Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority

PatsyMink

It’s not too often that I get to attend an Asian American-related event in Tucson. Yesterday, I got the opportunity to watch a screening of the documentary Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority and attend a Q&A with filmmaker Kimberlee Bassford, afterwards. The screening was sponsored by several local feminist progresive groups, and proceeds from the event went towards funding female progressive candidates in the next election cycle.

As you can imagine, Patsy Mink is one of my all-time heroes. Mink was the first woman of colour (let alone the first Asian American woman) to be elected to the House of Representatives, and is among the feminist movement’s most influential figures for  being the principal author of Title IX, which established equality for women in academics and sports. Quite simply, Title IX states:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance… 

Ahead of the Majority is a thorough documentary that follows Mink’s rise through the political ranks in Hawai’i to her election as congresswoman when she lobbied to pass Title IX, and finally to the end of her life in 2002.

 

From the documentary, I learned quite a bit about Mink’s legacy that I didn’t previously know. For example, I had no idea Mink ran for president in Oregon on an anti-Vietnam War platform in 1972. Though she only garnered 2% of the vote in the Oregon primary (her candidacy was a political anti-war statement), Mink is the first Asian-American to run for president of the United States of America.

I was also struck by how often racism and sexism placed obstacles in front of Mink, and how she powered through each and every challenge without ever appearing defeated or weakened. When Hawai’i first achieved statehood in 1959, Mink and fellow politico Daniel Inouye ran for House of Representatives and Senate respectively. The documentary noted how Mink and Inouye initially hoped to both be elected and to work together in Washington D.C .to represent Hawai’i. However, Democratic party leaders in Hawai’i pressured Inouye to drop out of the Senate race a month before the election and challenge Mink for Congressman. Already a popular political figure in Hawai’i, Inouye ran essentially on the platform that voters should choose a man, not a woman, as their representative — and Mink lost the seat overwhelmingly.

Mink ran again in 1965 and was finally elected to the House of Representatives, where she ultimately served 6 terms and worked tirelessly to author and pass Title IX. Mink was an outspoken advocate for women, children, and the poor, and the documentary includes many clips of Mink speaking passionately on these issues in interviews and on the floor of the House.

In 1976, after serving as a Congressman for 11 years, Mink gave up her seat to run for Senate. Again, her opponent, Spark Matsunaga, launched character attacks against Mink  causing her to eventually lose the race. Returning to Honolulu, Mink was elected to City Council. After failed races for Mayor and Governor of Hawai’i, Mink again ran for her House of Representatives seat in 1990, winning on a platform of experience and dedication. She won in a landslide victory, and returned to Washington where she advocated tirelessly on behalf of poor people and women until her death in 2002.

Ahead of the Majority is eye-opening and well-researched; no easy task for filmmaker Kimberlee Bassford considering no full-length biography of Patsy Mink has ever been written. And it is this one simple fact that is perhaps most striking about Ahead of the Majority. After viewing this film, I couln’t help but wonder: Why is it that we remember Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Shirley Chisholm, and feminist theorists like Gloria Steinam and Andrea Dworkin, but most people are unaware of Patsy Mink and her legacy? Why has her story been ignored for so long by biographers, filmmakers, and modern historians?

As an Asian American and as a feminist, Patsy Mink is the quintessential role model. As alluded to by Ahead of the Majority‘s tagline, Mink would not be defeated by oppression and discrimination: rather, she changed the rules. The documentary notes that in the less than fifty years since the passage of Title IX, the number of higher education degrees awarded to women went from roughly 7% to almost 50%. It is amazing to realize that a woman like Mink, who did so much to forward the cause of women’s rights, was an Asian American and a feminist — her lasting legacy to the Asian American community is that we, too, can aspire to be more than society would limit us to be. We can and should be fighters for the equality that all people (regardless of gender, class, colour or creed) are deserving of. We, too, are part of America.

