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Enclothing Identity: A Hmong Girl's Journey into the Politics of Identification in Thailand

by Tracy Pilar Johnson - 2007

Background/Context: It may appear a simple question for a 12 year old girl to ask: “what should I wear today for school?” But simplicity is deceptive when the possibilities are many and each carries with it a specific and dangerous weight. In this paper I start with a Hmong girl in Ban Rongrian, Thailand, as she faces forms of identifications commonly used for herself and her parents: “the dangerous communist insurgent,” “the good Thai student,” and “the colorful and peaceful ethnic minority.” Interestingly, these identifications are not only made public through speech, but through styles of dress as well.

Purpose: Building on the concerns raised by Michel de Certeu and his problematics of enunciation, as well as Judith Butler’s attempts to understand agency and subjecthood within the constraining possibilities provided by language, I examine how Hmong students tell themselves and others who they are, not only through their speech acts, but also through the practice of dressing.

Research Design: In particular, by analyzing two case studies compiled during a two and a half year period of ethnographic research, I demonstrate the ways in which some young Hmong girls struggle to understand the social relations that obtain between the Hmong and the Thai and the ways they creatively appropriate different styles of dress and speech in an attempt to play with the identifications that structure their lives.

Conclusions: I conclude by showing how it is through these practices that Hmong girls enact a present and give us a sense of how they imagine futures for themselves in which they have greater control over the representational systems that seek to identify them.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 7, 2007, p. 1637-1662
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13816, Date Accessed: 4/15/2021 5:58:28 AM

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About the Author
  • Tracy Johnson
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    TRACY PILAR JOHNSON is a cultural anthropologist with over 10 years of experience applying ethnographic insights to developing action-oriented research agendas and innovative development programs in the areas of education, human rights, violence against women and children, and trafficking in persons. Currently, as Chief of Party for a USAID-funded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Task Order, she provides management and technical leadership for the Office of Women in Development in their role as anti-trafficking coordinator for USAID. In this capacity, she manages a cutting-edge research agenda and provides technical support by conducting rapid country appraisals to identify trafficking in persons problems along with potential interventions. Dr. Johnson also is one of the authors of the forthcoming synthesis and analysis of literature and programming on gender-based violence in primary and secondary schools in developing countries. She received her doctorate in Anthropology from Teachers College, Columbia University in May 2005.
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