An outward sign of an inward grace: how African diaspora religious identities shape their understandings of and engagement in international development
Scholarship on the different ways that international development is understood, accessed and engaged by various communities, is often contextualised by analyses of how these complex practices are communicated to (and received by) audiences. This includes established motifs of poverty and social deprivation in visual discourses of ‘charity’ and ‘need’ that abound literature, film, television and the social media of western democracies. Indeed, insights have also been drawn from quantitative and experimental measurements of people’s philanthropic propensities and attitudes towards ‘distant others’. While these are well established, less considered are the broader understandings of development that are informed by religion and faith subjectivities, especially for African diaspora communities engaged in international and local forms of development. Addressing this gulf in knowledge has important implications for the scholarly and programmatic application of development and attendant policy recommendations. This is especially true when recognising African diaspora identities as critical for engendering particular forms of cooperation and alliance with religious members of these communities. So too, how and to what extent their religious orientations shape and determine their different priorities, strategies and traditions of ‘help’ and ‘giving’ in and for their countries and communities of heritage.
As such, are we to assume that religion(s) and faith identifications are inconsequential or secondary to how diasporas participate in and negotiate understandings of international development? Or are they much more significant and constitutive than we think? Is there space for religiously informed interpretations of international development that move beyond its definitional and operational preoccupation with technocratic rationality to allow for new and extended conceptual possibilities? All these speculative questions and theoretical possibilities constitute the intellectual space within which my Identities article: '"An outward sign of an inward grace": how African diaspora religious identities shape their understandings of and engagement in international development’, is concerned.
By studying a Hmong community located in a rural village in Laos and their transnational families and relatives residing in California, I have learned that the surname-based, clan kinship system is not only critical for them to maintain their cross-border economic relationships and promote cultural traditions, but it has become hegemonic despite the salient generational and national differences between the two countries. For example, Hmong's clan identification has been the basis for the remarkable hospitality Hmong extend towards strangers and unexpected guests who are members of the same clan.
Many Hmong jokingly told me that I am technically 'Korean Hmong', because the English pronunciation of my Korean surname sounds identical to one of their eighteen clans. I came to wonder what makes Hmong clan kinship, based on a surname system, so dominant and inclusive that it allows Hmong to consider complete 'strangers' as family members and kin. Moreover, the strong emphasis on clan-based kinship causes Hmong to strictly adhere to the principle of clan exogamy (members of the same clan cannot marry or even become romantically engaged) and ethnic endogamy.
'What is your surname?' is one of the very first questions asked when Hmong meet each other for the first time. When young Hmong in Laos receive random phone calls locally or internationally from other Hmong with romantic interests, it is a mandatory practice to exchange their last names to make sure they are not from the same clan or 'family'. In my Identities article, 'Diasporic kinship hegemonies and transnational continuities in the Hmong diaspora', I analyse how the Hmong’s uncontested conformity to these kinship rules can be analysed in terms of the concept of 'hegemony', particularly in terms of its hidden nature of power that is taken for granted and based on implicit consent.
Although kinship rules may be more susceptible to hegemony through biologised and naturalised discourses, the persistence and continuity of Hmong kinship across the diaspora is not a coincidence. Known as an ethnic minority people that originated from southwest China to neighbouring Southeast Asia, many Hmong themselves still express uncertainty about the location of their ancestral homeland, which often becomes the source of collective memories about their long history of persecution and dispersal. Kinship principles such as clan exogamy, which have been maintained transnationally across national borders and across generations, are regarded as an alternative source of ethnic unity in the diaspora in the absence of a concrete, ancestral country of origin. Kinship hegemonies therefore enable diasporic peoples to imagine communities of transnational kin.
As demonstrated in my Identities article, however, the Hmong kinship system is not impervious to contestation and critique. In fact, many, especially young generations of Hmong, have already started to question the hegemonic norms of unconditional clan hospitality, restrictive exogamy and ethnic endogamy, all of which are critically and increasingly viewed as incompatible with their local, mainstream culture. Hmong in both Laos and the United States have come to question their taken-for-granted kinship principles while seeking justifications and compelling reasons why they must still conform to it faithfully. In this sense, diasporic hegemonies such as Hmong kinship can become an ideology that needs to be actively imposed by those in power (older parents in this case) on subjects (children and youth) through direct forms of compulsion and punitive force.
Blog post by Sangmi Lee, Arizona State University, USA
Read the full article: Lee, Sangmi. Diasporic kinship hegemonies and transnational continuities in the Hmong diaspora. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1457347