#NotYourAsianSidekick: Can a social movement start on Twitter?

notyourasiansidekick-firsttweet

We’re going in on Day 5 of #NotYourAsianSidekick, the hash-tag that blew up the Twitterverse with a conversation on Asian American race identity and feminism. And, boy, has it sparked online and offline conversation. Hash-tag founder Suey Park (@suey_park) has joined forces with 18millionrising (@18millionrising) to schedule appearances on several mainstream media outlets talking Asian American feminism — which is remarkable visibility for the Asian American feminist community. Meanwhile, several established Asian American writers have offered their comments in the pages of Time Magazine and the Wall Street JournalAnd as of this writing, #NotYourAsianSidekick is still going strong with new tweets being published every few minutes; further, NotYourAsianSidekick.com was launched this week (now with free stickers!).

But, of course, the question on everyone‘s mind is: what’s next?

Kai Ma (@kai_ma), former editor-in-chief of KoreAm, insightfully considers this question in her Time magazine opinion piece. While noting that #NotYourAsianSidekick has picked up on ideas first postulated by such community giants as Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, and Mari Matsuda, Ma cites the immediate and transient nature of Twitter to write:

It’s true that the multiple movements of decades past — which included feminists, civil rights activists and Asian-American activism — left behind some issues that perhaps led to this place, where a group of mostly younger Asian-American women have found a moment of remarkable solidarity in 140 words or less. But it is also fitting that according to its website, #NotYourAsianSidekick has plans to take this beyond Twitter. It has to. An ephemeral platform like the Internet — though it may feel cathartic — is not always terribly productive.

But, others have questioned whether a Twitter conversation can launch a social movement — something focused, structured, organised, and capable of enacting social change. How can it, we wonder, when Twitter suffers the aforementioned 140-character limit, and if most Tweets disappear from one’s feed after minutes or hours? How can it, others wonder, when they feel Twitter is a noxious, sexist, intellectually lazy and oversimplified place?

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It’s true that Twitter can be a terrible place for enacting social change, as I wrote earlier this week.

To answer this question, I think it’s important to first understand the novelty of #NotYourAsianSidekick. And to understand this, I think it’s important to recognize one important fact: you may be too old to get this.

Now, before you claim I’m being ageist, let me clarify: I’m also too old to get this too.

I’m 31 years old, and self-identify as a Gen Y-er. I am not married, don’t have kids, and am really just starting my professional career. I am, by most definitions, a “young adult” (especially if you go by the mantra that 30 is the new 20).

That being said, I remember what a dial-up modem sounds like. I used to view and edit my blog using Netscape Navigator. I remember when Facebook was launched (and how you had to get an invite from people, and how I refused to get an account for years). I remember when you used to make websites on Geocities and blog on Blogger.

Ah, Geocities. You always remember your first.
Ah, Geocities. You always remember your first.

I got on Twitter less than 5 years ago. I’m still not a natural Tweeter (Tweep? Twerp? Whatever?).I find myself constantly banging my head against that 140 character limit like a caged bird. I don’t navigate hash-tags well, and typically ignore the “top trending topics” part of my Twitter dashboard. I learned last year why you put a period in front of the @ sign if it starts a tweet. I think I tweet the way my mother uses email — like it’s a necessary tool but goshdarnit if I’m not accidentally hitting “Reply All” when I don’t mean to.

It never really occurred to me that my discomfort with Twitter was a generational thing until I had an opportunity to mentor and interact with some high school-aged students over the summer. The facility with which they interacted with their Twitter and Facebook accounts — the way their digital lives were so closely integrated with their offline lives — was astounding and completely foreign to me. They spent every waking minute attached to their digital selves, even going so far as to Tweet one another while standing right next to each other. 17-year-old Millennials aren’t just addicted to their mobile apps, they are literally living a hybrid life with their digital selves.

This is literally the first image you get when you Google "Millennial".
This is the first image you get when you Google “Millennial”.

I think of Twitter as a transient, ephemeral platform — the current “pulse” of the Internet. A quick glance at one’s own feed, or trending topics, gives you a snapshot of what’s happening right now, but this also results in Twitter having an incredibly short memory. But, for a Millennial, this creates the notion that everyone on Twitter is immersed in, and contributing to, a single massive globe-encompassing macro-conversation, always ongoing and notoriously quixotic. On Twitter, everything is crowd-sourced. Things that are “important” are measured in their ability to focus that giant Twitterverse conversation momentarily on a single topic, be it #DuckDynasty, #2013TaughtMe or #CongratsAlexandSierra (winners of “X Factor”) — all current top trending topics at the time of this writing.

