Monday, January 13, 2014

The Language Of Inspiration...

...And Asian-American Feminism.

Well the latest big Asian-American news is that twitter exploded awhile back at the initiation of a feminist tweeter named Suey Park. Although consisting of a general rant (if that is the right word) about racist stereotypes about Asians that took the form of snappy twitter one-liners, the "trend" was hailed as an awakening for Asian-American feminists who are calling for a space dedicated exclusively to raising the voice of Asian-American feminism. I don't usually care to post content on topical subject matter, simply because all too often it is little more than a reaction and comes across as such, and it is often wise to see how any given situation plays out before passing comment. That said, at this early stage, some interesting things emerged from within the Asian-American community that I think are worth some commentary.

Specifically, long-time Asian-American feminist blogger Jenn Fang at Reappropriate posted an interesting commentary in this blog post at her site, but even more interesting was the ensuing conversation that I engaged in with her in the comments section at her blog. In particular, I had two initial points of interest that I raised with Jenn; the idea of "institutional sexism" within the community as well as what Jenn's thoughts were on the most significant issues of sexism facing asian-american women in 21st Century America. I was thrown by Jenn's response to the latter. This is what she listed as her most significant issues.....
1) that Asian Americans have the highest gender income gap of all races. APIA women make 73 cents to every dollar that an APIA man makes, which is the lowest of all other races by more than 5 cents.
2) mental health issues which we’ve discussed, which I would like to maintain a focus on APIA women, but which the community largely doesn’t talk about, and
3) human trafficking/immigration rights. Asian Americans, particularly women, are the second largest undocumented immigrant population in the States and growing, and worldwide, most trafficked sex workers come from Asian nations. Yet, this is an issue the community — either the APIA community or the feminist community — pretty much ignores.
I think that most reasonable Asian-American men (and  most Asian-American men are likely reasonable) would agree that these are immensely significant issues that they would happily lend support to with little reservation. Surely there would be little conflict about the merits of addressing these issues? But the reason I was thrown by the above list, is that the body of the Reappropriate piece made mention that the fact......
..of our community is also that institutionalized sexism has long silenced the voices of Asian American feminists.
As hard as I tried, I found it extremely difficult to find meaningful connection between institutional sexism within Asian-America and the list of most significant issues facing Asian feminism. From an Asian-American male's point of view, Asian misogyny, stifling of Asian women's voices, and rampant sexism resulting in limited opportunities, have been the most common charges leveled at Asian men, so naturally I would presume these charges might form a significant part of any priorities in feminism. Yet, the three most important issues - at least for one feminist - has seemingly little to do with any of these problems. As I pointed out in the comments over there, mental health issues are a taboo subject regardless of who suffers from them, and trafficking is a subject that most people, Asian or otherwise, are simply ignorant of, but would most likely be quite willing lend support to see it end. I see little connection between any suggested silencing of feminist voices and these two issues, and frankly see no reason why Asian men would not support it. As for Asian women's lower salary levels, again I doubt that Asian men would think that this is a fair state of affairs, and I see little reason to believe that it is caused mainly by Asian men's sexism.

And this is what threw me about the list; if these listed most significant issues (and I agree that they are significant) facing feminism have little ostensible connection with sexism in Asian-America, then where does this sexism fit into the Asian feminist dialogue? More precisely, how does using the language of first and second-wave feminism to describe what is obviously not first and second-wave feminist issues in Asian-America advance the Asian feminist cause? If we accept that any reasonable movement would have as its ultimate goal a synthesis, or adoption into mainstream attitudes and behaviours, of its tenets, then how pragmatic is it to use language that apparently repels rather than recruits Asian men to this end?

