Part 1 of 4 (12 min read time)
By Albert Joon-Ho Hur
[Edited by J]
“Unless we know ourselves and our history, and other people and their history, there is really no way that we can really have a positive kind of interaction where there is real understanding.”
– Yuri Kochiyama
What, exactly, is “Asian American feminism”?
How does it differ from other variants of feminism?
Is it an authentic branch of feminism, or is it simply a hustle?
How can we tell the difference?
After speaking with Asian American women online and in-person, and reading the writings of self-identified Asian American “feminists”, the answers are unclear. While many spout flowery language and talk glowingly of the “affective power” of “Love”¹, very few, if any, seem to know what they’re talking about. I recall talking to Cassie Lam, one of the founders of The Cosmos, an organization that professes to empower “self-identifying women, femmes, gender non-conforming, queer, and transgender individuals of Asian, Pacific Islander, and South Asian descent”. After I called her out on Twitter for some past anti-Asian remarks², we ended up having a three-hour long phone call, which I thoroughly enjoyed (Cassie is an amazing person and we have a mutual friend in real life). However, I walked away no less enlightened as to what exactly this “transformational empowerment” entails. She mentioned a “holistic approach” several times, but never specified what that actually meant.
In fact, this appears to be a common theme. No Asian American feminist can give a concrete problem statement and the means necessary to solve for it, but instead offers vague and ambiguous platitudes, slogans, mantras, and thought-terminating clichés wrapped like shiny enamel around what essentially amounts to writing chain letters, giving speeches, and begging for money. Ornamental Oriental, indeed. Many Asian American feminist writers openly confess to having no interest in the sociological models that accurately describe transnational phenomena which form the matrix of global white supremacy and patriarchy³: American military imperialism, election interference, brutal regime change, and ongoing neo-colonization by the Bretton Woods institutions. They seem mainly concerned with TV celebrities and bad writers, solipsism and ahistorical obsessions over personal identity, rebellion against parents, mental illness, and finding new and interesting ways to gloss over the alarmingly pervasive phenomenon of white worship, which the Asian women who founded online dating service Coffee Meets Bagel⁴ and even the American Public Broadcasting Service⁵ have called out.
Yet somehow, this has not stopped the rapid growth and dissemination of literature, both digital and in print, by these same self-professed “Asian American feminists”. Asian American feminism, it appears, is a writing contest. One that argues the right to hop into bed with the oppressor, literally and figuratively, without any criticism⁶. Like other co-opted liberation movements, it has devolved into a struggle for celebrity and material success in a white supremacist imperialist country that allows only traitors who conform to racist expectations to succeed⁷ on an allotment basis (“tokenism”). All this is couched in the term “agency”, which is a constant object of interpretive struggle across all feminisms, but for vocal Asian American feminists in mainstream media, the term most often means “whatever I want to do to get ahead without regard for context, consequence, or culpability.”
CN Le, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Asian American Studies program at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, refers to these types as “Joy Luck Club pseudo-feminists.”⁸ These performative figures ignore Yuri Kochiyama’s admonishment to learn all the relevant histories of the peoples of Asia, the Americas, Africa, and all other parts of the Earth, particularly in relation to white supremacist political, cultural, economic, and ultimately psychological and physical domination. There is also a worrying tendency to completely disregard critical facts and evidence — even from other feminists, Asian or otherwise — or any morally consistent and conceptually stable framework of justice. According to these types, social justice is personal aggrandizement, usually achieved by grinding the weaker beneath their high heel for commercial gain while yielding to the stronger, like Ivanka Trump. If called out on their dishonesty, they obfuscate with their favorite weasel words: calling for “nuance”, sometimes swapped out or used in conjunction with the need to not be “reductive” or “flattening”. If all else fails, they accuse others, particularly Asian men, of “jealousy”, and even misgender or harass women in order to shut down honest discourse.
This behavior is eerily similar to the description of anti-Semites (many of whom are married to Asian women in America⁹) by Jean-Paul Sartre:
“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”
As someone who has a healthy respect for feminist critiques, writings, concepts, research, and most importantly, liberation movements, the bad faith, false consciousness, and toxic garbage that pervades Asian American feminist spaces — particularly on social media and in academia — appalls me. Of course, it is not my place to tell Asian American women how to build their own unique feminisms, but I call bullshit when I see it. My purpose in this following essay is to help my fellow Asian Americans who truly care about women’s empowerment to learn to distinguish panhandling from real praxis.
All authentic praxis, including the praxis of Radical Love, has the same basic universal components. By laying bare the essential foundations of any movement designed around eradicating oppression and empowering its members IN REAL LIFE, perhaps we can encourage real Asian American feminists to come out from the shadows and tell us what’s what. We always need more sisters in arms.
WHAT DOES WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT ACTUALLY MEAN?
“Women’s rights are human rights”.
— Hillary Clinton
“Women hold up half the sky.”
— Mao Zedong
What is the definition of women’s empowerment?
What does it actually look like in real life, and how can it be achieved?