Twitter is not only where Millennials are today, but it is one of the lens through which the world is interpreted. And, I imagine that successfully making #NotYourAsianSidekick the world’s top trending topic for hours is a really big deal. When your world is Twitter, the virality of #NotYourAsianSidekick is akin to picking it up and shaking it. The popularity of #NotYourAsianSidekick is about as big a deal for a Millennial, as me getting something I’ve written to appear on MSNBC’s or Huffington Post’s or Daily Kos’ front page would be for me.

(Yes, Markos Moulitsas, I’m still waiting for you to call me. Fingers crossed.)

So, while Ma wonderfully (and correctly) notes that many of the ideas shared through #NotYourAsianSidekick have been addressed before, they also haven’t been addressed in this medium in a way that engages this audience. And, to have this global conversation ignited in the absence of an inciting incident by a conversation on Asian American feminism (and not just gender-neutral notions of race activism) is, I think, quite astounding. Like Ma, I too was rejuvenated and inspired by the having an identity that has been too-long invisible garner Twitter-wide focus.

But ultimately, the strength of the #NotYourAsianSidekick conversation is not that the subject matter is novel, but that it engages the street-level Asian American Millennial in a way that our previous platforms have not. While Jeff Yang (@originalspin) notes in his piece for the Wall Street Journal that Asian Americans have at our fingertips an “ability to gather a thunderous hammerstrike of digital traffic and drop it from space on an unsuspecting target”, I believe the contemporary Asian American community has always existed predominantly in a digital space. Drawn together by such relics as AsianAvenue.com and buoyed by its successors — online forum boards like YellowWorld.org, Fighting44s.com, and ModelMinority.com (which, by the way, is shockingly still alive) — the modern Asian American movement has always been built upon an online framework.

Today, we are propelled by the writing of top blogs like Angry Asian Man, 8Asians, and others (some might include me in that list). But in contrast to our initial notion that the self-publishing of blogs would — finally — democratize sociopolitical thought (remember when we all thought that?), the reality is that blog readership is still dependent upon traffic. And, only a handful of folks write our community’s top blogs, and are therefore empowered to shape our current ideas of ourselves and our Asian American identity. For the average Asian American, the blogosphere is a passive place, where one reads a blogger’s ideas but does not contribute to changing them.

Few top blogs online give readers the opportunity, or incentive, to participate in a conversation on blog content. Although this is meant to keep conversations focused and avoid the distraction of negative comments, it also succeeds in disempowering the reader from contributing to the dialogue.
Few top blogs online give readers the opportunity, or incentive, to participate in a conversation on blog content. Although this is meant to keep conversations focused and avoid the distraction of negative comments, it also succeeds in disempowering the reader.

By contrast, Twitter equalizes every Twerp (Tweep?). It doesn’t matter if you have 8 followers or 8000; if you write something insightful and with the right hash-tag, your voice can have as much reach as Bill frickin’ Clinton’s.

As far as activism is concerned, this kind of democratic energizing and engagement is the quintessential inspiration that can spark a grassroots movement. Millennial Asian Americans are, for perhaps the first time in their lives (if not ours), experiencing true ownership of the Asian American movement. And they are saying in one loud, unified, hash-tagged voice: “let’s do this.”

So, okay, great. But, as I started this post, where do we go from here?

Social movements require sustained commitment, focused energy, and a strong notion of what we’re all working towards. Twitter — as an online tool — is great at reactive passion, but is weak at focusing a conversation. It can’t be good at doing that; it’s not designed to do that. But, social movements need that. Social movements need permanence; they are marathons not sprints.

Suey Park ended her tweeting with the statement that #NotYourAsianSidekick isn’t a trending topic, it is a movement. Park was hoping to inspire activism; in essence, to turn a momentary Twitter interest into a sustained political campaign. I appreciate the sentiment, and (with respect to Suey, since I believe this was her meaning when she tweeted), I want to nuance it:

#NotYourAsianSidekick isn’t a trending topic. It’s part of an existing movement.

Mari Matsuda tweeted this pictorial retrospective to #NotYourAsianSidekick earlier this week, reminding all of us that APIA feminism has been around for quite awhile.
Mari Matsuda tweeted this pictorial retrospective to #NotYourAsianSidekick earlier this week, reminding all of us that APIA feminism has been around for quite awhile.

The Asian American (and Asian American feminist) movement has been ongoing since the 60’s and 70’s. We have been fighting for civil rights, and gender equality, for about that long. There is an (understandable) instinct to contrast that long struggle with #NotYourAsianSidekick, with both sides suggesting that each is ignoring the contributions of the other.

With respect to everyone, this is a false dichotomy. Our activisms are not — and do not need to be — mutually exclusive. In fact, we must find a way to integrate our efforts with one another.

