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Tasting Me/You: Sensory-Affective Multiracial Identity Formations

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Abstract

This essay investigates how everyday experiences and practices are spaces of racial identity formation, spaces in which affect is mobilized towards investments into a hierarchical, multiracial system of recognition and consumption. Specifically, Thai food and Thai identity in the United States are explored to understand the plurality of racialization processes in the entanglements of racial(ized) persons and groups. Thais in the United States developed a distinct and specific Asian American identity through Thai food, which preceded Thai people as a recognizable and desirable racial object, though within and constrained by palatability to white tastes. An examination of the affective forces and technologies at work in eating and consuming Others exposes a multiculturalism framed as an appreciative, yet violently racializing, salvific economic order coded by whiteness and heteronormativity. Recognizing affective dynamics in food production and consumption can support mobilizing communities towards reconfiguring emotional economies and investments in anti-racist habits and practices towards complex heterogenous spaces of belonging.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I am grateful to the group of authors and editors in this volume, who have provided me with a most hospitable and constructive space to explore the ideas of this essay. Their suggestions made this essay stronger. The radical welcome I experienced in this space and in the larger umbrella group PANAAWTM (Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry) enlivens and refreshes me. I owe a big Thank You to Kurt Blankschaen for his very generous and excellent feedback, discussion suggestions, and unconditional support, and to Debbie Creamer, for her always reliably constructive and diligent reading and insights.

  2. 2.

    W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Knopf, 1993), 7. W.E.B. DuBois’s famous question frames the condition of being racially subordinated, of being socially and politically produced as problem, and points to the continuous emotional labor of being of an other-than-white race and being subjected to the violent reading practices of the other’s gaze.

  3. 3.

    Leslie Bow, Racist Love: Asian Abstraction and the Pleasures of Fantasy (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022), 7-8. Leslie Bow explores the particular “problem” of Asian Americans, who are freely adored as objects of desire, an attraction that is not the opposite, but the source and force of anti-Asian racism and violence.

  4. 4.

    Jin Haritaworn, The Biopolitics of Mixing: Thai Multiracialities and Haunted Ascendancies (London: Routledge, 2016).

  5. 5.

    Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1962).

  6. 6.

    Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean O’Malley Halley, The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

  7. 7.

    Tamar Blickstein, “Affects of Racialization,” in Affective Societies: Key Concepts, eds. Jan Slaby and Christian von Scheve (New York: Routledge, 2019), 152-166.

  8. 8.

    For example, “shame” is often constructed as a generic Asian emotion in popular discourse and mental health textbooks. David H. Kim explores the nuances in “shame” and the differentiation of affect in dynamic assimilation/resistance experiences in Asian-American communities in David Haekwon Kim, “Shame and Self-Revision in Asian American Assimilation,” in Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and Race, ed. Emily S. Lee (Albany: SUNY Press, 2015), 103-132. And David Eng and Shinhee Han complexify Asian-American affective life under the opaque violence of multiculturalism in David L. Eng and Shinhee Han, Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019). See also Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (New York: One World, 2021) for an investigation into the complexities of Asian-American affect and identity. Ann Cvetkovich also explores how affect travels along racial lines, and how feelings are racialized contextually, how the meaning of feelings, the experience of feelings, can take on particular racial group-specific dimensions (e.g., sadness among African Americans). See Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). And Berg and Ramos-Zayas explore how feelings are relationally racialized by being attributed to certain people groups according to stereotype, e.g. Andean provincial mestizos materialize in the whitened elite imagination as despotic, vulgar, servile (Ulla D. Berg and Ramos-Zayas, “Racializing Affect: A Theoretical Proposition,” Current Anthropology, 56, no.5 (2015): 657).

  9. 9.