According to that old colonizer body, the United Nations, a review of the reports of the special mechanisms since the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights indicates that significant progress has been achieved towards broader and more consistent attention to, and analysis of, women’s human rights¹⁰. For those of us living amidst the hope and joy of the #MeToo Movement and the Fourth Wave of Feminism, there is much to celebrate, even as good old white harassers and rapists threaten to destroy everything here in the United States¹¹.
Unsurprisingly, substantial inconsistencies and gaps remain. Empirical data collection and analysis is still sorely lacking, due to a lack of political will and the refusal to grant needed resources from powerful men. Furthermore, Western nations are still very much underdeveloped when it comes to gender equality for women. This is especially true in their actual application of human rights guarantees to the gender-specific experiences of women and the body of emerging women’s rights (such as sexual rights), as opposed to providing mere lipstick service for political gain (which is meant to stave off any potential revolt).
One need only look at the absurd Republican counter-proposal to the Paycheck Fairness Act of 2017-2018¹², which literally consisted of putting up signs in the break room reminding folks not to discriminate, as opposed to actually ensuring fair pay (there’s that “free market” ideology again!). With Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, the Paycheck Fairness Act never passed. In fact, since its first introduction in the 108th Congress, the House of Representatives has passed the bill twice, both times when it was controlled by Democrats. Unfortunately, the Senate refused to ever vote on its merits, despite efforts to schedule the bill for a vote. That is the power and persistence of white male supremacist patriarchy.
Remember that actions always mean far more than words, especially when it comes to men, and most notably when it comes to white men.
Since the field lacks the frameworks to define and apply empowerment, let us look towards a more established field: international minority rights. Around the world, one of the most pressing issues of constitutional design concerns the status and treatment of ethnocultural minorities¹³. To address this problem, the United Nations and the Anglo-American supremacist Bretton Woods institutions have adopted two broad frameworks for its member nations: either “integration” or “accommodation”. The former seeks to integrate all citizens on a nondiscriminatory basis into shared national institutions and public life, while the latter seeks to accommodate diversity through minority-specific institutions directed and determined by the minorities themselves.
This has always been the central question regarding civil and human rights for racial minorities here in the United States: separatism and ethnocultural nationalism, or assimilation into White America under the pretext of nondiscrimination? Integration is fundamentally reformist, and its explicit aim is nondiscrimination and enumerating legal protections for dominated and vulnerable populations. On the other hand, accommodation is about the collective right to self-determination: self-government, language rights, territorial claims, control over natural resources, and legal pluralism (meaning, their own set of laws in contrast to the broader, overarching laws that govern mainstream society). One might even understand this as the Original American Question: Federalism or States’ Rights?
Co-founder of the Black Panther Party Huey Newton (to whom Japanese-American civil rights activist, educator, and later FBI snitch Richard Aoki supplied guns), defined self-determination within a framework of power¹⁴. Power here means the ability to define phenomena, including people, and to make it (or them) act in a desired manner. In this framework of racism as fundamentally centered around political power, self-determination is the ability of a nation or community of people to forge its own path of development, enumerated in the rights above. It also means freedom from foreign domination and outside influence, one of the key pillars of Americanism as explained by Carnegie. The threat of self-determination by historically disenfranchised and brutalized ethnocultural minority populations has always struck fear into the heart of the ruling global Anglo-American supremacist imperialist system, as shown by the entire history of the 20th and 21st century. It nearly guarantees significant levels of repression and massacres for people who attempt to achieve the first, most fundamental human right: Free Will.
The same question now stands before all American women, including Asian American women. Which should it be: Accommodation by, or Integration into, White Male Supremacist America? Any authentic praxis must begin by first addressing this fundamental dichotomy, the tension between the competing entities and bodies involved, and the public policy and social norms by which either or both should occur and be codified in all levels of government, the workplace, and at home. Recall the three levels at which patriarchal domination and misogyny operates: the state, the street, and the home. All three must be addressed. To what degree should Asian American feminism, and all other feminisms, aspire towards political and bodily autonomy while recognizing the duties and obligations of citizenship?
This is the ultimate Problematic for all Empowerment: Agency versus Citizenship.
IDENTITY PEDDLING VERSUS IDENTITY POLITICS
“He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat… Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn, but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”
— Matthew 3:12
What is the difference between an authentic politics of identity versus a hustle?
The situation between colonizer nations and their racial minority populations is illuminating.
The United Nations draws a sharp distinction between “national and homeland minorities” and what it refers to as “indigenous” people. It also offers an enormously different set of minority rights to the two, depending on which category they fall into. According to the old colonizers and white supremacist imperialists, national and homeland minorities only deserve “integration” — civil rights and legal protections under the premise of nondiscrimination. Indigenous peoples, like the Native Americans, are the only ones officially guaranteed “accommodation”, i.e., the right to self-determination, including their own land, language, and government.
This distinction is a highly morally dubious and conceptually unsound brand of white supremacist identity politics by the UN, which wants to define and limit the number and magnitude of political concessions it must grant to vulnerable and persecuted ethnocultural minorities. This, of course, includes the good old United States of America, which championed “integration” (i.e., “colorblindness”) in the 90s in order to quell the radical racial power movements that demanded accommodation during the 60s and 70s.
