“Why do you need it?”: A Roundtable On Asian American Feminism

My Asian American and feminist identities always existed separately.

I am undeniably Asian American, the second daughter of Taiwanese immigrants. But growing up in a white-dominated suburb of Texas, I wasn’t really exposed to Asian American communities outside of my parents’ Taiwanese alumni network and the “Chinese school” my sisters and I attended, relegated only to summers and Sundays during the school year. As the only family to live abroad in the U.S., we would make the voyage back to Taiwan every other summer to visit our large Chinese-Taiwanese family. While these dispersed communities provided me with a sense of belonging and family, they were never quite spaces for feminist discourse. I sought that education elsewhere.

In college, I took Asian American Studies courses and read works by Helen Zia, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jade Snow Wong and Margaret Cho. While their literature was essential to building my Asian feminist identity during these formative years, it didn’t take a detective to notice that the prominent voices in feminism didn’t look like these women.  

I rallied with feminist causes, and I related to Asian American issues, but I was hardly ever exposed to representations of these enmeshed identities (besides on Jenn Fang’s Reappropriate). That was until following the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, when leaders from the New York City chapter of National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) — an organization dedicated to reproductive justice, gender parity and immigrants rights — began organizing a series of events titled “Asian American Feminism.”

The conjunctive term leaped out at me, as if I had never seen the words strewn together before (and I wouldn’t rule this out as a possibility). It was as if an alarm went off in my head as I recognized my urgent need to locate and build with this community.

The Asian American Feminism series materialized in reaction to the exclusion and tokenization of women of color and non-binary people of color amidst the groundswell of current mainstream women’s movements. Responding to a call to define and interrogate our collective positionality in this political moment, groups of self-identified Asian American feminists gathered to begin an ongoing discussion on the label itself, its inclusion and exclusion, and how to push forward an agenda that addresses all of our needs.

The events and workshops last year covered topics as diverse as Asian American feminist politics, history, mental health and organizing, and included panel discussions with prominent local AAPI leaders. Activists and members from AAPI organizations and feminist collectives from various diasporas turned up to discuss, observe and challenge the movement’s intentions, obstacles, terminology and barriers to membership.

Next in the series, Queering Asian American Feminism will be held at New Women Space in Brooklyn on Sunday, April 22 and will feature performances and a panel discussion (with Jes Tom, AC Dumlao, Parissah Lin and Bex Kwan) on the current state of our Asian American/feminist movements, contextualized through an LGBTQ+ lens.

After wrapping up last year’s events, we gathered a group of feminists to reflect on these early stages of resurfacing the Asian American Feminist political identity and movement. The discussion topics flowed from intergenerational movement building, to the importance of keeping records, to destigmatizing mental health. Below is an abridged version of the dialogue that took place over wine and dinner at Bessou this winter, edited for clarity and flow, followed by bios for everyone quoted in conversation.

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How do you understand Asian American Feminism? Is it a useful framework to you?

Julie: When we launched the series, we had people asking, “Am I part of Asian American Feminism?” I would get that question on Twitter from people who are South Asian, but also from other people. White people would ask questions like, “Why do you need Asian American Feminism? Aren’t you basically white? What kind of problems do you have?” So, we’ve had these really contrasting views when we start talking about feminism as Asian Americans. That was really eye opening.

Senti: I identify as South Asian American, I identify as Indian and as an immigrant, in a lot of ways, but to me, Asian American feels too big for me to relate to in a personal way. Also because oftentimes, South Asians are not as prominent in narratives about Asian American identity, I often don’t see myself or my community represented when there are conversations about Asian American identity. I think I would like to feel more of that solidarity, but personally I don’t think I identify as Asian American.

Marian: I’m first generation Filipino American. I think my worldview and how I approach my career, my values, is very much informed by the fact that my mother separated from my family; she moved to the Bronx before we did to pursue a lifetime career of nursing so that she can provide for our family back home. Her issues and the issues of my community are so vastly different from the issues of today that face the [prominent] Asian community. From my point of view, a lot of [the mainstream conversation about Asian American issues] has to do with representation in media and very specific American-centered issues. So, I would say that in my organizing, I ascribe more closely to the problems that most speak to my community before I ascribe to [Asian American feminism].