Unfortunately, even after her death, inklings of the racism and discrimination that Mink faced during her political career remain apparent. Although Mink was a strong feminist figure, she faced endless sexism and racism throughout her life. The film opens with a clip from the Mike Douglas show, where Patsy Mink, then a sitting U.S. Congressman, is asked to dance the hula with a girl clad in a Hawai’ian grass skirt — no male sitting Congressman would be expected to do something so kitschy and degrading, both then and now. The documentary also includes a newspaper headline reporting Mink’s election to the House of Representatives; it reads: “Pert and Pretty Patsy Mink Also Has A Lot of Serious Ideas” — diminishing her status as a newly-elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives to little more than a novelty. And, time and again throughout Mink’s life, the Democratic Party of Hawai’i preferentially awarded opportunities to “haoles” despite the dedication that Asian American politicians like Mink (and Inouye) showed to the party.

And while it would be nice to hope that the kind of racism and sexism that Mink faced in her lifetime had decreased, I was appalled by some of the general ignorance I witnessed during the event’s Q&A. As if unable to grasp the fact that Mink was a Japanese American woman, some in yesterday’s audience seemed unable to consider Mink anything but Japanese. With no mention made of Mink’s religion in any part of the film, audience members were convinced that Mink — based purely on her Japanese ancestry — must be a devout Buddhist (because all Japanese people are Buddhist, right?). One audience member asked Bassford whether, in her research, she uncovered evidence that Mink was Buddhist. Bassford replied, clear as day, that while Mink’s grandparents were Buddhist, Mink was not devoutly religious. However, Bassford added, Mink was likely Christian, not Buddhist.

Not five minutes later, a second person raised their hand and asked whether, outside of the public burial and memorial service held for Mink after her death, there was a private, Buddhist ceremony. 

Cue eyeroll.

It was this generally awkward (mis)treatment of Mink’s racial identity that I encountered while attending the event. Event organizers touted the film entirely from a feminist perspective and only to Tucson’s feminist community, practically ignoring her place in Asian American history. Consequently, outside of myself and one or two others, there were no Asian/Asian Americans to attend yesterday’s screening of Ahead of the Majority. When Electroman questioned event organizers as to why there didn’t seem to be any representatives of Tucson’s Asian American community participating in the event, he was told that organizers didn’t know where to find politicized Asian Americans in this town. While the documentary fairly addressed Mink’s relationship with her racial identity, it felt as if event organizers weren’t sure how to honour Patsy Mink as not just a feminist figure, but as a feminist of colour.

That being said, the conflict between feminism and racial activism reared its head even in Mink’s life. One audience member asked during the Q&A whether Bassford intended to make such a starry-eyed tribute to Mink’s career, or whether she had deliberately excluded criticisms of Mink. Bassford said that, in general, it was hard to find things to criticize about Mink; yet, despite my general hero worship of Mink, I think she can be fairly criticized on her lack of interest in helping to elevate other Asian Americans to elected office, or in championing Asian American issues. Unlike her colleagues, including Senator Daniel Inouye (who comes out somewhat like a villain in the documentary), Mink focused on women’s issues and poverty during her political career, and did little to encourage other Asian Americans to become more politically educated. Since Patsy Mink’s time as a Congressman, the number of women in elected positions has increased dramatically, yet there still remain only a handful of Asian Americans in higher office. As Bassford put it when I asked her about Mink’s lack of involvement in Asian American politics, she replied that while Mink is considered a role model for Asian Americans, she is not considered one of our political leaders.

Bassford hits on an important point: many of the Asian American community’s political leaders are men (Councilman and current candidate for NYC comptroller John C. Liu, Senator Daniel Inouye, and Senator Daniel Akaka to name just a few). Why was it that Patsy Mink, a woman who faced so much racism in her life, and who clearly considered herself an Asian American, did not include the Asian American community as one of her political priorities? And does this abject underrepresentation of Asian American women amongst the leadership roles of our community result in a lack of attention given to Asian American feminist concerns?

A woman came up to me after the event and asked me about my question regarding Patsy Mink and the Asian American community. I suggested that many feminists of colour often face sexism within their racial communities (and racism within the feminist community) that often leads to ostracization. Despite Professor Gary Okihiro’s appropriation of the phrase “when and where I enter” to describe the critical importance of eliminating sexism within the Asian American community to achieve equality for all Asian Americans, in our community as well as in other communities of colour, male leaders often emphasize an expectation that women should act in a supporting role to elevate male community leaders, rather than to seek prominence or equality themselves. Feminist issues are frequently seen as distractions from the struggle for racial equality, and too often, sexist attacks are lobbed against empowered feminists of colour from both within and outside the community when those feminists speak out against intraracial sexism.

