Over dinner one night, a group of New York-based Asian organizers, activists and scholars gathered to discuss the questions: “Is Asian American Feminism necessary?” and “Am I part of Asian American Feminism?”
The questions come up often due, in part, to the myth of the “model minority,” the dominance of East Asian issues within the space, and the subsequent erasure of all other Asian Americans.
These have been key takeaways for the organizers of the “Asian American Feminism” event series, which launched last year following the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Leaders from the New York City chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) organized the series in response to the exclusion and tokenization of women of color and non-binary people of color amidst the groundswell of mainstream women’s movements. However, even within identity groups, there is underrepresentation and marginalization.
During a roundtable discussion following the wrap of the 2017 series, the event organizers and feminists from various Asian diasporas verbalized these issues and others pertinent to our communities. After attempting to define Asian American Feminism as a framework, the group discussed ways to forge ahead in building a movement. Read the beginning of the dialogue here.
What are the spaces or moments that have caused you to be uncomfortable in a way that moved you to want to do more?
Diane: I was working with 18MillionRising as their digital organizer, and we held a town hall forum using the hashtag #hypermasculazns as a way to have an open and honest conversation about toxic masculinity and what hypermasculinity does to the Asian American community. I thought that was a really critical conversation for us to have, because it allowed a lot of different people to engage in that conversation [outside of the classroom]. But I was left wondering who was left out of the conversation. I think the people that we often want to talk about these issues with, like our elders, our aunties and our parents, might not understand the language we choose to use.
Thahitun: When we think intergenerationally, Adhikaar has been doing amazing work in Queens with Nepali women. And there are so many others. I don’t think they brand themselves as “feminist organizations,” but it’s women who are running these organizations and have been doing it for a very long time. A lot of the work is built on building Asian American Feminism or solidarity amongst other Asian groups, necessarily, because they are really busy just serving the community. When we think of Asian American Feminism, how do we incorporate these organizations into the conversation? And Shanana brought this up, Asian American Feminism might be more of a political movement and power than a community work.
Shahana: I traveled in Bangladesh for seven months and was building with some of these feminist movement leaders. What was funny to me was that [in] some of the work that they had done in the late 70s and 80s (and many of these feminist leaders are much older now), one of their earlier victories was building an alliance with sex workers. And if we Google that, it doesn’t exist. So I won’t be able to ever learn about this, unless I hear it from you in-person. This stuff needs to be archived. There needs to be something where I can go to the organization and say, “this was one of your victories,” clear cut.
Senti: I think about Indian culture: We taught everybody how to fuck, and also trans people in our culture were worshipped before colonization. We had complex understandings of gender and identity that were then erased. We see that in our own families too. South Asian aunties are so pushy.
There are so many ways, too, in which to act as a collective and to build upon a common experience is to talk about the women and femmes in our community and the ways in which their livelihoods, and the ways in which they express themselves, are actually completely antithetical to the dominant understandings of what Asian women are like. I know that we all know that, but that’s not what the cultural narrative is about women who look like us. Why is that the case when (I swear to god) all the women in my family are the boldest women in the world? None of these women are submissive. They are just out here getting shit done. Where is that story? We also need more spaces of storytelling and archiving, because we also need to see that from each’s backgrounds and understand that that’s a common building point.
Tiffany: A couple of the more recent movements that I have latched onto that have given me a lot of life were, first of all, the NY strippers who decided to protest against colorism … and the Peruvian beauty pageant contestants who talked about femicide in Peru. I’m always trying to learn more about these stories that don’t dominate the headlines.
I think more people should reach out from these “privileged bubbles,” where we’re able to sit here with this beautiful feast, drinking wine, to talk about feminism, while there are others who may not have the privilege to do that. They’re [organizing], getting paid, getting harassed by their landlords and bosses. They may not able to sit down and have these conversations, but we need to be able to bring them into the conversation without it seeming like we are just using them to catalyze our own movements. We can’t just sit here and intellectualize Asian American Feminism without actually thinking about these micro-communities who are working in different realms to actually do things for their communities.
In what ways do you see yourself leveraging your own resources and positions to push forward issues you hold dear?
Tiffany: I’m hoping to do a lot more [writing] in that space — the ways Asian women are reclaiming sexuality or subverting gender, because that’s something that I feel is definitely so far away from stories told about our communities from bygone eras. Even today, this sex-positivity revolution is missing us a little bit. I think it’s important to continue to share our narratives and [our community’s narratives].
Senti: One of the best things you can do to contribute to Asian American Feminism is to go to therapy. I grew up pretty much thinking that unless you were suicidal, why would you have to go to therapy? I didn’t really grow up in a household where mental health issues were spoken about very much. Now me and my whole brown-ass family, we’re all in therapy. It’s amazing.
Thahitun: A lot of the work that I do (and probably a lot of you do) is super heavy. A lot of the things you’re hearing, it’s just personally a lot of heavy stuff. But what I’ve been hearing from community members is that they’ve been needing to talk to someone. Last night, I went to a family dinner, and one of the aunties there — she is just always really quiet and for years, now over 10 years. I know that she’s severely depressed and just doesn’t get any help for it, because she doesn’t feel comfortable speaking to someone who doesn’t speak Bangla. Language specific therapists — having a directory is a direct thing we can do, and that’s something I’ve been pushing within the city. How do we get a list of therapists that serve our communities in these languages, and where are they based?
Definitely self-care for ourselves, but self-care for people we work with and are working for. That’s something that’s been a struggle. Also just figuring out all the insurance stuff, that’s been so difficult with people. They just don’t know what insurance they have, where they are, how to figure it out. That’s something that I think we as Asian American feminists can address. More resources for our communities and languages.
What do we want to work on? What are some actionable steps that we can take in this movement?
Shahana: One of the things I’m thinking about is a job registry. Some organizations I’ve connected with seem to be trying to put this together, because recently arrived immigrants, even just folks living here, don’t have access to jobs that require minimal skills. Or how do we get them these skills that they need for these jobs? The second is a housing registry, where right now we know that public housing is not a viable option for anyone trying to get into that world and out of their disastrous living situations. Or rent stabilized housing, or just any affordable housing. So something like a registry for people wanting affordable homes. The third thing is a money registry, because people just literally need some cash. Food stamps, public benefits, public assistance is just not cutting it for us, especially for folks who have green cards but have not lived through the five years until you are eligible to apply for these things.
Thahitun: Just to piggyback off of that, a lot of the work that we’ve been dealing with in the Bangladeshi communities is deportation, because ICE is going after everyone. One of the things [we’re working on] is a deportation fund for families who are being seperated. The husband is detained, and then the wife is left with the rent she has to pay and kids she has to take care of. This helplessness without any real support; I don’t know if there is support. I haven’t really found it yet. Creating these pathways for people to utilize that will [improve] their lives.
For speaker bios, see our first post.
The latest in the series, Queering Asian American Feminism was recently held at New Women Space in Brooklyn on Sunday, April 22 and featured 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 the LGBTQ+ lens.
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