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Doubting and believing desire-based thinking

CP's picture

A friend of mine recently told me about an episode of "America By the Numbers" that focused on Cambodians in the U.S. It was well-timed because 1) I rarely hear about Cambodians on TV 2) it could help me with my thesis and 3) it relates to issues of identity and access! 

If you have 26 minutes of spare time, check it out!

I've been struggling a lot lately with understanding and embracing the idea of re-envisioning communities more positively and stepping away from damage-centered thinking. I don't mean to be stubborn about trying to move towards desire-based thinking -- I'm just finding it very difficult to do. Damaged-centered thinking is something I (and even researchers!) have to unlearn. Unlearning can take a long, long time.

Because I didn't grow up in a Cambodian community, I became accustomed to hearing these negative stories and assumptions about Cambodians. I started to internalize these negative beliefs and blame any of my academic failures on my ethnicity. The Cambodians in this video seem to do the same: they describe how gang involvement, issues of mental health and violence, and lack of educational attainment affect their community -- issues that usually go unnoticed by the broader society.

After re-reading Eve Tuck's open letter "Suspending Damage", in which she asks the academy to consider a more positive way of talking about the communities that are researched, I still felt mixed emotions. I was glad and felt inspired to do my own desire-based research so that I could change the way I think about my ethnic community and myself, and yet I was skeptical about how this could actually be done.

Although Tuck might have already addressed the following questions, I was still left feeling dissatisfied. When she talks about it has become normal to discuss how a community is broken or ruined in order to get reparations, I could see what she was saying. But then I wondered: How can we address the problems or issues that affect these communities and meet their needs if we don't know or name what they are? Doesn't problem-solving require people to idnetify the problem in the first place? 

There was also an interesting part of the episode where the host asks a high school counselor what she thinks about a statistic regarding the high percentage of Southeast Asians' high school dropout rates, and the teacher admitted that that was news to her. This is an example of why I like the idea of having teachers who are culturally aware and knowledgable about the demographics of the student population they are working with. What I worry is that this familiarity with the population's needs could result in stereotyping and reproduction of damage-based thinking.

Moving forward, I'm thinking about the need to bring awareness to the harm that the model minority stereotype inflicts upon Asian communities. On one hand we need to recognize how this stereotype erases the very real problems a marginalized community faces, and on the other, we're calling for desire-based thinking. How do we do this?