Read Teodora Domotor’s Book Review of my book, Contemplations from the Heart.
My book, Contemplations from the Heart was published in 2014 and it is a book on gender justice, racial justice and climate justice. I hope that many others will find this book useful for personal reflection, group discussion and/or Bible Study classes.
Contemplations from the Heart – Identity and Alterity in America by Teodora Domotor
In her book entitled Contemplations from the Heart (2014), Dr. Kim touches upon a wealth of interconnected topics including race, gender, and religion, but what captures one’s attention the most is her statement on how people belonging to “a distinctly marginal class based on appearance are regarded as secondary human beings” (Kim, 2014, p. 70). American history demonstrates that the 1920s witnessed the peak of societal prejudice towards those who ethnically, racially, or in terms of gender were outside the hegemonic power structure that the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant core of the American Establishment promoted. The 1960s moderated this sentiment to an extent. Sadly, however, discrimination still remains a part of the American social fabric, which Contemplations from the Heart (2014) underlines effectively.
National identity is composed of cultural, social, and ethnic influences. Societies dominated by a single ethnic group share such values as common language, religion, ethics, and customs. Multicultural or multiethnic societies, on the other hand, do not show such unity. The United States of America represents the largest community that comprises people of a variety of descent. American national identity is constructed in relation to foreign identities that came to be assimilated into American society. American relations of identity are global, and the US brand of multiculturalism has become synonymous with ethnic groups (Moddelmog, 1999, p. 133). Then how is it possible to have so many cases of discrimination in the United States, including the ones that Dr. Kim herself was subjected to? How is it possible for a country not traditionally dominated by a single ethnic group to allow for such an increasingly disturbing phenomenon as inequity to flourish? The answer may be simpler than we think: anxiety about the “other” uncovers a great deal of national insecurity. A sense of cultural apprehension is a part of the origins of American identity (Dippie, 1991, p. 18).
Alterity is a force of anxiety, therefore “otherness” instantly elicits hostility. America’s battle with the “other”, however, merges into a battle with itself. Mainstream Americans’ description of the “other” tends to be driven by stereotypes implied within their enculturation in different regions of the country. Stereotyping frustrates successful intercultural communication because it prevents us from understanding a culture (Scollon and Scollon, 2001, p. 171). Moreover, people want to be treated as individuals, not collectively. As Jung claims, “knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people. Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves” (Jung, 1963, p. 247). The “other” forces the individual to analyze himself/herself in relation to the “other”, which then leads to the understanding of the “other” as well as the self. Identity and “otherness”, therefore, interrelate (Larsen, 1998, pp. 1-15). Accordingly, one may be alone but never isolated from the “other” who essentially gives them their identity – which, by extension, defines the essence of Americanness: a national quality embodied by a racially and ethnically diverse population.
The differentiation of the self and the “other” constructs the identity, which also involves imagining the self as “other” (Fludernik, 2007, pp. 263-264). By achieving the articulation of our own identity, we simultaneously progress to establishing the notion of our foreignness – what I am not. Nonetheless, when concentrating on enhancing our sensitivity to cultural communication (which could undoubtedly lead to the minimization of discrimination), we must refrain from alluding to any sense of deficiency by establishing our what I am not. Instead, the focus should fall on what I am. Each person has a different background and point of view, so we are able to share a broad range of ideas. When we value everyone’s unique traits and perspective, such inclusion leverages the power of our differences to achieve our goal: unity regardless of origin.
Contemplations from the Heart (2014) mentions conferences specifically organized for minorities in America (Kim, 2014, pp. 21-22, 81), which poses a question whether such initiatives are useful or actually counterproductive in terms of the aforementioned desire for unity. Isolating ourselves from the rest of the society by setting up events designed exclusively for our own closed circle of people does not seem to serve the purpose of reaching out to those whom we intend to educate about our own culture. Knowledge exchange among people from the same background (who have experienced the same struggles) may be constructive from the perspective of emotional support, but it still remains a futile action as we further enhance the current “them” and “us” society model by separating ourselves from those who identify themselves differently to us. If we do not work on getting the “other” to understand, our cause will never get advanced. Rather than excluding people, we should try and include all, and answer their questions. Conventions run by and for minorities do not celebrate diversity, nor do they add to the public’s understanding and knowledge of cultural identity in multiethnic societies. They divide instead of unite the many colors – including white – present in such countries as the United States. We cannot judge (and punish) an entire community for the moral wrongdoing of some members of it. Surely, not all white American people infantilize, victimize, or maltreat non-white people. History contains several events that evoke a sense of guilt and shame in any civilized human being, but numerous other examples can be listed, too, which restore our faith in humanity. Sadly, the latter ones are often forgotten when it comes to dialogue between different communities. We tend to overlook the fact that there are people who stand up for each other across race, gender, and religion.
The fight against social exclusion is a tough battle precisely because we are quite often unable to recognize the presence thereof. We tend to defend offensive remarks by thinking of them as expressions of free opinion, forgetting that being judgemental is another manifestation of intolerance. Today, social activism appears to no longer be about equality but a competition for superiority, which reinforces the division of people. Immediately shutting out or negating anything that does not serve one’s interest results in disconnecting people, stripping them off the opportunity to debate and try to find a solution together. We must avoid generalizing, otherwise we risk detaching ourselves from human beings with whom we think and feel alike, skin color notwithstanding. By publishing Contemplation from the Heart (2014), Dr. Kim proved that we do not necessarily have to be similar or agree on everything to respect each other’s views and accept each other as we are. If any community – embodied by family, church, or society – wants to survive, “it must become stronger by fulfilling and using all its members. It cannot leave half of its members behind. It needs to forget separation, forget “co-anything”, and celebrate all its members so that everyone thrives, flourishes, and embraces their full humanity” (Kim, 2012, p. 25).
Dippie, B. W. (1991) The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Fludernik, M. (2007) Identity/Alterity in Herman, D. (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 260-273.
Jung, C. G. and Jaffé, A. (1963) Memories, Dream, Reflections. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Kim, G.J.S. (2014) Contemplations from the Heart. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications.
Larsen, S. E. (1998) ‘The Tacit Other. Identity and Otherness in Two Texts by Henry James’ [online]. 2nd International Congress of the Greek Association of General and Comparative Literature, Athens, 8-11 November 1998.
Available: http://litteraturhistorie.au.dk/fileadmin/www.litteraturhistorie.au.dk/forskning/forskningspublikationer/arbejdspapirer/arbejdspapir25.pdf [Accessed: 10 March 2011]
Moddelmog, D.A. (1999) Reading Desire: In Pursuit of Ernest Hemingway. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Scollon, R. and Scollon, S. W. (2001) Intercultural Communication
Teodora Domotor received her PhD in American Literature from the University of Surrey, UK. In addition to lecturing, she has also been intensely engaged in bibliotherapy. Her primary research goals are directed towards the study of modernism and 20th-century transnational American literature with a strong emphasis on the narrative representation of national and gender identity. Currently, she investigates the portrayal of immigrant men’s infantilization and symbolic castration in the works of modernist Hungarian-American emigré writers. She is committed to interdisciplinary research: gender studies, psychoanalysis, social history, and literary theory form the basis of her arguments. Her articles and book reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in American and European peer-reviewed journals.