    Scholars theorizing affect often make distinctions between affect, emotions, and feelings, delineating various conceptual differences for their philosophical ends (e.g., to differentiate between preconscious affects and conscious emotions or intensity of feelings). These distinctions matter when affect is considered foundational in a “presocial” or “precognitive” way. It may leave a gap between affect and judgment/cognition, and certain racial feelings and associated practices could be framed unconscious, based in ignorance or lack of awareness, or a racist disposition based in culture or familial upbringing that is simply there (and therefore, excusable and “simply” in need of awareness and/or education, an open mind, or moments of reflection). In my chapter, I am mostly interested in the force and reinforcement of feeling race and feelings about race, and will use affect, emotion, and feeling interchangeably for readability, but want to acknowledge here the importance of recognizing affect for its biological aspects and impact on our visceral experiences and identity narratives. For theoretical distinctions and their impact, see Donovan O. Schaefer, The Evolution of Affect Theory: The Humanities, the Sciences, and the Study of Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), and Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, The Affect Theory Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011). For an excellent exploration of shame and affective shaping of bodily identity, see Stephanie N. Arel, Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

  10. 10.

    Over time, there was a switching from explicitly racial coding in Nazi Germany (though still with labels and taxonomies different from the current US context) to a post-WW2 national/ethnic coded taxonomy to escape the veneer of German racism in a neo-liberal multicultural world. Racial thinking did not disappear though, even if public discourse changed the terms of the debate. See Rita Chin et al., After the Nazi Racial State: Difference and Democracy in Germany and Europe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009).

  11. 11.

    “Migrant” is an empty term—who counts as having migrant background is neither clearly defined, nor useful—except the term has power in social and political discourse and decision making. “Bio-German” and other terms emerged from comedic use by migrants to refer to non-migrant Germans and were later used as ironic self-reference by Germans, even utilized by right wing groups as a political battle term. See Mohamed Amjahid, Unter Weissen: Was es heisst, privilegiert zu sein (München: Hanser Berlin, 2017).

  12. 12.

    The first racial categories I encountered were on various immigration and registration checklists. I was required to select for myself labels like white, black, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Hispanic origin. “But what am I?” Having grown up in Germany, none of those historically contextualized categories caught me in their net, nor were they part of my self-identification or experience.

  13. 13.

    Jin Haritaworn, “Hybrid Border Crossers? Towards a Radical Socialisation of ‘Mixed Race’,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 35, no.1 (2009): 116.

  14. 14.

    See, for example, Mark Smith’s exploration of how race is perceived powerfully beyond/despite the visual. Mark Smith, How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

  15. 15.

    See Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

  16. 16.

    Derek Hook, “Affecting Whiteness: Racism as Technology of Affect,” International Journal of Critical Psychology 16 (2005): 9-11. “Technologies of affect” are the ways in which “feeling something” is also a subject formation that can be operationalized to differentiate—feelings are also “doings” with material consequences, creating visceral boundaries and forceful social arrangements. “Technologies” (based in Michel Foucault’s work) describes practices, knowledges, discourses (e.g. science, taxonomies, laws, policies, education systems, health care structures, social localized practices, etc.) that produce humans as specific kinds of beings, with specific kinds of differences, ordered in specific kinds of ways. That “we” (those shaped by Western colonial imagination) feel it is common sense that humans “obviously” exist as different kinds of races, belonging to different kinds of places, exhibiting different kinds of traits, etc., and also therefore “obviously” we have different kinds of feelings in specific situations, with different kinds of power relations—that is the power of technologies of affect.

  17. 17.

    Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004).

  18. 18.

    Michalinos Zembylas, “Rethinking Race and Racism As Technologies of Affect: Theorizing the Implications for Anti-Racist Politics and Practice in Education,” Race, Ethnicity and Education 18, no. 2 (2015): 148.

  19. 19.

    See Kaori Mori Want, “Hypervisibility and Invisibility of Female Haafu Models in Japan’s Beauty Culture,” in Red and Yellow, Black and Brown: Decentering Whiteness in Mixed Race Studies, eds. Joanne L. Rondilla, Rudy P. Guevarra Jr., and Paul R. Spickard (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017); Judy Tzu-Chu Wu, “Hypervisibility and Invisibility: Asian/American Women, Radical Orientalism, and the Revisioning of Global Feminism,” in The Rising Tide of Color: Race, State Violence, and Radical Movements Across the Pacific, ed. Moon-Ho Jung (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014).

  20. 20.

