I have been hesitant to write about the recent twitter phenomenon of #NotYourAsianSidekick since it came out back in December. During the peak of its worldwide reach, conversations on Asian American feminism dominated Twitter, urging people to participate and to stay engaged with what others were saying about Asian American feminism and activism.
As a former gender studies major and radical transnational feminist, I was ecstatic when I heard about the discussion on Twitter. Since I’m also an active Twitter user I took to tweeting about about mail order brides, sex workers and models of traditional femininity that are stereotypes (and real stories) often associated with Asian American women. Most tweets I saw were thought-provoking, interesting, and sometimes problematic. But all of the thoughts combined made for an engaging discussion on a topic that is rarely ever talked about in any space. But what I found lacking, and what I still am currently waiting for, is the deepening of the analysis on what Asian American feminism is.
When I took my first women’s studies class, I was one of two Asian-identified women in the class amidst a sea of liberal, radical and a few Marxist Black and white feminists. I was barely coming into the feminist consciousness at that point, but I recognized right away the lack of coverage on Asian American experiences on the syllabus. We had a brief discussion on Third World feminism when we read Chandra Mohanty, and then the conversation stopped there.
I became angry. I remember writing rants in my reflection papers, slightly directing my frustration towards my white instructor, asking why the scope of feminism was so narrowed down to black and white experiences. She encouraged me to continue reflecting on my anger, brought up the various perspectives of women’s experiences in class, and at the end of the course she asked if I was interested in becoming a peer mentor that following fall term (which I’m assuming was to create more space for API feminist issues). My dissatisfaction with academic (white) feminism never subsided though, and continued into the next core course in the women’s studies major. I went to my professor’s office hours expressing my concerns over why specifically Asian American feminism seemed to be of minor importance to include on the syllabus. Adding one or two articles did not capture the complexity of the Asian American experience as it relates to feminism.
But then I remembered her response: Well, who are you talking about when you say “Asian American feminism?” This struck a chord, because it then dawned on me that I had been using an umbrella term, which is often precariously used to throw everyone of East Asian, Southeast Asian, South Asian and Pacific Islander descent into one identity. By legitimizing the umbrella term of “Asian American” to describe an identity, we neglect the unique stories and issues that affect specific ethnic groups within the overarching group.
A reminder that the “Asian American” identity is one that is political and has connotations of solidarity among all ethnic groups that fall (or choose to fall) under the label. But it is a showing of solidarity of the acknowledgement of differences, not in negating or neglecting the differences for a surface-level feeling of camaraderie. We do not want to fall into, nor should we aspire for a blindness of individual ethnic groups within the Asian American scope.
In relation to this concept of Asian American feminism, to ensure that this becomes a movement of well-constructed, articulated thoughts and theories, it is a requirement that the analysis is deepened. An urging of, who are we talking about when we say Asian American, and what does feminism mean? Can feminism be translated into our native languages? Is feminism the right word we want to use, as it has a long history of association with white mainstream liberal feminism? Can a discussion of Asian American identity include diaspora? A common and problematic issue that all POCs face is the lack of representation in media and conforming to Eurocentric beauty standards — but what does it mean for Asian American feminists to challenge these issues? Is it enough that we see Asians in the media? How do we find ways to have our stories interpreted for predominantly white audiences that maintains accuracy and integrity?
I personally go back and forth with choosing to call myself a feminist. I tend to associate myself with the method of what Black womanists have done, in the need to create our own space — which is what #NotYourAsianSidekick is ultimately doing. A relatively new body of feminist literature has been slowly integrating gender and Asian American studies, which is known as Pinayism. Pinaysim deconstructs the Filipina American experience, through the lenses of gender, sex, sexuality, class, age, nationality, geographic location, religion, diaspora, ability, and so much more. Pinayism is a body of feminism that I closely align myself with, for the very fact that I am a Pinay. Of course, just like feminism, there is still a multitude of work that needs to be done to understand the complexity of what Pinayism is and what it contributes to the feminism.
Overall, I applaud the efforts of #NotYourAsianSidekick and feel indifferent to those that see the initial Twitter discussion as unfulfilling. It’s not just Asian American feminists that were tweeting that day, but everyone that participated had something to say about their experiences with identity, beauty, roles and expectations, citizenship, gender and so forth. I believe Twitter was the perfect starting foundation for this reignited movement to gain momentum. We want to meet today’s young generation where they are, and that is whether anyone likes it or not, on social media. I value Suey Park’s explanation of why she chose the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick
Well, I think the hashtag is interesting because it doesn’t say Asian American feminism in it. I had the intention of building a base and what feminism is without putting a label on it. I think for a lot of women who don’t feel like they can really come out as feminist, #NotYourAsianSidekick is a way to come into that conversation.
I also wanted it to be accessible to young girls. I didn’t want a generation of high school girls to go through what I went through. You’re allowed to fight back. And you are allowed to play the violin or not to play the violin. There is no model for what an Asian American is.
I agree to an extent to some of the critiquing articles, especially in the usage of Twitter to have this type of discussion, however I do believe that using social media might have been the most influential avenue to create this big of a noise for the discussion. To compare the activist work of Asian American women activists from the 1960s and 70s, to what activists are doing today, is absurd and borderline disrespectful to even attempt to draw a comparison. It’s a different time, generation and we have different tools at our disposal to draw attention to these issues. I hold what activists have done in the past on high pedestal, because without their work, none of us would be where we are today. The only thing that holds us all back from encouraging today’s social movements from reaching the same steam as what previous protest movements were doing, is ourselves and our complacency to let things remain the way they are. Complacency is an issue for the entire API community though, not just for the feminist or social justice movements.
The work lies in the deconstruction of #NotYourAsianSidekick and what we want this movement to be. Google hangout discussions are happening now to draw a more nuanced discussion on the topics that #NotYourAsianSidekick evoked. The movement has already begun, the goal now is to ensure that we sustain that movement.