Exploring Asian American Feminism in Conversation with Asian American Feminist Collective’s Julie Kim

Julie Kim for Equal Means Equal campaign (Photo credit: Patrick Randak)

By Reappropriate Intern: V. Huynh

We are not “docile”, “obedient”, “exotic”. We know that the challenges for disabled, LGBTQI+ women of color are undoubtedly difficult to grapple with. For many Asian American feminists, the question of what Asian American feminism even is and why it is needed thus often arises. To Julie Kim, founding member of the Asian American Feminist Collective, Asian American feminism is a framework she often refers to and that she aims to cultivate with the Asian American Feminist Collective initiative. In New York, Julie describes the circumstances for how she personally became politicized as an Asian American feminist.

The following is a transcript of a conversation between myself and Julie, 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.

JULIE: So I was actually not politicized until after I graduated college.  I was political in the sense of I was interested in politics: I went to do internships and worked under congressmen. But,I was not politicized until after I graduated when I started my first full-time [job] as a community organizer with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and worked with the community I grew up in.

I grew up in Queens, and I was working for the IDNYC campaign, which provided free NYC ID cards for anyone that lived in NYC, so you can be undocumented or documented — it doesn’t matter. That’s when I first realized that in theory, when policy goes out, it feels very equal. It affects everybody. But then, I realized on the ground that policy and the people who are in charge work with different communities in different ways; and a lot of it was depending on how much political power a community had or how much influence — through voting or money or other measures — [and] that would be how much attention they got and how much resources they got.

But working with community organizations, I realized that a lot of it has to do with politicizing people and understanding your history and making sure that you’re exercising your rights and advocating for the things that you believe in. So that was my first step, and when I started learning about advocacy and learning about my identity as an Asian American and figuring out what that means. Within the Mayor’s Office, I worked with many communities of color, predominantly immigrants, and in this space I learned about the different experiences of being an Asian American in comparison to someone who is a black or Hispanic immigrant.

And then when I started organizing Asian American communities, I started realizing my identity as a feminist. Thinking about gender and how that plays into being Asian American or how that plays into organizing or just my experiences in general. It was a two-way process, where I had to be politicized as an Asian American and then as a feminist.

What really helped me understand what feminism is was through reading bell hooks, Audre Lorde,  Angela Davis, and many other black feminists. Reading Feminism is for Everybody just blew my mind. I identified with so much of what they talked about — but, of course, my experiences are not the same as a black feminist. That’s when I tried to look for Asian American feminism. Being Asian American comes with its own experiences and identity, but while material was out there, it was not as popular or as easy to find. So, that also goes into why we started the Collective. I started reading Reappropriate and Unbound Feet, and reading about Asian American women who were doing community organizing in the 60’s and 70’s. I use Asian American feminism as a framework.

I think of it as another way for me to view the world and another way to view my experiences. When I’m in a specific situation or I see something that appears patriarchal or misogynistic, or sexist, I’m able to think about my feminist framework and say “okay,  I know that this is wrong because of X, Y, and Z.” It gives my an opportunity to put into words what I previously could not put into words. For example,  when I was organizing I would see in Asian immigrant communities — specifically East Asian immigrants — and I would see sexist behavior involving people I was working with. Before it would make me uncomfortable, but I didn’t really know what it was because I didn’t have terms to explain why what I was seeing was wrong. Feminism gave me the vocabulary and resources to say, “This behavior is X, Y, Z because of what I’ve read and because of what I’ve seen other people write and define.”

You grew up as a  Korean American and in Queens. How did that have a role in your politicizing?

JULIE: I feel like a lot of Asian American narratives we hear are about Asian Americans growing up in predominantly white cultures. However, I have a different experience because I grew up in a Korean-immigrant enclave. Growing up, it was completely normal for me to speak Korean and to be around Korean people, immigrants. Most of the people I knew were small business owners, and nail salon owners. That was completely ordinary for me.

I think in a way, I was a lot more connected with Korean culture. However, because of the people I was surrounded by, it was also very diverse. Being an immigrant was just so normal, until I went to college and that wasn’t the norm anymore. I think I realized that the reason why I was so interested in politics, policy, and international relations, was because I knew I wanted to advocate for immigrant communities.

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

JULIE: It’s very much a framework for me. When I’m in a specific situation, I feel that I can call upon frameworks of gender or being a woman or being an Asian American woman to analyze the situation. It’s hard because it’s apart of my identity. I just bring that mindset and viewpoint to everything I do; it’s not something I can leave it behind. Whatever I do, I bring that mindset to my work. It’s almost like second-nature.

I do think it’s difficult when I’m talking about feminism and I’m working with people who are mostly immigrants or children of immigrants, or low-income, or people of color, because I feel like sometimes the term has a negative connotation. But for me, it’s not about pushing the term “feminist” down people’s throats. Self-identifying proudly as a “feminist” is not about making sure others identify with the term. The term is just a term. It’s just a way to think about situations. So, I feel like as a feminist, I’m trying to connect with people on an issue that they can also connect with. For example, a lot of people say “I’m not a feminist but I want to help women who are victims of domestic violence.” They say, “I’m not a feminist but I think it’s wrong but it’s wrong to discriminate with gender.” They are saying things that are traditionally associated with feminist principles, but they don’t associate that with the term “feminism” itself. I know feminism is so important because people are still talking about issues around that topic, even if they’re not necessarily connecting it with that term.

When I’m meeting with an organization, I ask myself: Who’s at the table?  Who are gatekeepers? Are they male? Are they wealthy? Once you notice a pattern — for example, if I notice that it’s all men or all wealthy men —  then I ask how can I organize outside of that, too? How can I incorporate other voices through my work? How can I incorporate those who are not traditionally at the table? For me, that would include nail salon workers, domestic workers, women, and queer people. It’s not just about: “Okay, they’re women so they’re going to be incorporated.” It’s taking a full view of who’s not at the table and whose voices are not being heard, and being able to say that and to bring those people in.

How can we advance bringing others to the table in situations where we as Asian American women might not have a lot of leverage, such as in STEM, for example?

JULIE:  It’s difficult because generally, we are not at the top reigns of power. I take a lot of inspiration from bell hooks and Audre Lorde, who talk about the power of sharing your story. For example, if I experience something, I’m going to share it with others. It doesn’t have to be a large community, you are able to bring strength through that story because other people are able to recognize that that’s happening or that’s a problem. Sometimes it’s as simple as writing it down and sharing it with others. Even something like that can bring a lot of healing or awareness to people in your community.

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

JULIE: There’s never a time where everyone agrees. Even among feminists, people don’t agree. We all have different viewpoints; that’s just how it is. Everyone comes from different places. The main thing is to be able to have a conversation about it, and not to be so stuck in your viewpoint that you cannot have a conversation about that viewpoint.

We need to learn to be okay with our differences or at least to not use our difference to cut each other off. The question is how can we have a conversation and come together? Maybe that’s easier said than done.

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Finally, Julie beams and says firmly on recounting upon her own feminism, “Know your Asian American history. And tell your story.”

In part two of this series, we will explore the goals of the Asian American Feminist Collective with Julie and other members of the group.

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