But that should not be the status quo. After watching Ahead of the Majority and witnessing the passion with which Mink challenged injustice, I wish some of her incredible energy had been used to specifically help the Asian American community. Compared to the emphasis Mink placed on sexism and women’s rights, Mink rarely spoke about the racism she encountered as an Asian American. And while Mink’s contribution towards women’s rights  in this country cannot be denied, the Asian American community needs Asian American political leaders who are willing to break the silence regarding Asian American issues of all kinds, including gender issues.

To that end, Patsy Mink is an amazing pioneer. She is an example to the Asian American community that we can (and should) make a difference. But Mink can certainly be criticized for the lack of attention she paid to Asian American issues, and I hope that from her life, we can remember that while Mink’s accomplishments cannot be overstated, there is much more work still left to be done. I hope that we can learn to be inclusive of feminist concerns within the Asian American community, and reduce the mistrust that seems to exist between Asian American race activists and Asian American feminists.

And above all, I hope that we can take inspiration from Patsy Mink’s story to encourage more young Asian Americans to enter into politics — so that they, too, can change the rules for the better.

Obama to Sign E.O. On APAs

I was surprised to find out this morning that President Obama had won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize (and would be donating the $1.4 million prize money to charity). I was shocked to learn this afternoon that next Wednesday, October 14th, he would be signing an Executive Order restoring the White House Advisory Commission and Interagency Working Group to investigate and address issues concerning the Asian Pacific American community.

Previously, President George W. Bush moved these issues to an agencyunder the purvue of the Department of Commerce — because, you know, Asian Americans only deal with economic concerns.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release that was sent to Asian Pacific Americans for Progress today:

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of Media Affairs

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

October 9, 2009  

 

ADVISORY: President Obama to Sign Executive Order on White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on Wednesday

 WASHINGTON – On Wednesday, October 14, President Obama will sign an Executive Order restoring the White House Advisory Commission and Interagency Working Group to address issues concerning the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.  At the East Room ceremony, the President will also observe Diwali, or the “Festival of Lights,” a holiday celebrated across faiths.

You can bet I’ll blog about it when it all goes down. I cannot even begin to express to you how badly I wish I lived in Washington, D.C. right about now.

Obama’s Just a Peaceful Guy

obama-un

As President Obama tells his supporters in an email:

This morning, Michelle and I awoke to some surprising and humbling news. At 6 a.m., we received word that I’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009.

That sentence pretty much encapsulates the morning every American experienced. I woke up at around 7 a.m. to news that Obama had received the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, and my honest reaction was: “Really? Is this some kind of joke?”

My second reaction was: “Must suck to be Dubya this morning.”

I’m a fervent supporter of President Obama, but I’m as surprised as anyone that he was this year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s only now emerged out of his second 100 days in office, and it’s difficult to list what tangible accomplishments have occured in the first year of his presidency that are singularly deserving of the (arguably) most prestigious award in the world. Much to the disappointment of many progressives, military violence in Iraq and Afghanistan rages on, healthcare reform is still mired in political bickering, and Guantanamo remains open. 

Today, Obama’s political opposition have released hasty, biting criticism of the honour bestowed upon President Obama. RNC Chairman Michael Steele said:

The real question Americans are asking is, “What has President Obama actually accomplished?” It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights. One thing is certain — President Obama won’t be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action.

But, the Nobel Peace Prize hasn’t ever really been about concrete achievements — after all, the road towards peace is slow and difficult. The mission of the Nobel Peace Prize, as laid out by Alfred Nobel in his will, is to acknowledge “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”, all for the “greatest benefit of mankind”. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has the unenviable task of determining who, amongst hundreds of nominees, fits this rather vague description — and if all of these nominees were under consideration for having achieved concrete successes in their lives’ struggles, there wouldn’t be much of a long-term need for a Nobel Peace Prize. And after all, that is the point of the Nobel Peace Prize: it is a recognition that achieving peace has never been easy, and it is a reward for those who commit their lives to the struggle for peace.

