Resistance and Reorientation: Reclaiming Identity and Racialized Spaces in Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill by Amy Zetting for EDU 6460 Curriculum, Culture, and Language

Resistance and Reorientation: Reclaiming Identity and Racialized Spaces in Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill by Amy Zetting for EDU 6460 Curriculum, Culture, and Language

In the same way that Stuart Hall “considers the way all identities are framed by both commonalities and differences as a conception of ‘identity,’ which lives with and through, not despite, difference,” author Fred Wah, in his biotext Diamond Grill, negotiates and legitimates the ways in which his multiple identities exist within the spaces around him (p. 401-2). This powerful autobiographical fiction interrogates the notion of hybridized-identities and confronts the multitude of society’s stereotypical and prejudicial racialized identities.

In 1939, Fred Wah was born to a Canadian-born Chinese-Scots-Irishman father, who was raised in China, and to a Swedish born Canadian mother from Saskatchewan. Wah poetically narrates his experiences growing up and working at his father’s Chinese-Canadian Diamond Grill café in Nelson, Saskatchewan. This biotext is a powerful confrontation of the expectations surrounding racialized and marginalized identities. “Another chip on my shoulder is the appropriation of the immigrant identity,” Wah writes. “I see it all over the place. Even one of the country’s best-known writers has said We are all immigrants to this place even if we were born here…” But Wah concludes, “I don’t want to be inducted into someone else’s story, or project… Sorry, but I’m just not interested in this collective enterprise erected from the sacrosanct great railway imagination dedicated to harvesting a dominant white cultural landscape” (p. 125). However, Wah also writes of his experiences eating at Chinese restaurants where his family is not known – Wah can always tell “the Chinese there eyeball [them] with a little contempt” (p. 122). Throughout the text, Wah’s anecdotal experiences attest to the racialization of identities present within all facets of society. Amidst these experiences, the Diamond Grill café becomes a catalyst for Wah, where he is forced to confront, reorient and negotiate his identity.

What I have found particularly fascinating about Wah’s text is how he negotiates these spaces and expectations surrounding his identity. According to authors Carol Schick and Verna St. Denis (2005), “When we make people ‘other,’ we group them together as the objects of our experience instead of regarding them as fellow subjects of experience with whom we might identify” (p. 301). Wah recalls, “Until Mary McNutter calls me a Chink, I’m not one… I not only hear my friends put down the Chinks (and the Japs, and the Wops, and the Spiks, and the Douks) but comic books and movies confirm that the Chinese are yellow (meaning cowardly), no-to-be trusted, heathens, devils, slant-eyed and dirty” (p. 98). Educational philosopher Maxine Greene argues that if identity is a question of recognition, in order to better understand our surroundings, and ourselves we need to first question how we perceive our realities. It is not only a question of recognition; it is a question of perception – “Our tendency [is] to perceive our everyday reality as a given, objectively defined, impervious to change. Taking it for granted, we do not realize that that reality, like all others, is an interpreted one” (Greene, p. 44). Wah invites the reader to join him in his perceived realities and experiences of racialization as a way to bridge gaps and live through, not despite, difference. In this way, the order of Wah’s stories becomes less important than the function they serve as an overall (social) commentary.

This biotext speaks to my educative experiences; in particular to my research interests and the role curriculum and language play in either perpetuating or breaking down the barriers of racialization and prejudice. “Understanding the politics of recognition, and taking a cultural stance on identity formation as a social and moral responsibility of schooling, requires embracing a critical pedagogical approach to teaching” (Jenlink, 2009, p. 24). I believe that it is imperative to teach from a critical pedagogical standpoint as a way to implement anti-racist education and promote critical thinking.

Consciousness of privileged and marginalized perspectives, and of discriminatory practices in general, is central to the development, implementation and promotion of an equitable and inclusive critical multicultural education model. “Education within a pluralistic democratic society should help students to gain the content, attitudes, and skills needed to know reflectively, to care deeply, and to act thoughtfully” (Banks and Banks, p. 152). Moreover, it is important that students realize the ‘privilege of whiteness’ depends on marginalized identities against which ‘the norm’ can be compared: “A dominant group is positioned to define itself as blank, unmarked space vs. a marked outside ‘other.’ The unmarked norm is the space of privilege, an identification that gets to define standards according to itself” (Schick and St. Denis, 2005, p. 299). Yet Wah insightfully comments upon the human condition as a whole, continually bridging these “marked” and “unmarked spaces:” “We would rather be anywhere, as long as we are somewhere. We would rather be anyone, as long as we are someone” (p. 139). I believe this text cautions its readers that without acknowledging processes of racialization, or the systems that both privilege and marginalize certain races, stereotypes and false expectations are perpetuated.

The importance of this text is not only Wah finding his place in the world; it is also the confrontation of societal expectations of prescribed identities, and the narrow categories of identity politics. Envisioning knowledge as power and resistance is essential for a decolonizing praxis of educational discourse: “The academic project of decolonization requires breaking with the ways in which the human condition is defined and shaped by dominant European-American cultures. In the absence of an understanding of the social reality informed by local experiences and practices, decolonization processes will not succeed” (Dei and Asgharzadeh , 2001, p. 299). To transform educational pedagogy, schools must address the social-class, racial, and ethnic inequalities embedded in the system. Moreover, it is imperative that students be given the opportunity to investigate and determine how cultural assumptions, frames of reference, perspectives and the biases within a discipline influence the ways knowledge is constructed (Werner, p. 214). By implementing culturally sensitive teaching methods and embracing a multicultural awareness, myths that perpetuate social class, gender, and racial privilege can be unraveled (Banks and Banks, pp. 154-156).

This is a moving text that confronts perceived impurities of multiculturalism, and creates a space that promotes an important discourse concerning the effects of racialization.

References

Banks, C. A. McGee, and J. Banks. (1995). “Equity Pedagogy: An essential component of multicultural education.” In Theory into Practice: Culturally Relevant Teaching 34: 152-158.

Dei, G. J. Stefa, and Asgharzadeh, A. (2001). “The Power of Social Theory: The Anti-Colonial Discursive Framework.” In Journal of Educational Thought (35): 297-323.

Greene, M. Wide-Awakeness and the Moral Life: Emancipatory Education. EDU 6424 Course Pack, Winter 2010.

Hall, Stuart. (1994). “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Harvester-Wheatsheaf: 392-403.

Jenlink, P. M. (2009). Affirming Diversity, Pollitics of Recognition, and the Cultural Work of Schools. In The Struggle for Identity in Today’s Schools: Cultural recognition in a time of increasing diversity. Lanham, MA: Rowan & Littlefield Education.

Schick, C., and V. St. Denis. (2005). “Troubling National Discourses in Anti-Racist Curricular Planning.” In Canadian Journal of Education (28): 295-317.

Werner, W. (2000). “Reading Authorship into Texts.” In Theory and Research in Social Education (28): 193-219.

Wah, F. (1996). Diamond Grill. Alberta: Ne West Press.