Tiffany: [The murder of Vincent Chin] is an earmark in history that we can look back to to remember why we even needed to connect with other Asian Americans or other immigrants — anyone who falls under the umbrella of “Other” in a way that’s not specifically Black or Latinx.

Whenever I think about defining an Asian American feminist movement, I have to ask, what issues aren’t being talked about in “White Feminism” that we need to address specifically? What issues aren’t in Black Feminism that we need to speak to specifically? [Asian American Feminism] should address issues within our communities, and that can be as broad-reaching as possible.

Vivian: In the Chin case, it’s really interesting that it was this East Asian man that everyone galvanized around. Whereas at that same time, right after the Vietnam War, there was a lot of backlash against Southeast Asian refugees in the U.S. who were also victims of hate crimes that weren’t being galvanized around in the same way. So I think even that moment is really tricky when we think about who is the subject that we are rallying around throughout these historical movements. I think that in terms of Asian American Feminism, I often think about it as plural: Asian American Feminisms that everybody has their own individual relation to. But it’s very determined by who they are.

Are there other ways that you orient to these terms or these frameworks?

Winnie: In terms of a movement, I feel like Asian American Feminism is more of a political identity [used for solidarity]. I know when most people think about Asian Americans, they think of East Asians… It’s sad that South Asians and other communities have had to go and form their own communities and activism. I think it’s beautiful that they have, but I feel like it was a result of exclusion. I would love for [the Asian American political movement] to be inclusive.

Shahana: We have a Bangladeshi feminist collective, because we felt a need — and by “we” I mean the women organizers. We’re an intergenerational group, where we were very intentional about it being multigenerational and multilingual, so that we’re building off of the wisdom of those that are building before us; for example, building with Bangladeshi domestic workers. And some of the domestic workers are also women who incubated various movement work through movements that didn’t accept them. So I’m also thinking about: who’s not in the room, who’s not here right now, who could be here, why aren’t they here? So thinking about that, it’s hard for me to be an Asian American Feminist. Where I think it comes in handy is when we are organizing on a broad political spectrum.

Can we grow this Asian American feminist movement? And if so, what is needed? What is that movement going to look like, and who is involved?

Winnie: I’ve been thinking back to the ‘60s and the success the Black Panther Party had and their ten point program and their policy goals. “We want housing; we want education.” I feel like, for me, that would be a good starting point to talk about what we [Asian Americans] want as a community — what our needs are — and then build it from there.

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Julie Ae Kim is a community organizer and activist, working in immigrant inclusion, feminism and politics. She is on the board of the New York City chapter of NAPAWF and is one of the lead organizers of the Asian American Feminism event series.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist and organizer. She is currently pursuing her Master of Public Health at NYU’s College of Global Public Health and works as a communications coordinator at Planned Parenthood of New York City. She writes the interviews column at Feministing.

Marian Guerra is a co-founder of the Filipino American Democratic Club of New York.

Vivian Truong is a PhD candidate in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan and a visiting scholar at the A/P/A Institute at NYU. Her areas of research and teaching are in Asian American studies, 20th century urban history, social movements and women of color feminisms.

Winnie Ye is a reproductive justice activist who currently serves as policy and program associate at the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH) and on the board of the New York City chapter of NAPAWF.

Shahana Hanif is a writer and disability justice activist. She serves as the Bangladeshi community liaison in Brooklyn for Council Member Brad Lander and associate editor for Law at the Margins.

Diane Wong is an ethnographer, educator and writer on the intersections of race, gender and the gentrification of Chinatowns. She is a PhD candidate in government at Cornell University and a visiting scholar at the A/P/A Institute at NYU.

Thahitun Mariam is a poet, writer and researcher, currently working as a community organizer at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Tiffany Diane Tso is the culture editor for Ladygunn and a freelance journalist and essayist.

Facilitated by Rachel Kuo, a writer, educator and PhD candidate at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication.

Transcription by Jolene Hsu

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