Building Asian American Feminism: In Conversation with the Asian American Feminist Collective

(Photo credit: Asian American Feminist Collective)

By Reappropriate Intern: V. Huynh

Serving as a new and exciting Asian American feminist coalition-building effort, the Asian American Feminist Collective (AAFC) launches September 19th with an official launch party at  6pm – 8pm at Ode to Babel (772 Dean St Prospect Heights, NY 11238). The members urge anyone and everyone to come and show solidarity! Non-NYC folks can also subscribe and stay tuned for future online initiatives.

I asked members of the Collective — Senti Sojwal, Tiffany Tso, Rachel Kuo, and Julie Kim — to discuss their definitions of and ideas around Asian American feminism. The following is a transcript of collected responses and conversations between myself and some of the Asian American Feminist Collective’s members, edited for length and clarity.

Please share your personal history that led you to identifying as an Asian American feminist, and how you define this term today.

SENTI:  I identify as a South Asian feminist committed to women and femmes of color-centered collective movement building. Creating pathways to meaningful solidarity amongst communities of color, and within the Pan-Asian diaspora is central to my liberation work and the vision of the world I want to live in. Like so many of us, my feminism is inspired by the generations of hardworking, loving, and endlessly fierce women that I come from. I am so proud to be an immigrant daughter, and when I think of my mother, who crossed an unfamiliar ocean to begin a new life, I can think of nothing braver. To me, Asian American feminism is radical, empathetic, liberatory, erotic, and ever evolving.

TIFFANY: You can read an abridged version of my personal journey to finding Asian American feminism in this Feministing article, which also includes an insightful roundtable discussion with a diverse group of Asian feminists.

To quickly summarize, growing up the child of immigrants in predominantly-white, suburban Texas made this self-discovery harder to come by. I found this community through volunteering for the “Asian American Feminism” event series, which launched in 2017 and immediately drew me in. I’m so thankful for this group of thoughtful humans who challenge me to continue educating myself and be more civically engaged.

RACHEL: A lot of my journey towards identifying as an Asian American feminist has been tied to accessing and acquiring the words to understand how my identities and experiences are tied to broader politics of struggle. It wasn’t until college that I started locating ‘Asian American’ as a political community beyond a racial category. Words gave meaningful shape to feelings of “this-is-not-okay”, “this-seems-weird”, “why-do-I-feel-so-out-of-place?”.

To know that you’re not conjuring things out of thin air but that systems of racism and white supremacy are very much pervasive and real is world-shifting because then I could begin imagining ways things can change. I believe that feminism isn’t static — it’s about collectively creating alongside other people to build alternative possibilities and also being okay with learning new perspectives that push you to dismantle, disrupt, and undo in order to build again. I’m so grateful for the generosity, care, and love from friendships and mentorships that challenge, inspire, and sustain me in growth and practice.

How do you exercise Asian American feminism in your everyday life and in the work that you do?

SENTI: As someone who works at a mainstream and visible organization, I think it’s critical that I represent the needs of my community and other communities of color in the work we do. My voice and the voices of other marginalized people are central to making neoliberal institutions actually walk the walk, and empower and support the people who need healthcare, jobs, educations, living wages, and economic and gender justice today.

I’m also working towards my MPH because of the ridiculous racial and economic disparities we see today in reproductive and sexual healthcare – outcomes are far worse for women and communities of color. I want to become a more informed and well-rounded advocate so I can use my seat at the table to better fight for the needs of the communities I’m a part of and stand in solidarity with.

TIFFANY: For me, it’s all about practicing radical empathy.

RACHEL: Part of my journey has been balancing how to ground my politics in the personal but also moving beyond just my experiences as the only frame of reference for how oppression works—so moving from ‘here are the ways I experience systems of oppression’ towards ‘and here are all the many ways I currently benefit from these systems’ in order to more actively center the experiences, perspectives, voices, and needs of those most affected by systems of injustice.

I’m also in graduate school and universities are places that institutionally reproduce (and thrive from) systems of inequality. I bring feminist practice into my writing and teaching in who I choose to read and cite and how I hold space in the classrooms; I also work alongside community groups to leverage my access in ways that support ongoing work and needs. After learning all the theory and words, I’m also trying to learn new vernaculars for how I talk about Asian American-ness and feminism, so that I don’t define or reproduce politics only through academic language and frameworks.

AAFC: Asian American feminism is an ever-evolving practice — it’s about constantly learning and growing, and challenging ourselves to think and act critically through our own positionalities to address the hydra that is white supremacy, anti-Blackness, capitalism, settler colonialism, and xenophobia. We aim to engage the multi-dimensional ways that Asian American people live within and confront systems of power at the intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, disability, migration history and citizenship and immigration status.

What about people who reject feminism? How would you address these folks?