#NotYourAsianSidekick is rooted within the ongoing Asian American movement. In fact it found its inspiration as a criticism of contemporary Asian American activism, a criticism that I share. Namely, the overwhelmingly male-dominated nature of our current blogosphere (and academy), and the general inattention that feminism and women’s issues receive. Asian American feminism has in my mind withered under the absence of focused spotlighting of such weighty gender-related topics as the (gendered) wealth gap, body image, and healthcare disparities. Moreover, despite the genesis of Asian American feminism more than 30 years ago, the average Asian American has no better an idea of what Asian American feminism is now than they might have then. #NotYourAsianSidekick hoped to start to scratch the surface of this issue, and its efforts are long overdue.

To proceed from here, #NotYourAsianSidekick could, but does not need to, reinvent the wheel. Instead, #NotYourAsianSidekick can benefit from the experience, and existing audience, of our established blogosphere. #NotYourAsianSidekick can, and should, tap into our existing network of community organizers and successful non-profit endeavours. #NotYourAsianSidekick is a new medium, but it’s part of our movement. We can benefit from #NotYourAsianSidekick’s feminist focus (Lord knows, Asian American race activism desperately needs to); similarly, #NotYourAsianSidekick’s brand of hashtag activism can benefit from our existing organisational framework, the intellectual language offered by our academy, and the greater permanence afforded by the blogging platform.

Asian American Studies can be credited for creating the language that ultimately inspired this modern contemporary hashtag activism.
Asian American Studies can and should be credited for creating the language and ideas that ultimately inspired this modern contemporary hashtag activism. Similarly, Twitter can be used to spread lessons drawn from the academy to new spaces where the classroom cannot, by itself, go

In truth, every tool through which the Asian American movement has advanced ourselves has its strengths and drawbacks. Twitter can reach in a way that the blogosphere simply cannot. Hashtag activism can inspire in a way that Asian American Studies simply cannot. But, increased reach is tempered with reduced complexity of thought. I’ve long said that ideas fit their spaces, and you can’t jam a big idea into a small space without the idea itself getting smaller.

Furthermore, we must remember that most of our online tools are not reaching every Asian American; we are reaching the Asian Americans with the class privilege to have online access and the leisure time to participate in online endeavours. Neither Twitter nor blogs can reach the economically disadvantaged Asian American without the income or the education or the access to be on the Internet. This large — and thus far invisible — swath of Asian America is still, even with #NotYourAsianSidekick, displaced in our communal conversation because we have dug our roots in online. Arguably, those folks are most in need of the fruits of an Asian American social movement; also, arguably, they will best be reached through boots-on-the-ground “traditional” activism and outreach efforts.

In the end, we — all of us — have the same goals: we are Asian Americans who want race and gender equality for all.

#NotYourAsianSidekick has brought the Millennials into this movement, in a new and exciting way.  We’ve got the Millennials onboard (and they’re happy to drive the Twitter bus, while I’m still stuck trying to get my own Twitter account out of Neutral). Rather to get stuck on who thought of what first, let’s figure out how to best incorporate that youthful energy to add fuel to the greater Asian American (and Asian American feminist) social movement. Let’s figure out how to help #NotYourAsianSidekick tap into the population of young Millennials whom the Gen X-ers/Gen Y-ers obviously were not adequately reaching on our own. Let’s figure out how we — all of us — can let this moment evolve our existing social movement.

In the end, no social movement can be built, or sustained, without getting young people involved while still respecting our movement elders. Or, without the movement’s elders learning to let go, step aside, and let the young folks take the reins.

This is our chance to do both.

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  • Sengge Rinchen

    There is this form of activism, where a very savvy media campaign captures the attention of a lot of people and the support is very vocal – for as long as the media campaign is sustained – and then the people behind this media campaign uses this “support” to ask for the changes it wants.

    But what are the end goals that are wanted and sought?

    Would you trust a “movement” before you know what its end goals are?

  • Sengge Rinchen

    Hash tag Not Your Asian Sidekick is seemingly gender neutral, but if once again the voices of Asian American men have been completely sidelined by proportion and media coverage, and this space is completely taken up by the Asian American feminist voice, then do not be surprised if Asian men once again sit this one out or worse, react with a backlash.

  • Hey Sengge, thank you for commenting. I would understand your point if not for the fact that 1) the hashtag was explicitly started as an Asian American feminist conversation that later was co-opted away from the feminist focus by men within our community, and 2) that having blogged at this intersection for a decade, I rarely see the Asian American feminist focus within our conversations.

    The problem of a lack of clear focus on goals is a valid one.