Surely trying to conceive of the gender dynamic in Asian-America using terms formed by a (predominantly white) feminist movement that was not complicated by race issues (specifically gender issues complicated by racism) is both intellectually lazy and unoriginal? Jenn writes...
The argument is that Asian men a) recognize that male privilege has afforded them an easier time to get where they are than is afforded to women, even if they are still disadvantaged based on race, and b) if they are in positions of achievement to be sensitive to Asian women who are working without male privilege to achieve.
As it turns out, the fight for gender equality is not as simple as presenting issues to the community and garnering support with passionate oratory, persuasive arguments, and outlining of goal-oriented courses of action. In fact, those methods take a back seat and in their stead, what seems to be required is soul-searching and contritious confessions of the sin of privilege. Specifically, male privilege, and even more specifically, Asian male privilege as, apparently, conferred through the structures of the white patriarchy. That is, it seems to be the case that only via the cathartic process of acknowledging or owning male privilege - Asian male privilege - can Asian men be motivated or able to genuinely fight for equality and empowerment for Asian women. I question this line of reasoning, and submit that to speak so casually about Asian male privilege as some kind of trickle-down benefit deriving from white patriarchy is to simply not comprehend the experience of Asian men in the US, despite paying lip-service to the contrary.

Quite simply, the very essence of the Asian male experience of racism is one of dehumanization, and along with this is a denial of Asian men's masculinity and, hence, their "maleness". How does male privilege exist when maleness is denied? Sometimes the phrase "bro-culture", is used to describe the inclusive culture through which privilege is shared amongst the patriarchy, yet, it is difficult to see how Asian men are conceived of as "bros" in American culture. In fact, the opposite is probably more true and Asian men are most certainly not generally conceived of as "bros" at all. Sure, some of us may get past the prejudice - without, that is, ending it - but the reality of any supposed Asian "male privilege" is surely far more complex than a simple assertion that our gender makes achievement easier. Asking me to "own" it carries with it an implicit assertion that I - and other Asian men - have somehow benefitted from the racism we have experienced. We haven't.

And that might be one of the reasons why we have a paradox where Asian men roll their eyes at the rhetoric of Asian-American feminism, yet would almost certainly support efforts to rectify the issues listed above. I am perfectly willing to lend support to the above causes, yet I am able to do so because I feel that there is justice in fighting for equal pay for Asian women, the mentally ill deserve sensitive consideration, and trafficking is an abomination. That should be enough motivation for me and it should be sufficient to accept my support on those grounds alone. To insist that I also confess to what any reasonable person should see as dubious privilege is merely pointless chest-beating. Even worse though, it is counter-productive and at the end of the day amounts to self-sabotage. At some point, you have to stop the rhetorical calls to battle and actually start talking to people. That includes talking to Asian men.

The proof is in the pudding. After forty-eight comments and a fairly in-depth back and forth of ideas, the actual subject of the most significant issues for Asian-American feminism went almost completely unaddressed. Instead, the conversation was pretty much focused on why it is believed to be necessary to adopt a strategy of labeling and insisting on proclamations of contrition ahead of finding the most effective language and argumentation to recruit the support that might be required to create the kind of social awareness that these issues deserve. I have serious doubts that the vast majority of Asian-American men would refuse to participate in advocacy for these issues because of sexist attitudes. A little search on several of the blogs that I link to - bigWOWO, Nikkei View, Eurasian Sensation, Angry Asian Man - have carried supportive content on the sexism faced by Asian women, and I know of no Asian-American blogs, writers, or artists, who are hostile to Asian women, Asian feminism, or Asian women's issues - save, one. So whilst I would not deny that sexism exists and that there are some Asian men who do troll Asian women in cyber-space, I would submit that almost all of the most respected and read Asian male bloggers, writers, artists, and activists, are open to lending support to the cause of equality, indeed, they do that very thing.

All groups that experience marginalization or injustice seek primarily to have their experience not only heard, but also validated. By approaching Asian men in a manner that fundamentally dismisses their experience of prejudice by re-framing it as privilege, explicitly places us into an oppositional position and marginalizes us such that a group who would most likely happily throw their support behind such issues as the ones listed, are instead forced into defending themselves from presumptions that not only diminishes their experience of racism, but also tries to make the ludicrous claim that the very basis of anti-Asian-male prejudice (emasculation and denials of maleness) carries some kind of as yet vague flip-side of privilege.

