Identities are more than just the labels that we check off on government forms, but rather they are the frameworks that influence how we’re perceived within the government, the community, and, most importantly, the context of our lives. And, as we near the end of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I can’t help but reflect upon what it means for me to identify as an Asian-American woman, how this identity is built upon the identities of others, and how many intersecting identities combine to create this larger composite identity.
“to be an Asian-American woman is to walk in the shoes of both the oppressed and the oppressor.”
For me, the journey towards finding authenticity in who I am as an Asian-American woman has been a long and complex journey that, in many ways, is still an ongoing process of seeking personal empowerment without politically disempowering others. For, to be an Asian-American woman is to walk in the shoes of both the oppressed and the oppressor. It is to simultaneously be accepted and alienated by the people that you love. And it is to be a part of traditionally marginalized communities by virtue of your race and gender, while unwillingly being used as a tool of domination against these marginalized communities.
Asian-Americans occupy a curious liminal space within America’s racial hierarchy. Our darker hair, almond eyes, and easily-tanned skin place us outside of mainstream Anglo-American standards of appearance in a superficial juxtaposition of the East versus the West that brands us as “the other.” With every new encounter, we dread the question “Where are you from?” Because behind every “Where are you from?” is a poorly veiled “Where are you really from?”—a constant reminder that no matter how long we live in this country, no matter how long our ancestors have lived in this country, and no matter how hard some members of our community may try to assimilate, we’ll perpetually be branded as foreigners by virtue of our “Asian-ness.” That we can’t be possibly simply be Americans from America.
Words cannot adequately express how painful and frustrating it is to live in and love a country your entire life that consistently qualifies your validity as a citizen with comments like “Where are you from?” or “You speak English perfectly” or “You’re not like other Asians, you’re like one of us.” But, perhaps the closest analogy is like sharing a house with other occupants that you live in, that you contribute the rent to, that you clean, one that you may have even helped renovate. Yet, despite your claim to this house, there are days where you find yourself locked out, even when you rightfully have all of the keys you need to enter, and the only way you can get in is through the apathetic mercy of other occupants. For, even as we press on and still strive to seek success within this strange country that we call home, to try and have our own slice of the unattainable American Dream, America doesn’t celebrate our victories, but expects them and sharpens them as another weapon in its toolbox of oppression.
“From these successes have sprung racist and reductive stereotypes that label all Asian-Americans as a “model minority.”
Despite the odds, our community has managed to carve out a level of academic and financial success. But from these successes have sprung racist and reductive stereotypes that label all Asian-Americans as a “model minority,” assuming that all Asian-Americans are studious, intelligent high-achievers who are poised for affluence and accolades. Admittedly, compared to other racial stereotypes that falsely brand other minorities with far worse character traits, some may argue that the model minority stereotype is fairly innocuous. But in truth, it’s just as dangerous, if not more, than other racial stereotypes because it can be used by society to not only oppress our people, but other peoples.
In a perverse dynamic, just as women encounter a “glass ceiling” that serves as a structural barrier against their success, Asian-Americans encounter a “bamboo ceiling” that places a higher standard of judgement upon us compared to other races. As a model minority, when we earn good grades, perform well in our careers, or attain financial security, society fails to give us the proper recognition, and instead simply dismisses such accomplishments with a curt, “Of course they did well; they’re Asian.” Such a response not only fails to acknowledge the hard work and determination that goes into reaching such a high level of achievement, but puts an immense amount of pressure upon the Asian-American community. Those who want to achieve recognition are forced to push themselves harder to reach the unattainably high standards that society places upon them, and those who are objectively doing well, but not reaching these higher standards, feel a sense of shame and failure, resulting in many mental health problems throughout the Asian-American community.
To further complicate matters, when members of the white community do recognize our accomplishments, it’s oftentimes not to elevate our race, but to unfairly put down other races. To justify cruel stereotypes that other races are lazy, unintelligent, criminal while failing to examine the different barriers and forms of oppression that each race must overcome—because if the Asians can make it, why can’t they? They frame us as the “good minority” as though all racial minorities are inherently bad, and seek to build a racial hierarchy where they remain at the top and Asian-Americans will serve as traitorous enablers of their oppression in exchange for a taste of recognition. Where we can gain elevation while stepping on the backs of other black and brown people, but never truly reach the status of a fully-recognized citizen.
