115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Conditioning Cultural Representation: Public Uptake and Detroit's Asian American Markers

Stephanie Mahnke, Michigan State University

Through an analysis of two Vincent Chin memorials and their public reactions in downtown Detroit, this paper explores the conditions for Asian American visibility and participation within the public sphere.


Considered the region of Asian American “unsettlements,” the Midwest has historically been known for its physical displacement of the Asian American community. With a focus on Detroit, the Asian American community’s pattern of displacement in the last 100 years due to zoning laws, prejudice, and urban planning has contributed to such movements as the upheaval and transfer of an entire Chinatown, relocation to the suburbs or other states, and migrations to low-income, crime-infested downtown areas such as Cass Corridor. These transferences have provided a challenge for Asian American communities to secure concentrated and sustainable ethnic spaces, making the ethnic group’s voice– despite its numbers – struggle to be representative in the public sphere. Though Asian American space and place have been studied before in terms of identity and economic development, few have specifically focused on their spatial strategies as a means of mobilization for public address and entry into the public sphere. A major way for minoritized groups to gain a representative voice and visibility in the public sphere is through physical markers such as buildings, ethnic heritage sites, Chinatowns, cultural centers, and street names, to name a few.  Through a rhetorical analysis of APIA material markers and their public reaction surrounding two Vincent Chin memorials, I propose a theoretical framework for reading spatial claims as public address, which underscore spatial concepts of territoriality and spatial networks alongside theories of public attention and recognition. Using Staehali, Mitchell, and Nagel’s (2008) Regimes of Publicity, I explain how APIA spatial claims may be recognized by publics and what factors contribute to its mis/non-recognition. The paper not only concludes that APIA political claims continue to demonstrate limited social uptake, but also explores the conditions under which Detroit’s APIA groups are allowed access to public attention. Since the public sphere is imagined and continuously shifting, the paper doesn’t seek to provide an empirical analysis of how a group gains entry into the public sphere, but rather explores the connection between Detroit Asian Americans’ struggling efforts for presence and public address, and the complex factors that contribute to the recognition of their political material claims.