No, Asian men have a sense of justice, we have compassion and even empathy! It's true! And Asian-Americans - particularly the younger generation I would certainly bet - would be open to hearing about these issues. Although it makes for great copy to utilize hyperbole and labeling to draw attention to a cause, it does little to actually motivate participation simply because the presumptions it entails serves to bulldoze agency and steamroller the experience of people who may themselves feel as though their stories are marginalized. Worst of all, this strategy seems to be little more than manipulation that over-rides extant goodwill and willingness to contribute.

To summarize, there has to be a point where the language of ontology and theory ceases and the language that enables positive and meaningful engagement - that is, language that fosters inspiration and commitment - becomes more useful. Language that reaches people who are not in the choir and inspires them to want to see the same changes you want to see, would seem obviously more potent. And that is something that I sense is lacking in Asian-American feminism as it relates its issues to those not ostensibly a part of it - it lacks the substance of language to inspire. To be fair, I have a general sense that the ways that Asian-Americans present their experiences are generally uninspiring (for example, we are always highlighting our "offence", but why should anyone care that we are offended?) to those not in the community.

Furthermore, it belies the nuanced spirit of third-wave feminism to stick to such strategies seemingly based on rigid, unnuanced language, when  third-wave feminism itself calls for a widening of concepts of feminism and the experiences that go with it. By shifting away from this approach, it might create the possibility of engaging with people in such a away that humanizes them, instead of turning them into a series of labels and negative characteristics. For any group that has felt the pinch of marginalization, invisibility, and prejudice (Asian men included), humanizing them will most likely get you further than continuing the strategy that fundamentally dehumanizes them further by what amounts to gross generalizations.

On a very final note, I cannot help but find irony in the guilt-by-association charge of "maleness" transcending race and somehow privilege emerging from the emasculation and anti-male attitudes towards Asian men. If white male privilege is imparted by mere association, then what privileges are conferred through personal relationships of dating and marriage? This is a serious problem for those Asian feminists who insist that people own privilege, after all, who is it out of all women of colour that engages in and seemingly pursues inter-racial relationships with white men most of all? That's right, it is Asian women, who alone out of all groups do not discriminate between white men and men of their own race. This is an inconsistency problematic for Asian feminism; if Asian men are privileged by sharing gender, and must therefore own it before they can genuinely support the fight for justice, then surely marrying into whiteness confers degrees more privilege that must be acknowledged as well?

As I wrote here, social scientists maintain that inter-marriage is the final barrier into full acceptance into the mainstream. That is, once intermarriage between groups becomes normalized - as it more or less has for Asian women and white men - then it is believed that the last barrier into whiteness has been crossed. That is to say that by marrying into the white mainstream, Asian women are implicitly beneficiaries of white privilege. This is awkward in the extreme. Defending dating choices of Asian women (that is the right - privilege? - to date and marry white men) has become an integral aspect of the Asian feminist dialogue, but with no mention of the implicit privilege doing so confers. To me, this represents an almost fatal blind-spot for Asian-American feminism, particularly at times when charges of privileges are being so casually thrown around.


  1. That's an excellent point about White privilege-by-marriage.

    My main issue with Asian feminism is that it often blames Asian men for things that actually should be blamed on (mostly) White men. Take the pay gap, for example. I doubt that there are that many Asian guys that are powerful enough to set wage standards in America. After all, our stereotype is that we get stuck at the middle management level. Shouldn't the White men, who mostly populate the executive boards of corporations, be facing the brunt of this problem?

    Or as you pointed out in your post about the "Asian Girlz" video, it's interesting how commentary on White men's Yellow Fever almost always also faults Asian men.

    Is this "displacement" at work, where easy targets such as Asian men are used as scapegoats for the faults of bigger fish? Or perhaps many Asian feminists grew up in male dominated households and have projected this Asian male dominance into the greater American society?

  2. Hey Baakus

    I honestly think that a significant problem facing Asian-American advocacy of all kinds is a lack of an intellectual tradition. That is, a process by which ideas are put forward, and then these are ideas are challenged or updated so that our knowledge or understanding of any given issue clearly and effectively progresses.

    This lack of a tradition means that the language of advocacy may be stunted, meaning that ideas have not really been hashed out enough from a variety of angles, so that people have the exact ideas around which to form forceful language.

