Help carry the weight: An exploration of Asian American womanhood at Yale

February 5, 2016

LiLi Johnson GRD ’19 grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts — a town that prided itself on its colorblindness.

For years, Johnson found herself surrounded by teachers and peers who adopted a multiculturalist ethos, insisting their environment “did not see race.” But from Johnson’s perspective as an Asian American woman, such statements invalidated her own experiences with racism.

She recalled an instance in high school when a white student, upon observing Johnson studying for an exam, told her that she was “just being Chinese” — a comment which, according to Johnson, highlighted the uncomfortable contradictions in attending a supposedly anti-racist high school despite such distinctly racialized encounters. “Just being Chinese,” as it was neither an outright slur nor a physical attack, was not recognized or engaged with as a form of racism.

“In this context, my consciousness, and oftentimes discomfort, with issues of race and gender that affected my life throughout high school were never not political,” Johnson commented. “And yet, [these issues] had yet to be made sense of in any kind of intellectual — that is, consciously considered — way.”

According to Johnson, because Amherst was so avowedly multicultural, such insidious forms of stereotyping and racism were never given open consideration. So when she arrived at New York University and took her first course in Asian American Studies, she experienced an emotional turning point in her political consciousness. After her first day of class, Johnson returned to her dormitory room and cried.

“Realizing that there is a discourse, intellectual framework and history for talking about race, gender, sexuality, ability, et cetera — [that] is an extremely significant moment, especially for those who have never had access to those things before,” Johnson said. Suddenly, her experiences were no longer individual moments that she had to deal with in isolation. “That pain had a history, a community and a language for articulation and recuperation that changed the way I understood myself and the world around me. It really woke me up in a lot of ways.”

Now the co-chair of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization’s Equal Rights and Access Standing Committee, Johnson is a union organizer committed to seeking a union election and contract for graduate students and researchers, supporting New Haven residents, university employees, as well as faculty and undergraduates of color in their campaigns for racial, economic and gender equity.

Last semester, for instance, Johnson represented GESO on a panel at “Endowment Hoarding: How Yale’s Spending Priorities Institutionalize Racism and Inequality,” a teach-in co-sponsored by Next Yale. Representatives discussed solutions to the University’s lack of faculty diversity, nontransparent tenure process that has been called discriminatory against women and the differently abled, and failure to respond to the city’s high unemployment rate — a jobs crisis that most detrimentally affects Black and Latinx residents in New Haven, according to New Haven Rising and the union coalition UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35.

Historicizing the involvement of Asian American women in broader calls for social justice, English professor Sunny Xiang referenced the Third World Women’s Alliance — a radical organization initially founded in 1968 as a Black women’s liberation committee within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Over time, the group opened to all “Third World sisters” — of Asian, African and Latin American descent — who united to address sexist organizing dynamics in the fight against institutionalized racism. In their work, they developed an analysis of the connections among global imperialism, labor exploitation and the oppression of women of color.

Many Asian American women interviewed by WKND also emphasized the importance of intersectionality and being cognizant of interactions among race, gender, sexuality, class and so forth. They shared the sentiment that the labor women of color invest in advancing a community’s collective tasks — whether through strategizing, training, canvassing or envisioning — is often rendered invisible as men, both white and of color, are assumed to be doing the bulk of the work.

Courtney Sato GRD ’19 noted this, specifically in the context of the Asian American community. “Within Asian American political spaces and forums, I have been disheartened when students who have claimed to be activists aren’t able to recognize their unconscious biases in how they lead, organize and be a friend to others,” she said.

In highlighting the gendered relationships among organizers, Xiang and Sato hit upon a critical question: what kinds of political labor by Asian American women at Yale remain unseen?

FRAUGHT TERMINOLOGY

I cannot begin nor end this piece without acknowledging the many ways in which it is lacking, and in which it struggles to balance clarity with complexity. As Luna Beller-Tadiar ’18, a staff illustrator for the News, suggests, “the terms [as they stand alone] — ‘Asian,’ ‘American’ and ‘womanhood’ — are all fraught.”

