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Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Race, Diaspora and Intersectionality: why I changed my Masters thesis from queer theory to postcolonial studies

Question: Who do you want writing your cultural history? 
Has your culture's history been written? Has it been discussed? Is it politicised, poeticised, used for profit? When was it written? Why, and by whom?

Through the first six months of study and research during my Master's degree in fashion history, all these questions are more started coming to me. We learnt about how couturiers no longer reign supreme, and argued for fashion's importance in academia. We learnt about theories of power and domination, as well as resistance and counter-culture. We combined philosophy and sociology with fashion and textiles.

Having written my bachelors dissertation on the drag device in film and television, I had originally planned on centring my masters thesis on androgyny and the absence of gender signifiers in queer subcultures (now going by the buzzword 'gender neutral'). Queer theory is having a bit of a moment right now - and deservedly so. Judith Butler is extremely popular in arts academia, and nearly everyone I know (myself included) has written a paper centring around her famous, much-misunderstood theory of gender peformativity. As the months went by and I became more familiar with academic publishing in my subject, I discovered LGBTQI+ identities are in fact fairly well represented. Tellingly, whilst students are flocking to gain academic recognition of counter-culture gender identities, the amount of new research and publications on non-Caucasian cultures within fashion and arts academia is lacking.

I had always had a nagging feeling at the back of my head regarding the ethics of studying a subculture that I am not part of, despite being a definite long-term supporter of queer lifestyles and politics. I now felt unsure in what way I would be making a contribution to knowledge in this area. Moreover, I found that many of the works written about the fashion and cultural identities of ethnic minorities were written by Caucasians. There is nothing wrong with that; it does not detract from their merit as writers and researchers. But I felt very strongly that within a subject (fashion theory) that has had to fight for academic recognition, where there is limited work written about Asian peoples and diaspora cultures, there should be some work published by writers who have the relevant cultural heritage.  

I realised that instead of just feeling annoyed about the lack of representations of Asian peoples in the Euro-American cultural industries, I was actually in a position to do something about it. Halfway through the degree, I changed my focus from androgyny to Chinoiserie, and from queer theory to postcolonial studies. I am simultaneously addressing an imbalance in published research, and making a concrete act of 'writing back' and de-colonisation, as a person with cultural heritage from an ex-colonial country.

Over the coming weeks, I will be sharing more about my study, and making a call for participants to aid in my research. For now, I'll leave you with some fun family snaps, demonstrating three British Chinese and Eurasian hybrid identites.

Me, 1996, aged 5

Me and my aunt, circa 1998, aged 7

My aunt's son, 2014, aged 7


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