Reorganizing Orientalist Constructions

Reflections on 'identity' and 'belonging'
By Himani Bannerji
Beyond Destinations

Beyond Destinations.

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Editor's note:

Rungh Reprints is a new series of occasional archival reprints which will feature significant pieces of writing that need to be revisited to link pasts, presents and futures. In this essay, originally published in1993 in the catalogue for Beyond Destinations, Himani Bannerji reflects upon 'identity' and more. This essay links to Rungh's Longing and Belonging: 1990’s South Asian Film and Video programming. For a greater context also look at I’m British But… Gurinder Chadha’s ground breaking film, and also the Artist Run Centre Cyclical Pasts and Futures by Jagdeep Singh Raina, both in Rungh Volume 5, Number 4.

truant in time London. Huge streets. Buildings in a gigantic outline of constructed mountains, foothills and passes. Endless streams of travelers. Labyrinths unfold under my feet. I recognize that the English are a nation of miners as I move, stage by stage, walking, running, stumbling, hurtling down passages, escalators which work or don’t, towards a destination that steadily diminishes in the face of my extensive journey. I am nameless. This anonymity yet the endless oneness with an outpouring humanity, with stranded islands of green in their midst, are both a relief and a dread, a being and a disappearance.

How small can an 'I', a consciousness be? I ask myself, shrinking like a pupil in a strong sun, gripped by a dread.

I hold myself like a child by the hand, remember linguistics, cultural literacy, the ways I have been created by a long habitation in the West. Walking in the evening through a cobalt blue into which the street is sinking, there is an ache inside me. The blue jar of this evening holds everything and nothing – namely it holds me, temporarily anonymous, yet concretely and historically within space and time. It is the same me who came to this ‘other’ world a long time ago, came with an apparatus for making sense which was adequate to the task. But the task changed with choices made in time, and knowledge increased and changed as well. The difference between what I found myself in and what I grew up with was immeasurable. All my familiarity with European art and culture had not prepared me for the everyday life and interactions that I encountered. For one thing, I did not know the internal workings, the constructions and relations between whiteness and blackness. I did not know that colonization went way beyond the Indian Independence of 1947. While substantive lives went on in these national territories, here in Canada, the US, England and Europe, I was recolonized. And not just I, but all of those others who had gathered in these metropolitan centres of the West. Then began a contestation, of making and being made over. I was myself and myself refracted in unrecognizable pieces.

being and becoming Walking through certain neighbourhoods in London I was surprised by the number of women and girls wearing head coverings of some sort. They are mostly Bengalis, I am told, and also that some years ago they would not have done this either here or in Bangladesh. But this is not unique to Bengalis. Black people are Africanizing, Hindus have found their Hinduness, Sikhs the essence of Sikhism… All relegate patriarchal injunctions of obedience upon women, and rely upon cultural insignias to indicate their difference. A piece of cloth draped around the head or the body, hairdos, certain colours and designs – trivia assembled into constellations of meaning, revealing difference. They impose their moral regulations, attempt an immutable conduct in a world governed by relativism and consumption. Their rigidity serves only to indicate this basic fragility. These people who are so insistently ethnic, fundamentally religious or traditional are not just of the older generation – the expected conservatives harking back to tradition. They are young, and not necessarily or consistently religious. The traditions are not of a whole cloth, they are invented from bits and pieces, from parental cultural baggage now tarnished by the salt water of voyages, colours fading in the grey drizzles or the cold winds of the West. They come from music listened to on cassettes, and from Bombay films, which have gained among the expatriate youth an iconic dimension uncluttered by mutations created by the realities of life in India. Not much comes from reading, since written material lacks the perfect emptiness and malleability of the visual image or of echoed sound. This India of the mind says little about that country as an historical reality, but reveals much about us who live in the West. Reorganizing Orientalist constructions and expectations, these symbols of our Indian identity speak instead to our peculiar kind of ‘Englishness’, ‘Canadianess’ and so on. They are variants of that multicultural invention called an ‘ethnic community’, trapped in a lyrical catchall word, ‘the diaspora’.