“American,” if we are to think of “American” in the context of the United States, is a category charged with the bloody legacy of settler colonialism, enslavement and exceptionalism. The idea of “American” is also founded upon the notion of citizenship as a qualified marker of incorporation by the state, though, as we have seen with Japanese internment and the criminalization of Latinx civilians, it does not always operate as a means of protection.

In addition to this, the legibility of “Asian” — that is, how most people understand and view “Asian” — remains non-Black, non-Native, and non-Latinx East Asian. And “womanhood” falls short as a descriptor for gendered experiences, when trans and queer femme Asians in the U.S. — especially those who are also Black, Latinx and/or Native — exist, struggle and thrive in a world unapologetically built to grow at their expense.

To be clear: people of Asian descent are not subject to the same trajectories of living and access, such as the model-minority myth and housing and employment discrimination. In this same vein, women of Asian descent are not equivalently impacted by sexism.

I am a low-income Korean American woman — this lens does not and should not claim to encompass lives which are not my own: those of Black, Latinx, and Native women; Asian women of all ethnic backgrounds; differently abled women; trans women. It is because of these numerous and necessary distinctions that I must note what I have gathered here is a sliver of the big picture when it comes to being an Asian / American / woman at Yale.

POLITICIZING ASIAN AMERICAN WOMANHOOD

On Nov. 18, 2015, the Asian American Cultural Center hosted a public forum in response to the racial tensions that had exploded on campus a few weeks prior. The event was entitled “Asian Americans as People of Color,” a name that seemed to fluctuate between a definitive statement and a question. That is, what claim did Asian Americans have to the title of “person of color,” and what were the implications of making that claim?

For many students, situating themselves as “Asian American,” particularly as “Asian American women,” in the campus rallies became an inherently political process as they struggled to locate the collective place of Asian Americans in the movement.

Some students grappled with being both non-white and women for the first time. Others attempted to unravel and fully comprehend what scholar Wendy Cheng calls the “racialized privilege” of Asian Americans: the relative privilege of middle- to upper-class East Asians who have been racialized as exceptional and high-achieving minorities, at the expense of Black, Latinx and Native communities.

In addition to these complex relationships with other communities of color, there were also important distinctions to be made among the experiences of South, Southeast and East Asian Americans. And many questioned what role Asian Americans could and should play in the context of campus events — a pervasive uncertainty that was further exacerbated by differences in ideology and approach within the Asian American community.

For Cathy Shen ’17, understanding “Asian American womanhood” as its own political identity challenges the convention of seeing “community” strictly along racial lines. In a sense, it also eschews the assumption that groups brought together by such markers of identity — for instance, Asian Americans — must inevitably clash or be incompatible with one another.

“My personal politicization came with and cannot be extricated from the realizing of Asian American sisterhood as a possibility,” Shen said. “It is our non-singularity that gives me the ability and desire to speak, to tell my story, to reorient the way I navigate the world. And that continues to be something difficult, because I think we — as Asian American women — inhabit a labor-intensive space in which we are still building up a collective identity.”

When politicization requires extensive emotional and intellectual labor, such realizations of unity in the face of both racial and gender oppression can be invaluable. One Chinese American senior celebrated the same sense of “sisterhood” that Shen described.

“I find my comfort, joy and inspiration in other Asian American women who reject shame for power,” she said.

It is this shame, often framed as questions of belonging, self-worth and legitimacy, that Asian American women at Yale (and beyond) grapple with — it is an inheritance to be unlearned. And this sense of shame is often coupled with a burden of labor that Asian American men do not share by virtue of their different set of experiences with gender.

Hiral Doshi ’17 illustrated her experience of being a South Asian American woman as one of “being placed with the burden of guarding South Asian culture” — a task, she noted, that is not imposed equally upon her brother.

“[My] Asian American womanhood is [like] walking a tightrope, striking a delicate balance between ‘just Asian enough’ to interact with my family members and ‘just American, or white, enough’ to interact with my classmates and professors,” Doshi explained. Doshi suggested that the mandate to strike the right tone of respectability and acceptability as Asian American women is shaped by the struggle to hold onto one’s culture, as well as a sense of responsibility to one’s family — a responsibility assumed of women.