    What I'm saying is that I believe that Asian feminism is suffering from this lack of an intellectual process such that it is not producing original ideas and hence not producing nuanced language to express its experience. Hence, the paradoxical phenomenon of charging Asian men with benefitting from privilege imparted from the white patriarchy, when the basic building block of anti-Asian male dehumanization is the denial of a common manhood, and therefore, maleness.

    But I tend to think that this may be a general problem in Asian-American advocacy and not something specific to Asian feminism.

  3. I agree with parts of this. We are fucked by racists for sure, but just being males grants us some advantages.

    There are certain assumptions about our ability to work long hours, handle stress, NOT go on maternity leave, fit in a male dominated work place, etc so her charges aren't without merit (assuming, she's not blaming it on teh evul patriarchy™)

    We less likely to get attacked.

    She's also got a point about getting shit from am during discussions.

    Although, I wonder how much of it is caused by her and afs who continually defend the right to date white and tell upset Asian men that it's all in their head.

    fyi, it's Jenn Fang.

    I think the problem lies in that cultural upbringing. Baakus referred to it as displacement, which I see as the result of that head-in-the-sand culture.

    I find it impossible for an af to NOT know who is the one screwing them over unless the maxine kingston/amy tan[s] really poisoned their minds so badly.

    This goes back to the need for Asians to learn their REAL histories and the REAL history of white imperialism and most importantly, to grow a spine.

    1. Yun

      It's Fang?! Okay, changed it, thanks for the correction!

      "but just being males grants us some advantages."

      Like I pointed out in the post, arguments could be made that Asian women are granted privileges and therefore advantages by their outspoken advocacy to date white men. The question is, do they first need to recognize this privilege before they can contribute to advocacy movements?

      I don't deny that being male means that my experience has some advantages, but there is a bigger picture and a more nuanced experience that goes beyond "white patriarchal privilege is conferred upon Asian men because of a shared gender".

      This is no different than when Asian feminists and activists would ask that we look past the white guy that they are dating and have a more nuanced understanding or way of engaging than merely judging their dating choices.

      Overall, I think that the language of engagement could be tweaked so that instead of feeling like I have to iron out the facts of my experience, I can be more inspired to make a more proactive contribution to the issues at hand based on my good nature. You don't recruit people to a cause by framing their experience to fit your worldview.

      Also, I don't think my post is denying that women have disadvantages, or that there are aspects of their experiences that require urgent attention from all Asian-Americans, I just don't think that the way that we as Asian men are sometimes engaged is conducive to highlighting or supporting those issues.

  4. IR has gotten so bad amongst AF that it has become the norm. Maybe more AA women should try to date Asian men as the next 'shock' factor trend. That can be the new IR trend for Asian women - date the kind of guy that you are most unfamiliar with haha. Im copyrighting this comment mofos

    1. hey Indie

      I want to clarify that the last two paragraphs of my post are not a tirade against AF's and IR - that approach is too circular.

      The gist is that there are nuances in the Asian-American dialogue that are stifled on both sides by rigid language that serves to paste a veneer of terms onto the Asian experience that are borrowed from other movements but which seems to leave little room for humanization of the parties involved.

  5. Painful discussion to read Ben. It seems however, that at the end of the day, East Asian feminism is about the supposed right of the female to do what they want. Guess that's why there are so many of these said feminists in the porn industry accompanied by their Eurasian sistren. Jenn did not grasp much nuance and neither does Suey Park (from that tweet). They don't seem to understand that there can be no respect for East Asian females if there is none for the East Asian male, you cannot separate the two.

    1. hey ethnicmuse

      Nuance is the key, particularly when an implicit goal is to recruit other demographics to agree with your point of view. Whatever happened to just asking people to support a cause?!

      BTW, are you Asian? Don't mean to be rude - I'm just always looking to add new unique Asian male perspectives to my blog list.

    2. I would propose that Jenn and cohort are much more (or totally) committed to so-called 'Asian' feminism than to 'Asian' (male) social equality. I have Chinese ancestry. Terms like 'Asian' are too broad and irrelevant as an ethnic identifier which is perhaps why Europeans happily employ its use.