  • Sengge Rinchen

    “1) the hashtag was explicitly started as an Asian American feminist conversation that later was co-opted away from the feminist focus by men within our community”

    Do you remember at what stage in history did the Asian community get split like this along gender lines? That the ones that get support and coverage from white media, gatekeepers and organisations must always either be one or the other, but not both?

    “2) that having blogged at this intersection for a decade, I rarely see the Asian American feminist focus within our conversations.”

    The male voice should not be excluded from the discursive zeitgeists, because the funny thing is that I think a lot of Asian American men would say there is no place to talk about their issues and get support in the mainstream channels either.

    Asian American women could insist that this remain that Not Your Asian Sidekick remain their space only, even though the tagline and catcher of attention is seemingly gender neutral (now I know that by intent it is not, de facto this cements the invisibility and lack of recognition of the Asian male voice).

    However, has anyone considered the benefits of making this twitter movement truly inclusive the first time ever something like this has been picked up and propped up by the American mass media?

  • Pozhal

    I think one of the fundamental issues of Asian feminism is that while the fight against patriarchy is very worthy and admirable, Asian feminism (when it’s directed at Asian American men) is fighting against the most emasculated and feeble patriarchy in America. Furthermore, focusing too much on the Asian patriarchy indirectly reinforces the actual dominant patriarchy, which is white patriarchy, because the unspoken and ingrained idea is that if Asian men are the problem, white men are the solution.

  • Awake and Alive

    True, Asian Am patriarchy is nothing compared to White patriarchy. Are you brave enough to take on the true enemy???

  • @Sengge

    “Do you remember at what stage in history did the Asian community get split like this along gender lines? That the ones that get support and coverage from white media, gatekeepers and organisations must always either be one or the other, but not both?”

    Asian American feminism has been part of our identity since the formation of the Asian American political identity in the 60’s and 70’s. Asian American feminists have always been a part of our movement, but largely forced into silence. Helen Zia organized for Vincent Chin, but then went on to participate in feminist thought for Ms. Magazine; when she did that, she was seen to have “left” the APIA struggle, as if being an APIA race activist and a feminist is mutually exclusive. That is the problem.

    You lost me on what you’re trying to say with the second question.

    The male voice should not be excluded from the discursive zeitgeists, because the funny thing is that I think a lot of Asian American men would say there is no place to talk about their issues and get support in the mainstream channels either.

    The street-level APIA man might say such a thing. But how would they reconcile that with the fact that most of our cultural leaders — political representatives, writers, commenters — are men?

    The point made in this post, however, is that all of our existing forms of media are passive for the street-level Asian American, male or female. The average Asian American man may not feel included in media, because someone like you may not feel like YOU have a platform for your individual issues. That is a fair criticism, one that Suey Park picked up on with her launch of the hash-tag. Indeed, the fact that the feminst focus lasted a mere few hours before the tag was co-opted to become gender neutral issues supports both your argument and the fact that men do indeed have a voice, in that they were able to subvert (perhaps unintentionally, perhaps innocently) an intentionally feminist space.

    Ultimately though, the solution is simple: get a Twitter and get involved in the hash-tag conversation. It was supposed to be a feminist conversation. It’s not anymore. It actually has become inclusive of both men and women.

    Personally, I wish it hadn’t happened, because I think there has been almost no mainstream feminist conversation in our community, but am not really interested in resisting what happened.

    Furthermore, focusing too much on the Asian patriarchy indirectly reinforces the actual dominant patriarchy, which is white patriarchy, because the unspoken and ingrained idea is that if Asian men are the problem, white men are the solution.

    Uhm, no. There is no wing of feminism — anywhere — that thinks the solution to patriarchy is patriarchy. This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what feminism is saying…

    @AAA

    What makes you think that my interactions with Asian male sexists is all that my feminism entails?

  • Pozhal

    Jenn,

    I never said that the answer to patriarchy is patriarchy.

    What I said was that the effect of focusing too much on Asian patriarchy while ignoring white patriarchy is enforcing the latter.

    Not all patriarchies are of equal influence and power, which is why Asian feminism is different from White feminism. Asian feminists have the added complication of not only dealing with sexism but also racism, including racism against Asian men. White feminists don’t have to deal with things like this, which is why minority feminism can be get so much more complicated.

    For example, if Black feminists start focusing too much on attacking Black men for being absent fathers and criminals while not acknowledging the role that anti-Black racism has played in bringing about those conditions, they may end up just reinforcing pro-White narratives that pervade society.

    It’s a difficult balancing act is what I’m saying. Yes, Asian patriarchy needs to be addressed, but to look at it out of context and in a vacuum may end up inadvertently reinforcing anti-Asian and pro-White stereotypes.