    See Ki Joo Choi, Disciplined by Race: Theological Ethics and the Problem of Asian American Identity (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).

  21. 21.

    My Germanness also often triggers assumptions that I love beer (gross) and chocolate (absolutely), though without the sensual intonation that Thainess elicits. I never had anyone moaning “I just adore Bratwurst sooooo much!”

  22. 22.

    Mark Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 4.

  23. 23.

    Berg and Ramos-Zaya, “Racializing Affect,” 655.

  24. 24.

    Alice Julier, Carole Counihan, and Penny Van Esterik, “Introduction: The Continuing Salience of Food and Culture,” in Food and Culture: A Reader, 4th ed., eds. Carole Counihan, Penny Van Esterik, and Alice Julier (New York: Routledge, 2019), 6.

  25. 25.

    Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire.

  26. 26.

    Comparing ethnic restaurants with population size, Thai restaurants have a much higher ratio of population-to-restaurant, e.g. ten times that of Mexican-American restaurants to Mexican-American population. Myles Karp, “The Surprising Reason that there are so many Thai Restaurants in America,” Vice, March 29, 2018, https://www.vice.com/en/article/paxadz/the-surprising-reason-that-there-are-so-many-thai-restaurants-in-america

  27. 27.

    The Asian American Movement of the 1960s and 70s was an effort at historicizing common experiences among subordinated groups and gathering disjunct ethnic cultures for political solidarity and ethical connection. David Haekwon Kim, Shame, 106

  28. 28.

    The other side of the coin is the increase in interest of American men in “exotic” sex workers in Thailand (Thai and migrant workers of other ethnicities) linked to the US military presence during the war in Vietnam. Abel Brodeur, Warn N. Lekfuangfu and Yanos Zylberberg, ‘War, Migration, and the Origins of the Thai Sex Industry,’ Journal of the European Economic Association 16, no.5 (2017):1540-1576.

  29. 29.

    Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 42-53.

  30. 30.

    Mark Padoonpatt, “Oriental Cookery,” in Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader, ed. Robert Ji-Song Ku (New York: NYU Press, 2013), 186-197, 192, 203.

  31. 31.

    Some food historians trace the choice of this particular dish to the influence of the female Chinese housekeeper in the household of the Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram. Other components of Phibunsongkhram’s nation building project were Cultural Mandates, creating a representation of Thainess (legitimized through Thai scholars) including greetings analog to English customs, reshaping dress codes to include gendered distinctions, and European style fashion (Van Esterik 2000, 102-103).

  32. 32.

    Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 48-49.

  33. 33.

    Authenticity is not self-contained, but culturally negotiated. Authenticity of food and those who can authentically cook is determined by those who get to expertly judge it and have the power to be positioned as experts. When culinary culture and ethnically marked bodies become tightly linked, then authenticity of flavor is linked to authentic, “original” ethnic bodies naturally being able to produce such authentic flavors. Yet it all depends on the expert tongue discerning the level of authenticity, the expert who may be confounded by e.g. non-Thai bodies cooking what passes (or even surpasses!) authentic foods. Choi, Disciplined by Race, 42-44.

  34. 34.

    Choi, Disciplined by Race, 46, 55-56.

  35. 35.

    Bangkok Market represents a pivotal moment for procuring Thai ingredients and through it, Thai American community and identity formation. Opening in East Hollywood, it was the first of its kind, enabling Thai food production beyond substituted ingredients and aiding in food and people emerging with distinct flavor/identity profiles, and promoting economic and communal developments in the Thai community, and sidestepping heightened trade barriers to secure and increase the availability of Thai food ingredients. Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 57, 73-77.

  36. 36.

    Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 80-83.

  37. 37.

    Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 92.

  38. 38.

    Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 2 and 184.

  39. 39.

    Casting Thailand and Thainess as anti-colonial or “despite”-colonial country, to construct the image of a superior, advanced, developed culture that withstood imperialism when other countries crumbled, rewrites history and belies Thailand’s complicity in US militarism pre- and post-WW2. For an overview of Thai-American relations, Thai and US foreign policy during the Cold War’s anti-communist efforts, see Arne Kislenko, “A Not So Silent Partner: Thailand’s Role in Covert Operations, Counter-Insurgency, and the Wars in Indochina,” Journal of Conflict Studies 24, no. 1 (2004): 65-96.

