In “Questions of Multi-Culturalism,” postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak speaks about multiculturalism, tokenization, prejudices, and the homogenization of ideas. Throughout her interview with Sneja Gunew, she goes details her background and the prejudices she’s faced.
Spivak’s in-depth answer to the tokenization problem puzzled me. Its contradictory nature makes for a difficult analysis. She notes, “And I don’t think, really, that we will solve the problem today talking to each other; but, on the other hand, I think it has to be kept alive as a problem.” While Spivak tells the interviewer that conversation alone can’t solve the issue of tokenization, she also invites everyone to talk about that same issue. Furthermore, she uses the word “Other” even though human equality is her main focus throughout her work. This use of “Other” also goes against Spivak’s critique about representing others or even yourself. Lastly, her call to scrutinize everyone’s thoughts seems rather aggressive. As she puts it, “And there has to be persistent critique of what one is up to, so that it doesn’t get all bogged down in this homogenization.” Can a society really be healthy and free if everyone is constantly dissecting and judging each other’s views? This statement seems to be an affront to the freedom of speech, a key pillar of human rights.
To untangle these contradictions, I chose to look into Maalouf’s essay entitled Deadly Identities. These two pieces complement each other because on the one hand Spivak is still struggling with identity and is figuring out how tokenism affects her. While, on the other hand,
Maalouf has already made peace with his hybrid identity and has seen enough of tokenism to know how to deal with it.
In Maalouf’s essay, he explains how his dual-nationality is perceived by people other than himself. They pressure him into picking one identity, never really listening to what he has to say on the matter. These interactions speak to the tokenism Spivak touches on throughout her interview. Society acts as if they care and want to know more about minorities; in reality, they just want to confirm their pre-established views. They will only pay attention to what they care to hear.
Maalouf, like Spivak, believes that discussion is necessary to counter tokenism. However, he offers a foundation for the discussion; one’s identity is proper to himself or herself, it is not something that can be generalized to everyone in his or her demographic. In addition to this point, Maalouf explains how it feels to be seen as the other by everyone. No matter where he was, he was always an outsider. Finally, we see throughout his essay that everyone is always dissecting his every move or trying to get into his head. Whether they are trying to understand him or to change his views about himself matters very little because he is seen as a “fake” in both scenarios, not as a human. “When I am asked who I am ‘deep inside of myself,’ it means there is, deep inside each one of us, one ‘belonging’ that matters, our profound truth, in a way, our ‘essence’ that is determined once and for all at our birth and never changes.” Understanding the possibility of hybrid identities and the effect tokenism has on them is helpful when making sense of Spivak’s work.
Spivak opens the interview by saying that Gunew and herself alone cannot solve this problem. Both Spivak and Gunew are members of minority groups. They are aware of the issue of tokenism, and Maalouf’s writing suggests that the problem comes from majorities, not from those who are aware and have been victims of tokenization. Furthermore, both Sneja Gunew and Gayatri Spivak are highly educated women, while the culprits of tokenization are mostly uneducated people, with limited worldviews. Even though Spivak argues that straight white males are the main perpetrators of this injustice, she still wants them to be part of the conversation. Everyone must have a seat at the table in order to solve this issue. Furthermore, Spivak not only calls for the help of everyone to solve this issue, she also explains its origin.
At the core, Spivak refers to the alienation of the other, of one who is different from us. We see them only as spokespeople for the oppressed, not as their own unique individual. Maalouf highlights that point. Throughout his essay, we see that people are trying to make him fit into a box, not allowing him to be part of two groups at once or even to invent his own new hybrid identity. “Half French and half Lebanese, then? Not at all! The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries.” Spivak echoes that point by saying that in academic circles, as well as in general, different people are seen as a valuable source of knowledge but not as more than that; much like the way kindergartners see their teachers. This is the problem that Spivak raises about tokenization. Even if the speakers are respected in their milieu, they are still treated as anomalies and are given the hard task to represent a whole people, not just their views, opinions and personality. This leads to further alienation of these groups because the public believes that they’ve already heard all that these people had to say. In turn, this leads to a homogenization of thought.
Most everyone who Maalouf encountered asked him the same question and took his answer in the same way. Even though they understood that he answered what he was supposed to answer, they still asked him to pick, never leaving space for his actual opinion. “Sometimes, when I have finished explaining in detail why I fully claim all of my elements, someone comes up to me and whispers in a friendly way: ‘You were right to say all this, but deep inside of yourself, what do you really feel you are?’” According to Spivak, this is the effect of tokenism. People only hear from one person from a certain demographic and expect the same answer from all people of that same demographic, leaving no place for the self. In order to avoid this pitfall, Spivak calls for the scrutinization of everyone and anyone’s actions.
She argues that people will realize that race, sexual orientation, gender, nationality or religion do not make for the same people. In the end, people are made up of multiple facets which means their views will always differ on certain points. Understanding this key point is the first step Spivak offers to counter tokenization as well as homogenization. Advocating for the right of minorities to have power over their own stories is the solution.
To act inclusive does not make one inclusive. Diversity for diversity’s sake leads nowhere. Giving the floor to someone only to make a conference, school, business or even a religion look diverse, without truly caring for what that person brings to the table, hurts our society. It hurts it as much as blatant racism.
The idea of duality that Maalouf and Spivak raise are part of the forthcoming revolution. Migration of people will inevitably lead to new ideas and new worldviews. There is no longer a need for political uprisings in order to change a society. Simply introducing new people to that society will foster change. With more and more migration, people will start to understand what truly unites us. This I believe, will change the world as we know it.
Maalouf, Amin. Deadly Identities. Paris: Grasset, 1998.
Spivak, Gayatri and Gunew, Sneja. Questions of Multi-Culturalism in The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.