This truth is reflected in the Nobel Peace Prize’s recent laureates. Many of the last century’s award recipients were honoured for their commitment to improving international relations and promoting the ideals of peace, rather than for a specific action or accomplishment.  Two years ago, former Vice President Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts towards raising awareness regarding climate change and bringing together international leaders of disparate ideologies to the table to discuss how to save the world’s failing atmosphere. Yet, the United States — one of the world’s leading polluters — has yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and many of the Protocol’s participating nations have yet to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions despite their committment to meet a goal reduction by 2012. Gore succeeded in initiating discussions about climate change (essentially making environmentalism “cool” again), but there has been little tangible success in reducing the world’s pollution.

When compared to the list of prior Nobel laureates, Obama’s accomplishments are quite impressive. Following 9/11, when both the Democratic and Republican leadership were swept up by President George W. Bush’s drumbeats of war, Obama made the case for peace. During the 2008 campaign season, while Republicans and Democrats alike criticized Obama, then a first-term senator, for his “naive” view on international relations, Obama consistently defended diplomacy over military posturing. Since taking office, Obama has actively sought to break down anti-American sentiment around the world by traveling to foreign nations and improving relations with international leaders. Obama’s commitment towards diplomacy is no better represented than in his recent speech before the United Nations General Assembly. Emphasizing the importance of forging diplomatic ties and finding commonalities, not differences, between disparate nations, Obama said:

“Like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests. But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 more than at any point in human history — the interests of nations and peoples are shared.

“The religious convictions that we hold in our hearts can forge new bonds among people, or tear us apart. The technology we harness can light the path to peace, or forever darken it. The energy we use can sustain our planet, or destroy it. What happens to the hope of a single child anywhere – can enrich our world, or impoverish it.

“In this hall, we come from many places, but we share a common future. No longer do we have the luxury of indulging our differences to the exclusion of the work that we must do together. I have carried this message from London to Ankara; from Port of Spain to Moscow; from Accra to Cairo; and it’s what I will speak about today. Because the time has come for the world to move in a new direction. We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.

Beyond that, President Obama has united not just Americans, but an entire world, towards a hopeful vision of the future. And while that might seem like mushy stuff to cynical Republicans (and a few Democrats), I don’t think the power of that unity really can be denied; as Obama said, I do think that Obama’s first four years really will be a time of incredible change not just for America, but for the  international community.

Few world leaders have been so openly and so consistently dedicated to the mission of peace, and even fewer of those leaders have been sitting (or former) presidents of the United States. Consider this: the last president of the United States instinctively labelled international nations “evil” (and seemed confused as to why this might sour diplomatic talks) and always seemed  to enjoy a good saber-rattling with his morning Wheaties.

Bottom line, Michael Steele’s criticism of Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize seem in-keeping with the Right’s general xenophobia and American nativism. The Nobel Peace Prize is not about goings-on in American politics; it is about recognizing an international leader who has improved diplomatic relations globally for the betterment of all mankind. American unemployment rates, while a clear priority for the Obama Administration, is just not within the scope of the Nobel Peace Prize. Steele’s reference to these domestic issues only underscore the problem with the Republican Party’s version of international relations: a failure to recognize that the United States is only one nation in an increasingly globalized world. Yes, we’re a pretty important nation, but we’ve been through eight years of pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist (except when they’re “evil”!) and look where that has gotten us. Instead, we must understand that the United States isone of the most powerful and most influential nations in the world, and (to quote a comic book) with great power comes great responsibility. The president of the United States is not just this nation’s leader, he (or she) is a world leader. Fervent, fundamentalist Right-wing insularism denies this reality, and, too often, it leads to poisoning of international relations. 

That being said, I, too, wish there were more concrete accomplishments in Obama’s first year in office (although, I’m inclined to blame House Republicans, not Obama, for their feet-dragging). I take today’s announcement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee as inspiration and motivation for elected leaders and grassroots activists to re-double our efforts towards improving our communities, whether local, national, or international. We can’t be drawn back into childish bickering and name-calling (such as the DNC’s comparison today between Republicans and terrorists for both criticizing Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize). We need to recognize today’s honour as the inspiration that it is.