Being an Asian-American woman is even more fraught. By virtue of the model minority stereotype and the career fields that we statistically tend to occupy (i.e. science and medicine), on average, we are the highest paid women, all other things equal. Yet, despite this fact, we are still paid less than men and our male counterparts. Yes, for every dollar that a white male earns, we don’t earn the $0.62 a Hispanic woman earns, the $0.67 a black woman earns, or the $0.82 that a white woman earns, but we are still earning $0.92 to every dollar that we actually deserve. And thus, we struggle to come to terms with our unique position of both privilege and oppression within a system of inequality as we struggle to find our voice within the feminist movement.
“The Asian-American woman needs and deserves feminism in her life.”
The Asian-American woman needs and deserves feminism in her life. For cultural, for social, and for political reasons, Asian-American women have largely been absent from the feminist movement when we’ve needed it the most. For generations, we’ve had our minds, bodies, and voices colonized, crushed, and controlled by America’s culture of toxic masculinity.
During the Age of Imperialism, white American men colonized the land of our ancestors, overtaking our cultures, our governments, and our livelihoods out of arrogance and greed. During this time, they chose to not only forcibly colonize our land, but also our bodies as part of their conquest. They fetishized our customs—that they didn’t know anything about—and our sexuality—that they grew to know far too well—transforming us into exotic creatures of mystery, beauty, and submission, as though to justify their unforgivable actions by making us subhuman temptresses.
And over time, although we have emigrated from the land of our ancestors, the myths that were created on our ancestors’ land have travelled with us, an unwelcome parasite that has continued to plague its host with stereotypes such as the geisha girl, the dragon lady, and the China doll. Such stereotypes have only evolved to become more restrictive as white and other women of color have become increasingly politically active and sought to make further gains with feminism. Building on the falsehoods surrounding our passivity and eagerness to please men, many disillusioned American men have seen us as the attractive alternative to the “empowered Western woman,” creating an unnecessary wedge between us and our other sisters-in-arms. They seek fever dreams of who they think we are from dating apps, from Asian organizations, and, in some instances, from mail order bride services. White America has somehow managed to simultaneously brand us as both the Madonna and the Whore, robbing us further of our agency and individuality.
“For every indignity the Asian-American man has suffered, the Asian-American woman has felt the same sting of humiliation upon not only our honor, but our bodies.”
But even within our own race, we cannot find a safe haven. From the earliest days of Asian migration to the United States, American society has strategically sought to frame Asian-American men as less stereotypically masculine than Anglo-American men. In the 1800s, it was by creating restrictive immigration laws that prevented Asian men from immigrating with their wives, employment policies that relegated them to stereotypically feminine jobs such as laundry, and legislation that prevented men of Asian descent from participating in elections or owning land. In the 1900s, it was disemboweling traditional family and authority structures that allowed Asian-American men to elicit respect from their wives and children by placing them in internment camps where they had to submit to the authority of armed white soldiers. And today, it’s by mainstream media framing Asian-American men as figures who are unattractive, unathletic, and romantically undesirable to women.
For every indignity the Asian-American man has suffered, the Asian-American woman has felt the same sting of humiliation upon not only our honor, but our bodies. In the 1800s, we were trafficked as concubines to satisfy the sexual urges of Asian immigrants who were unable to exercise their desires upon their wives or other female immigrants. In the 1900s, we faced soaring domestic violence in internment camps, as with nothing left to control, our men decided they would compensate by gaining control of our bodies. And today, we face a culture of possessiveness and paternalism as our men seek to prove their prowess to their female counterparts in misguided, misogynistic encounters. Our men’s emasculation has been our degradation.
But let us mourn, and not lament the suffering we have endured. Let us learn from, and
not languish in the mistakes that have been made. For, progress is coming, and, if the changing composition of American politics is any indication, we are growing stronger. Currently, there are three Asian-American female Senators and seven Asian-American female Representatives in the United States Congress—more than have ever historically served in that legislative body at a given time. And though we are still incredibly underrepresented, we are more powerful and more relevant than ever. In this era of Trumpism, we have an obligation to not only ourselves, but our fellow citizens to apply our unique history in order to protect the rights of all Americans, and protect them we will.
Emily Wasek recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a major in Government and a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. While in college, Emily served as president of Women’s Initiative in Leadership, an organization dedicated to cultivating the next generation of female leaders. Much of Emily’s previous work has focused on the intersection of women and political progress. Her honors thesis, “A Women’s Place in the State House: Exploring Backlash Effects of Women’s Increased Descriptive Representation” examined whether women’s increased elected presence resulted in a legislative backlash that could increase policies counterproductive to women’s interests. As a research fellow for the Project on International Peace and Security, her white paper “Mobilizing Change in Central America: Fostering Women’s Networks to Combat Gang Violence” analyzed how women’s coalitions could be used to enhance anti-gang policies in Central America.