  40. 40.

    Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 105-7.

  41. 41.

    Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 110.

  42. 42.

    Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 102-104.

  43. 43.

    Tommy Tang and other celebrity chefs and their foods illustrate how an externalized Thai-American identity emerged through cooking/eating: Tang’s food was a fusion type cuisine catering to the American palate, matching his views that Thais should make themselves as palatable to the American taste as possible. Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 110.

  44. 44.

    David Haekwon Kim, Shame, 107.

  45. 45.

    See Padoongpatt’s chapter on the Wat Thai in suburban Los Angeles. White neighbors attempted to expel Wat Thai once the community trespassed acceptable boundaries of “quiet Buddhist religious practice” and “safe, pleasant” food consumption. Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 143.

  46. 46.

    Anne Anlin Cheng conceptualizes the femininity of yellow as an abstraction that materializes ornamentally, a particular female objectification in which Asian women exist in perihumanity, the fusion of thingliness and personness, through ornamental personhood. See Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

  47. 47.

    Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 112.

  48. 48.

    Jennifer Jensen Wallach, How America Eats: A Social History of US Food and Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013), 174-175.

  49. 49.

    Haritaworn, Biopolitics of Mixing, 139-40.

  50. 50.

    The tragedy, as Choi frames it, of Asian American life is precariousness in self-determination, because the relationality within which Asian Americans form their identities and self-understanding is already malformed by whiteness. To love oneself as Asian American, to create spaces of belonging and flourishing as oneself carries the risk of falling into morally dubious patterns, conforming with white notions of what is valuable and meaningful, and/or emulating abusive relationships with others (imitating patriarchal, misogynistic, cis-heteronormative patterns). To discover oneself, and to defiantly defend one’s own interests as a racialized being also ought to be an act of solidarity with others who are similarly situated under white oppressive structures, and to love oneself and the other outside of terms set by the white racial imagination. Choi urges us to pause before emphasizing the possibilities and potential of resistance in critical self-love but maintains that hope that resisting oppressive racialized identity formations through critical self-love is possible. Choi, Disciplined by Race, 109-110; 167-72.

  51. 51.

    This was an organization opposed to California’s Proposition 187, an anti-immigrant bill that would have disallowed education, health, and social services to be used for “illegal” immigrants. Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 150-151.

  52. 52.

    Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire, 171-173.

  53. 53.

    US Census Bureau, “Selected Population Profile in the United States,” accessed June 1, 2021, https://data.census.gov/cedsci/.

  54. 54.

    Because “German” is marked white and blond, imagined perhaps holding a stein of beer and wearing leather pants – which by the way is Bavarian, NOT German, as any “real” German would be happy to point out—the question “You are German and…..??!!!” is a constant refrain. My skin color and other bodily markers are read as non-German, or at least only in hyphenation as White-German-Other. I quickly learned to blame the anxious quest of the other to read my bodily on my own failing to clearly fit an existing label.

  55. 55.

    My learning of social codes that mark and maintain racial categories in the US pointed me towards learning about Asian immigrants and Asian-American experiences. I loved reading and scoured the library for stories and histories. I caught up to the US racial landscape by learning about the Asian American story within the context of immigration law, nativist dynamics, racial coding and quotas, US imperialism abroad, and more. And on the personal level, it was initially up to Amy Tan to teach me about Chinese mothers and their daughters, because apparently when it came to my understanding the personal dimensions of being (part) Asian in the US, at least during that time, the Joy Luck Club was THE go-to in the public imagination and public libraries. I ate up all the Amy Tan novels I could get a hand on, and many times it helped me put my own experiences of being raised by an Asian mother into understandable dynamics. There was nothing comparable to that kind of (autobiographical) fiction in Germany when I grew up, so reading Tan opened up a whole new window into my own world. However useful Tan’s novels were to me, her success combined with the scarcity of other published writers also contributed to the fixed and static image of “Asianness” and “Asian mothers” in my own imagination. Today, multiple voices are available to contribute to the heterogenization of Asian-Americanness. Two authors I would like to highlight for their use of food in the construction of identity are Grace M. Cho, Tastes Like War: A Memoir (New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2021), and Michelle Zauner, Crying in H Mart: A Memoir (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021). To me, savoring and discovering a Thai-American autobiographical work is still a rare delight, as with Ira Sukrungruang, Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010).