TIFFANY: I think, often, the issue is really that many people don’t seem to understand what intersectionality even means, to which I’d urge them to read Kimberlé Crenshaw or listen to her speak. However, if folks choose to practice a twisted version of feminism, e.g. White Feminism™ or TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists), they are probably beyond help—feminism that excludes isn’t real feminism. People like that give feminism a bad rep.

I say, let the folks who want to reject feminism reject it if they choose to. But if they’re still down to stand up against the patriarchy, white supremacy and other oppressive forces, sans labels, that’s great. Many people who reject the label generally believe in its core concepts, or so it seems — barring the Jordan Petersons of the world.

SENTI: Honestly, my tolerance is low. At my best, I can be empathetic to a degree, but I’m at a point in my life where I am aware of my capacities and I don’t always see it as my job to make people recognize my humanity or understand that racial injustice is real. Other people are better at that than me. My personal philosophy these days is more, stand with us or get the hell out of our way. We don’t have time to waste.

Why do you think we need an Asian American feminist collective in this particular political moment?

AAFC: We urgently need intersectional frameworks and practices for political action. In the groundswell of feminist resistance that launched the Women’s March and Strike in January 2017, when we yet again saw the exclusion and tokenization of women of color. It became imperative to revive Asian American feminism and activism to ensure political resistance also adequately represented the needs of Asian American women and girls and gender non-binary people. Rather than demand inclusion into mainstream feminism, Asian American feminism offers a platform for sharing narratives and histories that speak to different intersections.

JULIE: This entire project came following the election. It was one of the first times we came together as Asian American feminists. We wanted to talk about issues affecting Asian American women, Asian American queers, and others — to talk about our politics not just as East Asians but also as South Asians, and Pacific Islanders. We wanted diasporic communities to come together to discuss how to best form a coalition in the context of what’s happening right now, and to work on how to best advocate with and for each other.

With the Collective, we try to provide space to explore our identity  — what does it mean to be an Asian American feminist? — because that is still an ongoing question for us. We also do political education, community building and advocacy. We build resources — such as reading lists and  public events — to serve as a space for us to learn about history and politics, and to connect with other feminists on issues that are plaguing our community right now.

We are located on the East Coast, but we are trying to make more shareable resources. We realize people from all over have been reaching out to us for materials from our workshops, and we are trying to make those available.

How would you describe how Asian American feminism fits into other movements?

JULIE: A lot of it for us is coalition-building, showing solidarity, and showing up for other groups in order to build a foundation.

We don’t see that many Asian Americans identifying as feminists. We don’t really see Asian American feminists in mainstream media. We don’t really see Asian American feminists who are part of feminist-building. We are hoping to be apart of those conversations to say that we are here and that we are feminists, and that we also want to be apart of that discussion.

Even the Asian American Movement itself is not a monolith. It’s difficult to show solidarity even among Asian Americans. So something we want to do is make sure there is a space for anyone that identifies as Asian American. For example, we are partnering with the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective, and we want to participate with any ethnic-specific feminist groups. We are not trying to reinvent to term, we just want to support and build out those different movements and connect to each other so we have a wider network.

AAFC: We must constantly reflect upon and refine a political agenda that works for all of us. The beauty of the Asian American feminist movement is that we can continue to shape and transform it. Our goal is to continue interrogating and defining this movement as well as producing different spaces and resources to build stronger coalitions, connect people in the Asian American community, and produce new ideas.

We do this by bringing people together. Grounding Asian American feminism in our present political moment, we create public events and educational programs across a range of formats that engage political issues facing our communities through a feminist lens. Our events seek to foster dialogue that explore the intersections of Asian American identity with issues of social justice and also cultivate social change. We draw on the expertise and experiences of those in our community by hosting intentional spaces for dialogue and discussion as well as organizing panels and performances. We also collaborate with other local and national organizations, groups, and movements to bring together people with aligned values and interests.

How can readers be a part of the Collective and what it aims to do?

AAFC: If you live in NYC, come out to our events!

For those who have more capacity to give their time and talents, we’d love folks to reach out with projects they’re interested in spearheading or contribute to ongoing projects.

We’re also starting a digital storytelling project around various themes and we’d love people to contribute short pieces of writing, anything from personal narrative to creative fiction and poetry. Even for folks who don’t consider themselves writers, please submit! We bring so much of our personal experiences and histories to feminism, and the goal of the storytelling project is to bring the breadth and depths of our own lived experiences, conditions, and historical contexts to an Asian American feminist movement and towards imagining political possibilities of what we can collectively accomplish together.

To stay tuned about upcoming events, future calls for writing submissions, and ongoing projects, sign up for our newsletter here (tinyletter.com/aafcollective) and follow us on Instagram (aafc.nyc), Twitter (aafcollective), and Facebook (aafeminism).

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The Collective members impart this to all readers: “Back up your beliefs with analysis and fact. Activate and organize. Find your people. Get involved in your community. Talk to your elders.”  

Let’s get feminist-ing.

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