The danger of unsound political categorizations that cannot withstand scrutiny (“contradictions in the system”) is clearly demonstrated by what happened as a result: an explosion of identity politics by national minorities and governments worldwide. There is now an increasing tendency for homeland groups in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to adopt the label of “indigenous peoples”. One interesting case study in this genre of identity peddling involves the Arab-speaking minority in the Ahwaz region of Iran, whose homeland has been repeatedly subjected to state policies of Persianization, including the suppression of the Arab language, the renaming of towns and villages to erase Arab history, and settlement policies meant to displace the Arab people of Ahwaz with Persian settlers.
In the past, Ahwaz leaders have complained to the UN Working Group on Minorities that their rights as a national minority were not respected. “Integration” had failed (a common theme due to lack of political will and active suppression by tyrannical majorities everywhere, particularly in white supremacist, patriarchal countries). But since the United Nations does not recognize national minorities as having the right to accommodation, they ran into a dead end. Thus, they relabeled themselves as an indigenous people in a hilarious bit of sophistry, and began participating in the work of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Other various homeland minorities in Africa have now started rebranding themselves as indigenous people as well, primarily in order to gain protection for their land rights.
These fights over political categorizations, distinctions, and borders are often petty shams on both sides, despite the enormous stakes and amount of lives involved. Any number of minorities are now debating whether to adopt the label of indigenous peoples, including the Crimean Tatars, the Roma, or Afro-Latin Americans. Even some African Americans have begun trying to piece together a revisionist history that intertwines their fates with the fates of Native American peoples in order to brand themselves indigenous (two can play at that game; virtually all scholars¹⁵ agree that the aboriginal populations living in North, Central and South America at the time of Columbus’ voyages originated from small groups of prehistoric immigrants from North Asia, making all Asians “indigenous” to America, how do you like that?). Some of the more famous examples are the Palestinians in Israel, the Abkhaz in Georgia, Chechens in Russia, and the Tibetans in China, who are supported in their efforts by the CIA¹⁶.
White supremacist imperialist nations and colonizers also engage in these border skirmishes over definitions to advance their own racist foreign policy interests. One might call these international-level identity politics. Countries in Africa and Asia declare that all their peoples are indigenous, which serves a dual purpose: 1) to serve as the claim to their land and territorial sovereignty and 2) to quell separatist national minority populations who demand accommodation within their own borders. However, the core Western bodies of the UN do not recognize these claims, and have a selective policy of identifying certain national minorities in Africa and Asia as indigenous over others, in order to encourage separatism for the oppositional groups they back while they destabilize the governments they oppose.
All these hustles show the utter futility of any form of identity politics based solely on tribalism and divorced from material, object reality and standardized definitions with morally consistent claims to legitimacy. It merely forestalls the conflicts that exist along social fissures within countries by burying them in back-and-forth quibbling and revisionist histories, or the construction of wildly ahistorical, self-serving, and politically unsustainable ideologies such as present-day Afro-pessimism¹⁷, which exceptionalizes and elevates the struggles of black liberation above all others. It also ultimately benefits the status quo, and the colonizers and white supremacist imperialists that dominate the system, by forcing culturally vulnerable and oppressed populations to continuously define and redefine themselves over and over to a shifting set of standards in order to win their human rights. The goalposts keep moving! What a waste of time.
There are, of course, legitimate identity politics. Some of the most well-known and protracted struggles for real autonomy around the world involve racial minority groups fighting for their rights and empowerment, like the Scots, the Catalans, the Chechens, Kosovar Albanians, Kurds, Kashmiris, and Tamils (like the pop singer M.I.A., who said in a recent interview¹⁸, “Tamil women were wearing uniforms, carrying guns and dying for their cause, for their people…When we talk about feminism, those things should be considered. That shit ain’t even picked up by young Tamil women in Toronto.”).
As opposed to relentless pedantry and sophistry divorced from objective reality (which are only fig leaves for the actual underlying power struggle over land, language, resource allocation, and self-government), what is authentic identity politics?
All true identity politics, including feminism, have a praxis: a concrete process by which to define a set of collective people and interests and mobilize them in opposition to the ruling class in order to bring about transformational change within society for oppressed and poor populations. There are three pre-conditions to praxis: 1) a clear and coherent ideology with stable definitions and conceptualizations that draw the boundaries of that political collective in a way that makes sense, which is needed to drive real-world action; 2) a fair and consistent moral framework that justifies their claim for rights, one that can be applied to others in similar situations and is not selectively applied or unfalsifiable; and 3) is rooted in empirical reality and actual material history, i.e., a history of brutalization, cultural vulnerability, or material imbalances in equality of social, cultural, and economic opportunity and patterns of treatment relative to others.
The presence of these three pre-conditions is what confers legitimacy and long-term political sustainability. Their absence is a clear sign that you’re being hustled, usually for your wallet.
- Leslie Bow, Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion: Feminism, Sexual Politics, Asian American Women’s Literature, 2001, Princeton University Press