But why do we do this? Why has a huge anguish currently seized these inhabitants of the West, who are somehow connected to excolonies, to histories of slavery and conquest, forcing them to proclaim their identities and claims of authenticity? It was not always so. Peoples have migrated far in remote history. Studies reveal conquering armies, nomadic journeys and new settlements. New languages such as Urdu have arisen, attires and jewelries, music and poetry, and sensibilities have extended and insinuated themselves with the suppleness of vines in places where they did not originate. But the slow, rather organic nature of that development is different from that of relatively recent history. It is since colonization, and how now re- colonization, under a siege of cultural imperialism and racism, that we find an intense upsurge of cultural politics. This politics of being, essentializing or fixing who we are, is in actuality often an inversion or continuation of ascribed colonial identities, though stated as ‘difference’. The stereotypical contents of Africanness or Indianness, for example, are in the end colonial constructs, harbouring the colonizer’s gaze. We look at ourselves with his eyes and find ourselves both adorned and wanting. Why do we want to be ‘authentic’ so badly? What makes us think that an existence at any given moment is anything but authentic? Being always has a content, a form, a room and a reason in history, in daily life and in desire. Yet this simple truth is so often overridden by pervasive racism organizing our world, a racism with constructive relations with patriarchy and class oppression. Our discomfort is with why we came at all, and why in this way – the ‘why’ referring to colonization, pulled along by the long chains of imperialism. It is not a ‘free choice’, even when we are not refugees. This is a dance of power, if not always a dance of death. We enter preorganized terrains, the same terms hold here as in trade and financial relations between Western capitalism and the third world.

Racism casts a long shadow over our lives. The imaginary geographies of colonialism swamp us in this new space. Inconsistent identities, reversible but all negative, are levelled at us. Alternately or simultaneously we are savage/over refined, primitive/decadent, squalid/exotic, ascetic/animalistic, barbarians and traditional. It is not simply a video game played out on a TV screen; everything from the schooling of children to UN legitimation of invasions of the third world depends on these constructions. We are covered with a new thin film of discursive skin, physiognomies and gestures are typified, costumes fabricated. We resist this process and are dubbed aliens, immigrants, foreigners. And so we change, both in anger and by seduction. Our consciousness is, after all, in and of our history. But anger, anguish and a rush of lostness is overpowering when we realize that our migrations did not take us where they should have, that our refuges have betrayed us.

home, heart and history Then begins our antiquarian, nostalgic search for a 'home’, for belonging in the most ideal sense, as the child belongs oceanically in the body of the mother. We invent a 'home’, our paradise lost, our story of the Fall. We begin to wear, display, eat 'home’. 'Home’ becomes a magic installation, a multimedia production, and we, both creators and creatures of that production, run through a hall of mirrors projecting and losing a fatuous authenticity, proclaiming an ascribed difference. This difference does not rest on what we are socially, culturally or visually, but rather on what we are not, namely, not white. Its criterion of identification, whiteness, with its package of signifiers, is impossible for us to attain. Thus we re-enter colonization. The issue then is not that we are 'different’, but that we hold a kind of 'difference’ which signals to 'homelands’ or multicultural ethnic reservations. It is then that a mythic 'home’ arises in the ghettos of Brick Lane or Harlem. 'Home’ becomes a symbolically constructed fort from which we wage wars, while retreating within it in a deepening isolation. This is true of even those who want to join the ranks of the masters, who wish to leap over the chasm of bodies interpreted through history. But prevented by social ontology and appearance, they become vendors of identity, alienation and authenticity. A new art comes into life, a new skin trade, fundamentally different from one aimed at self-knowledge and self-expression. The very notion of identity is rendered stereotypical, thus static and useless. This art or cultural production never grapples or comes to terms with the fundamental issues of displacement that migration creates, rendering adults into groping children, backs bending under the extra burden of racism. It never seeks out the real meaning of a remembered 'home’, which serves in exile as a painted back-drop without perspective, against which our lives are lived - continuing as fine filaments of nuance. On the contrary, the ethnic art that so desperately parades identities often ends up purveying exotic otherness, some with more skill than others, but all in a kind of second hand magic realism.

But beyond metaphors and cultural mythologies, we are here, where we live. We live in a shared social organization, in situations of unemployment, taxation and social welfare. The second generation grows up on cultural languages which are not foreign to them, though they are still designated as foreigners. Forms of sexuality, private and public conduct are real to them in ways that may be distant or displaced for their parents. This life is as real as any other and there is not much point in saying one does not belong. The problem lies in thinking that belonging only means a happy positivity. This, strangely, after tasting the distances and pains enclosed within the four walls of the family!

Belonging is often long and painful, but it is belonging nonetheless. How else can it be anything but painful in a society that is built on one's subordination? The vivid sense we have of being outsider-insiders is clearly a sign of belonging. Our existence, like that of others, does not need to be validated like a stamped passport issued by a national authority. Existential and cultural possibilities lying within our social being are numerous. The emigre condition is in no way better or worse than living at 'home’ within nation states. Living is simply what it is. It is here and now, protean, elusive and dynamic. It spills over fixed definitions and forms. In this journey we continue and change, are alone and accompanied; taking ourselves by the hand we turn corners, always to become and to be.

Himani Bannerji
Himani Bannerji is a Professor in the Department of Sociology, York University. Her research and writing life extend between Canada and India. Her interests encompass anti-racist feminism, Marxism, critical cultural theories and historical sociology.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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Britannia Art Gallery
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Bookhug Press
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Plantation Memories
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