#NotYourAsianSidekick reveals the best — and worst — of Twitter

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Over the weekend, something magical happened.

Suey Park (@suey_park) — graduate student and activist — rallied Asian American feminists to start a Twitter conversation on the intersection of Asian American race activism and feminism. She asked us to Tweet under the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick.

And then Twitter blew up.

By Sunday evening, 45,000 Tweets had referenced the #NotYourAsianSidekick, and spent nearly 8 hours as the top trending topic on Twitter. More importantly, Twitter spent that time highlighting such meaty topics as sexism, feminism, body image and immigration rights.

(I unfortunately was out-of-town this weekend, so jumped into the party Monday afternoon, when I returned to computer access).

As an Asian American feminist who has been blogging at this intersection for upwards of ten years, this was amazing, heart-warming, and redeeming. For far too long, Asian American feminists have been at the margins of both mainstream feminism and Asian American race activism. We have been pushed to the side, told to sit back and wait. We have been promised that one day it will be our turn to be heard; but not now, not yet.

#NotYourAsianSidekick — and the attention it garnered not only from the Twitterverse but from mainstream media outlets like Salon and ABC — was a reinvigorating demonstration that it’s time to end the silence.

I consider myself a dedicated Asian American race activist. And the Internet has been a proven and powerful vehicle for advancing our cause, raising awareness for our narratives and helping to organize our community efforts.

But, the fact — fact — of our community is also that institutionalized sexism has long silenced the voices of Asian American feminists. Race activism to promote Asian American identity and equality has been seen as at odds with feminism, largely with the accusation that pointing out the very sexism within the APIA community is too critical and divisive. On the other hand, feminists are told a sort of “When and Where I Enter” argument — that achievement of racial equality will magically sweep with it gender equality, or that discussions of feminism can wait. And so, a disheartening pattern emerges wherein APIA men dominate the dialogue on the Asian American identity.

In parallel, the fact — fact — of the feminist community is that it typically marginalizes the voices of women of colour. Black and brown feminists often find ourselves pushed aside in mainstream feminist circles, again seen as too divisive. We are viewed as diluting the (predominantly White) feminist “message” when we point out how mainstream feminism isn’t always applicable to the lived experiences of women of colour. And even within WOC circles, APIA feminists are sometimes cast as “not the right kind of ‘of color'” — as if being Asian means we are “too privileged” or “not oppressed enough” to count.

I tweeted that being an Asian American feminist is what happens when Oppression Olympics meets the Model Minority Myth.

And so, enter #NotYourAsianSidekick: a refreshing and positive movement to centralize the narratives of Asian American women. Not in the context of Asian American men, or in the context of White feminism, but Asian American feminists in our own right. And, for the most part, that’s what happened. And it was awesome.

We were able to express our feelings of marginalization. We were able to point out how APIA feminists are too often not taken seriously, seen as a “fringe” identity, or told to choose between being a woman or being an Asian American.

Here’s a link to the full hashtag conversation, because Storifying 45,000 tweets is insane. Grace Hwang Lynch also has a great write-up over at BlogHer.

But inevitably, the hashtag was subverted. Not only was there the innocent (if largely predictable) subversion that expanded the hashtag so that it lost the feminist focus, but there also occurred a more sinister subversion. Internet trolls combined #NotYourAsianSidekick with the hashtag #AsianPrivilege to willfully dismiss the notion that Asian Americans experienced racism (or that Asian American women experience sexism).

One of the most popular tweets was the misguided argument that because Asians represent a large segment of the global population, we cannot be a minority and/or be oppressed in America (where, at the last Census, a mere 5% of the population). This assertion is — let’s face it, guys — just plain illogical.

Others argued that class privilege — access to higher education and high-skilled jobs — negated any oppression of Asian Americans. This counter-argument fails for two reasons: 1) anti-Asian racism (and sexism) occurs at all classes, and even in high-skilled industries like STEM, where Asian Americans are highly represented. I have experienced this first-hand; and 2) many non-East Asian APIA folks are very economically underprivileged yet receive virtually no attention. The entire #AsianPrivilege hashtag was a subtly racist reinforcement of the Model Minority Myth.

Still others argued that the entire hashtag was anti-White, or anti-Black. This criticism confused me; how can me being Asian and speaking from my identity be an attack upon someone else? My mere existence is not — should not be — an affront to you.

But, perhaps one of the most bizarre subversions of #NotYourAsianSidekick was trolling by real, or possibly fake, accounts. For what purpose I have no idea; why does any troll do what he or she does? But, nonetheless, some participants found trolls setting up fake accounts to pretend to be them, but by sending inflammatory anti-feminist tweets. Other trolls took the opportunity to make countless anti-Asian jokes, best left to the likes of Seth MacFarlane. And, last night, a number of accounts puporting to represent Jewish American Tweeters spent hours arguing that Asians Americans were — en masse — anti-Semitic.

The rapidness with which the Internet built up, and then tore down, a phenomenal conversation on racism and sexism is a quintessential example of how Twitter is great, but it is not enough. #NotYourAsianSidekick demonstrates that our ideas as Asian American feminists are out there, under the surface, waiting to be heard. But #NotYourAsianSidekick also proves that Twitter is the wrong place to have this conversation. 140 characters isn’t enough to express a lifetime of experiences — both oppressive and uplifting — and to be able to do it in a place where it can be heard and taken seriously.

Suey Park ended #NotYourAsianSidekick with the sentiment: this is not a trend, this is a movement. I couldn’t agree more. Asian American feminists need a space where our experiences can be expressed and advocated for and unsubverted.

I hope #NotYourAsianSidekick is the first step towards the construction of that space and the initiation of a dialogue decades in the making. I know I, for one, have been waiting for this for far too long.

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