, withdrawing our projections, and owning up to our distinct cultural identity that shapes our “universal” narratives.