  56. 56.

    The construction of Thai/Asian femininity through heterosexism (hyperfeminine, hypersexual, subordinate, straight) is in line with the construction of Thai/Asian masculinity through homosexism (effeminate, less masculine, gay), and renders invisible Asian queer femmes and butches. This link, as Haritaworn demonstrates, is an interracial matrix that positions Asians sexually and otherwise at the service of straight and gay whites. Jin Haritaworn, “Queer Mixed Race? Interrogating Homonormativity through Thai Interraciality,” in Geographies of Sexualities: Theory, Practices, and Politics, 2nd ed., eds. Kath Browne, Jason Lim, and Gavin Brown (London: Ashgate, 2009), 115-126. For a differentiated investigation of Thai gendered subjectivities, and how Western linguistic and gendered hegemonies impact localized expressions and native gender identities, see Megan Sinnott, “Gender Subjectivity: Dees and Toms in Thailand,”, Women’s Sexualities and Masculinities in a Globalizing Asia, eds. Saskia E. Wieringa, Evelyn Blackwood, and Abha Bhaiya (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 119-138.

  57. 57.

    Haritaworn, Biopolitics of Mixing, 135-6. See also Haritaworn, Hybrid Border Crossers, 119.

  58. 58.

    This is another layer and facet of creating the figure of the sensual Asian figure that services the appetites of white consumers, here as the desired hypersexual and hyperfeminized Asian prostitute; a figure created as natural in repetitive performative acts as this one in which the figure lurks in the imagination and is reinforced in the effort to disprove it. See Haritaworn, Biopolitics of Mixing, 138.

  59. 59.

    The boxes to check for racial identity still stump me, though I am more comfortable checking White/Asian and Other than I was 20 years ago. The simple act of checking a box is a way of conforming to the histories of race relation and creation that shaped those boxes in the first place (histories of which I am only very marginally a part) and it also is a way of rebelling, claiming the umbrella of Asianness as an act of defiance to define for myself what being Asian in America can possibly mean.

  60. 60.

    I am invoking here Rita Nakashima Brock’s concept of interstitial integrity, seeking to understand complex relationships of life that are shaped by racism, sexism, and colonialism, whilst also seeking out life and nourishment in ever-changing patterns of life. Rita Nakashima Brook, “Cooking Without Recipes: Interstitial Integrity,” Off the Menu: Asian and Asian North American Women’s Religion & Theology, eds. Rita Nakashima Brock et al., (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 125-143.

  61. 61.

    Anita Mannur, Intimate Eating: Racialized Spaces and Radical Futures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022), ix, 8-10.

  62. 62.

    It seems to me that the increasingly popular testing revealing percentages of racial-national-geographic in one’s DNA is a technology of white affect to imbue whiteness with positive racial feelings, countering the emptiness of whiteness that is only meaningful in opposition to constructed racial others. Now white people can find joy in discovering 17% of Swedishness or 8% Egyptian in them, even in the absence of meaningful social connection to people/places.

  63. 63.

    Sue Jeanne Koh, “Interstitial Integrity: Looking Forward, Radical Imagining” (presentation, Annual Conference of Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry, Virtual, April 16-18, 2021).

  64. 64.

    Mark Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 190. Mark Padoonpatt explores the racial formation of Thais in the United States through food ways and food culture, showing how the practices of everyday life are critical in how people make sense of themselves, of others, of the world.

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Correspondence to Heike Peckruhn .

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Peckruhn, H. (2023). Tasting Me/You: Sensory-Affective Multiracial Identity Formations. In: Pae, Kj.C., Lee, B. (eds) Embodying Antiracist Christianity. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-37264-3_9

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