Mapping the Grey Zones of Colonial Violence

Crystal Mun-hye Baik is an OHMA alum and Assistant Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Currently, she is working on her first book manuscript, tentatively entitled: Demilitarized Futures: Korean Transnational Artists and a Poetics of Division. 

While research in feminist and decolonial studies sometimes relies on simplified dichotomies to structure our thinking -- the oppressed and the oppressor, the colonized and the colonizer – oral history allows us to understand, through collaborative analysis of the details of particular lives, the ways in which these categories are always messy and intertwined. Since graduating from OHMA in 2010, I have consistently drawn upon oral history as a socially engaged method and praxis. Specifically, as a scholar and an educator located in the interdisciplinary fields of critical ethnic studies, transnational feminist critique, and decolonial studies, I use oral history to grapple with the different-- and at times, contradictory layers-- of historical subjectivity. That is, rather than understanding oral history as an empirical method that simply mines for and captures objective data, oral history is an interactive encounter that sheds light on the messiness and unforeseen complexities that underlie everyday life. 

This particular understanding of oral history has felt especially acute (and pressing) in my current book project. For instance, in a recent oral history interview conducted with Peggy Choy, a choreographer and scholar raised in Hawai’i (and who is now based at the University of Wisconsin in Madison), experiences of colonial violence do not fit into the fixed dichotomy of colonizer versus colonized. Tracing her familial lineage to one of the first groups of Korean laborers recruited to work in Hawai’i’s notorious sugar planation system at the turn of the twentieth century, Choy’s family was exposed to different forms of structural violence, ranging from displacement caused by Japanese colonial occupation to racialized labor exploitation overseen by the U.S. sugar plantation oligarchy. Yet, as Asian settlers in the independent kingdom of Hawai’i, Choy’s family became inadvertently entangled in the consolidation of a U.S. settler colonial regime: with the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 by American sugar plantation owners, Hawai'i was illegally annexed by the United States. Today, indigenous Hawaiians, or the Kanaka ʻŌiwi, remain dispossessed in their own land and live under precarious conditions in a state that is often idyllically depicted as a "multicultural melting pot." Through her oral history interview, Choy speaks to these intersecting histories of family life, broader waves of Asian labor recruitment (including Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Portuguese laborers), and the lives of the Kanaka ʻŌiwi. As carefully explained by Choy, members of her immediate family, including both of her parents and sister, were active allies in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement of the 1970s (which continues to unfold in the present moment). Yet, built upon settler colonial occupation of indigenous land, Hawai'i's contemporary society is an uneven and unequal social hierarchy, with different communities having noticeably different degrees of access to resources such as land, job security, socio-economic opportunities, and health services. For Choy, the oral history does not remedy or resolve these contradictions; rather, the interview transforms into an enclosed space that compels narrators to sit with, confront, and make sense of these enmeshed dynamics.

As I examine the militarized and colonial making of a contemporary Korean diaspora, I’ve had the privilege to meet with and interview Korean feminist artists, performers, and cultural practitioners who address the tangible and less palpable effects of militarization across Korea, the Pacific, Oceania, and North America. Yet, in these interviews, the narrators do not provide stories of idealized resistance, nor do they give romanticized accounts of individual agency. Rather, most of them foreground the ambiguous grey zones of their own life histories. In many ways, my interview with Peggy epitomizes why I continually draw upon oral history as a self-reflexive practice and method: my interviewees do not simply provide scripted stories or "raw" information that is easy to digest. Rather, as producers of knowledge and embodied subjects, their life histories are rich, complex, and textured. Forged within a shared space of negotiation, engagement, and interaction, these life histories deepen my understanding of socially-engaged research as they point to the utter density of everyday life.