However, not all women of Asian descent feel so connected with the identifiers implicated in “Asian American womanhood.”

“As a mixed-race Filipina and white-Jewish person, I felt excluded from [the notion of ‘Asian’], not ‘Asian’ enough on two fronts: both too white and too brown for this word and the communities it signified in my context,” Beller-Tadiar said. “That’s changed a lot since I’ve gotten to Yale, where I’ve made ‘Asian’ a much more political identity, and also my personal home in a larger ‘of color’ movement. But the feeling never entirely goes away.”

Beller-Tadiar explained that, as a queer woman, she has been informed by Black feminist thought, which in turn shaped her understanding of gender. For her, the term “womanhood” seems anachronistic because it reminds her of what she describes as “the racist and sexist cult of domesticity” as well as the essentialist quote-unquote feminist movements of the 1980s. Though she is proud to be a woman, the term does little for her.

Evidently, among these Asian American women at Yale, there is no singular path to politicization nor a singular perspective about living as both “raced” and “gendered;” what appears to be a notable and shared tenet to their politics, however, is their interrogation of basing politics upon identity. Rather, as some have found, identity is founded upon and is inextricable from politics.

“My claim and experience of Asian American womanhood is born from the already politicized racialization and gendering I have experienced from the beginning of my life,” Johnson stated. “In this way, rather than prescribe, Asian American womanhood helped me describe, frame, understand, speak about and make sense of this life that has always, is always and will always be shaped by structures of race, gender, power and privilege.”

Beller-Tadiar expressed a similar sentiment, noting that her experience within a kind of liminal identity — not white, not Black — was a place of uncertainty, to speak or be silent from.

“I have tried and try to transcend identity as a basis of politics,” she said. “Certainly my own experiences have given me a window into feeling like an ‘other,’ if not into receiving direct racism. But my readings and friendships have equally done the same.”

CONFRONTING ANTI-BLACKNESS

Last November, Asian Americans at Yale were forced to grapple with several concerns, including our role in Yale’s movement for racial justice and the hard reality of anti-Blackness within the Asian American community.

These issues were particularly pertinent for the Asian American Cultural Center; as a locus with numerous loosely related affiliate groups, its efforts to organize with the Black, Native and Latinx communities at Yale lacked both a communitywide institutional framework and recent historical precedent. Because a crucial theme to the student response was the desire for coalition-building across the cultural centers, one issue appeared to burn above all others: What have we as Asian Americans been doing to support other students of color who have worked to support us in the past, and what can we do?

Ashia Ajani ’19 observed that Asian American students’ responses to the events of last semester varied depending on where such students were from, as well as their educational background in U.S. race relations.

“I think there is something to be said [about] the position of some Asian Americans and [their relationship] with Black and Brown peoples … [there’s] a certain power imbalance,” Ajani explained. “Black and Asian American peoples have had a rocky history, but I think that we are moving in the right direction towards mutual allyship.”

Knowing this, what does it mean for Asian American women — particularly East Asian American women — to share conversations about race and gender with other women of color without first interrogating the ways in which our “racialized privilege” can manifest in harmful ways? Johnson, too, acknowledged the power imbalance that Ajani named.

“It is not helping to dismantle the hierarchies of power and privilege at Yale University to ignore the fact that Asian Americans are privileged in certain ways that other folks of color on Yale campus are not,” Johnson said.

Along this vein of intergroup tensions, Haylee Kushi ’18 noted that Asian American students appeared to be a disjointed front.

“The response of Asian American Yalies was not particularly unified,” she said. “I knew individuals who would make time for things even when it got rough, but this [did not seem like] most Asian American Yalies who I know.”

Rita Wang ’19 also gestured toward this apparent disunification, describing the Asian American community in the context of last semester as seemingly “disparate and apolitical” — an observation that frustrated her.

This lack of collective mobilization, coupled with a push for active inclusion in conversations about racism and sexism at Yale that aimed to center Black and Native women, embodies the contradictions of our “coalition building”: one that claims relationships with other communities of color by virtue of mutual “colored-ness,” and ultimately founders in the extent to which we have materially, physically shown up for others.