In his email to supporters, Obama writes:

To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize — men and women who’ve inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.

But I also know that throughout history the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it’s also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes.

That is why I’ve said that I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations and all peoples to confront the common challenges of the 21st century. These challenges won’t all be met during my presidency, or even my lifetime. But I know these challenges can be met so long as it’s recognized that they will not be met by one person or one nation alone.

This award — and the call to action that comes with it — does not belong simply to me or my administration; it belongs to all people around the world who have fought for justice and for peace. And most of all, it belongs to you, the men and women of America, who have dared to hope and have worked so hard to make our world a little better.

I genuinely hope that President Obama and the members of his administration will be ready to answer this call to action. I hope that they will recognize this international affirmation of their commitment towards diplomacy, and they will be able to translate this honour into real, and tangible, gains in the path towards peace. There’s a long way still to go on this road, but at least, today, we finally began to understand that we’re headed in the right direction.

Defition of Hate Crimes Extended to Protect Gays

The House of Representatives voted in approval of extending the definition of a hate crime to include violence based on a person’s sexual orientation. About bloody time.

“Geisha”: Blog Wars?

Yikes — looks like we might have a blog war a-brewin’ between APAP and 8Asians.

I blogged earlier this afternoon about the “Geisha” bar opening in Oakland, linking a post from APAP for some of my sources. It turns out that Moye, over at 8Asians, also read the APAP post and has a different take on the “Geisha” fiasco.

Aside from the heavy cultural significance of the word, the leaders of this protest also cite that giving the bar with such a name would help support sexual harassment, mental illness, and a negative economic impact with its indirect support for the sex trade and/or pornography. Oh yeah, and don’t forget that rapist in the area who was targeting Asian women. Wait, what? These are all related?

I hate to be the one to say this, but I can’t help think these folks are overreacting in this situation, and wrongly defining the history of Japanese geisha. They were dancing and musical entertainers, and nowhere did violence and overt sexuality come to play in their formal occupation. No, geishas aren’t prostitutes. Maybe some of them were but hey, it’s the oldest job in the world.  If anything, they should be focusing their outrage on two Asian American businessmen with a tired and unoriginal idea for a new bar, or at least ask why someone would want to go to a Geisha bar in the heart of Chinatown. Wrong culture, people.

Also, what does the NorCal rapist have to do with this? Did he have a geisha fetish or something and this bar is his one chance to finally hang out in the open? I don’t see the connection.

I think the problem here is a question of interpretation: is the criticism of “Geisha” a reaction to the negative connotations of the geisha profession? Or how the term “geisha” is interpreted by American audiences.

As Moye points out, the traditional geisha was not a prostitute. Geisha would be best described as artisans, trained in music and dance and hired by wealthy men to entertain at dinner parties by playing songs, singing, and socializing. Some prostituted themselves, but the profession, as a whole, is oversimplified by the term “prostitute”.

But that’s looking at geisha from a strictly historical perspective, and not in the context of America’s sociopolitical landscape — which is the way most restaurant patrons and passersby will view the restaurant name. Here, the term “geisha” refers to an archetype that fits hand-in-hand with other images of the hypersexualized, demure Asian female “lotus blossom” prevalent in historical and contemporary American media. Asian and Asian American women are — and have been — predominantly depicted in hypersexualized and subjugated roles in American film and literature, and this directly counteracts efforts to empower Asian American women with a positive and healthy image of ourselves and our sexuality. To that end, failing to criticize a local establishment, opening in a heavily Asian American community, that draws upon and glorifies this negative stereotype of Asian women would be irresponsible.

Moreover, while the link between a bar named “geisha” and depression is not direct, dehumanizing stereotypes left unchallenged in mainstream media often lead to conflicted and unhealthy self-image problems. After all, no one questions that our society’s predilection for super-skinny images of beauty are contributing factors to high rates of anorexia and bullemia specifically amongst teenaged girls of all races.

That being said, I’m not sure I co-sign the Norcal rapist connection; mainly because I don’t think we know the specific motivations for that dude.