The Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation

The SAADA’s work in archiving years of South Asian American historical documents is quite inspiring and provides a new depth to the meaning of history.  Samip Mallick’s story is a fascinating and sad one as Michelle Caswell relates his sense of cultural displacement in “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation.” Rather than learn more about his heritage, Mallick was left to learn a specific history which apparently did not involve his cultural group.  Therefore, the work that he and Michelle Caswell accomplish with the digital archiving of relevant historical documents highlights a facet of history and its presentation to the public.

Specifically, the old adage states: “history is written by the winners,” and the SAADA’s work pinpoints this less-than-fair aspect of recording the past.  Mallick’s experience directly proves that, and my own experience in history classes certainly points to history’s presentation in schools towards certain demographics.  While I can certainly remember learning about American history involving whites and blacks (history which is of course very important), I know virtually nothing of Hispanic involvement in shaping United States’ history.  The “symbolic annihilation” that Caswell writes about is thus a very real aspect of history and present media in general, making digital archives of certain groups so important.  In order to repair the symbolic annihilation created by a certain demographic or group of individuals, a.k.a “winners,” presenting an eschewed version of history, efforts must be made to raise awareness of such an occurrence.

Beyond the realm of history, certain cultural presentations made by those in power expand to popular media.  For example, Disney films have received backlash in the past for having a dominantly white princess lineup.  Efforts have been made to change such rhetoric to more positive cultural diversity, including the Middle Eastern Jasmine, the Chinese Mulan, and the African American Tiana.  Most recently, Disney announced including a Polynesian princess named Moana in a film that is set to release this year.  However, despite this more progressive effort against symbolic annihilation, concern has been raised over whether Polynesian depictions will be accurate as argued in Brianna Kovan’s 2014 article, “Will Disney Get Race and Culture Right With Moana?”  In response to such concerns, filmmakers ensure the public that preliminary research will be made for accuracy.  This example thus emphasizes the reality of symbolic annihilation not only in history, but in our present day.  Popular media such as film are a form of rhetoric which influences public perceptions of certain groups and thus influence the future history of said groups from our present day forward.  Therefore, the work of Caswell and Mallick are inspirational for people today as an effort to eliminate symbolic annihilation and provide a winning voice for certain groups in a collective history to the point where these groups can be represented fairly in popular media.

About Carla Aviles-Jimenez

Writing and Learning Center
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