“The Asian American community faced the truth of its own long-term failure to support other communities of color last semester. So in terms of my racial identification alone I don’t have much to say except that what we did last semester was not nearly good enough and the problem is not fixed,” Shen said. “But in terms of Asian American women I was largely encouraged and proud — proud that women in our community offered their labor, as they have always done; proud that they spoke out in representation of a community in which their labor is often taken for granted; and proud that we came into support for each other like it was something natural — and it is.”

WHAT WE DID, WHAT WE DO

On the first day of class for “Asian American Literature,” Xiang posed the following questions to a room packed with students: What is literary about politics? What are the politics of literature? That is, what are the politics of telling a story?

One answer can be found in the work of Jook Songs, an Asian American spoken word group on campus. Last November, they dedicated their fall show, “Linger,” to all the Black, Native, Latinx and Asian women of Yale. On the backside of the show’s program, Jook Songs printed a letter of solidarity.

“We all believed that, as a group that is made up of mostly Asian and Asian American women, we had a responsibility to stand with our fellow women of color who have given us so much love when we weren’t always there for them,” Hayun Cho ’17 said. In her view, artistry — such as spoken word — can be used as a potent political tool, particularly by women of color.

Beller-Tadiar also shifted the focus of her art, changing her weekly comic strip in the News, “Quail University,” to more directly critique racism and misogyny on campus. “Being an Asian American woman, or rather being a queer mixed-race woman of color, informed my response in that struggles with identity had been part of my learning and political formation,” she said.

As for the Asian American Studies Task Force, a group that predominantly consists of Asian American women, co-chair Titania Nguyen ’18 noted that the organization pushed for the Asian American Students Alliance and other groups affiliated with the AACC to commit more openly to racial and gender equity.

On Nov. 6, the group posted a message on their Facebook page that began with the words: “We have a confession to make: we, the Asian American Studies Task Force, have not been doing enough to support non-Asian students of color at Yale in the combined fight for racial justice … We recognize our complicity in structures of oppression and how we have benefitted from movements led by Black, Latinx and Native American students while failing to reciprocate with equal time and energy.”

The group proceeded to list the specific steps its members would take to improve upon this, including attendance at future and upcoming events on campus regarding race relations and the development of intercultural programming.

AASA co-moderator and Asian American Studies Task force member Crystal Kong ’18 envisions the future of AASA as one in which the group returns to its political roots, which emphasized community building across racial lines. She explained that in the 1970s, AASA issued a press release in support of a fair trial for Bobby Seale — the then-chairman of the Black Panther Party — as well as an end to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

“It really makes me wonder what happened,” Kong commented, pointing to the differences between the AASA of the 1970s and the less politically oriented AASA of today.

Similarly, Beller-Tadiar hopes that the role of Asian American women in creating and implementing visions of social justice is one of creativity, solidarity and action. “I hope it is radical, and that it deconstructs itself as much as it builds itself up,” she commented.

And Johnson believes that in order for a collective movement in politicization for Asian American women to become possible, an ethnic studies requirement is structurally crucial.

“The Asian Americans who are not thinking about race on campus are probably those that are not taking Asian American history or any of the other (limited selection of) Asian American Studies courses available,” she said. “In order to actively engage with the issues that shape Asian American race and gender identity, we have to understand our history, our situatedness and the process of gendered racialization and racialized gendering that shape our lives today. As an Asian American woman, I did feel like the struggle of women of color on Yale campus was also mine.”

In this sense, some Asian American women did feel a sense of both belonging and political responsibility in the context of last semester’s events — belonging to the burden and pride of being a woman of color, as well as the responsibility of confronting and actively changing the ways in which our commitments to other communities of color have been lacking.

“An understanding of shared gender identity within the Asian American grouping is, I think, a way for us to parse our responsibility to the larger community of color and build relationships that have a unique potential,” Shen said. “We owe it to each other to consider, in all seriousness, our strength as a group. Not Asian Americans, but Asian American women.”

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