Culture Politics

SPICY Q&A: AAFC on Interrogating What It Means To Be Asian in America

"White feminism is just white supremacy in heels."

After the 2016 presidential election, four women decided it was time to build a collective that was focused on interrogating, unpacking, and demystifying what it means to be an Asian-American feminist in America. Today, they’ve grown into a politically-focused organization that hosts events, provides an online platform, and accessibly educates everyone through an intersectional lens – with liberation for all as its goal.

While the Asian American Feminist Collective (AAFC) is just over two years old, they have grown rapidly and built a community that they view as a “world-building project.” We were able to sit down with the current leadership committee of AAFC – Julie Ae Kim (28), Rachel Kuo (30), Senti Sojwal (28), and Tiffany Diane Tso (30) – at one of their homes, and talk about the importance of AAFC’s work, how they take care of themselves, and their inspirations. To keep up with AAFC, follow them on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Tinyletter.

How did you all form AAFC? What was the inspiration behind your coalescing?

JAK: We came together as Asian Americans, as feminists, as scholars, as activists, as community organizers, because there was a glaring need and want for space to build feminist politics. After the 2016 election, this became urgent and the foundation for the Asian American feminist Collective was set.

TDT: The “Asian American Feminism” event series launched in early 2017, and the high amount of interest that the events garnered signaled clearly to us that there was an urgent need for more spaces to explore and interrogate Asian American feminism. We officially launched as a collective September last year so we could continue building on this work.

What is Asian American Feminism, and how does it fit into a larger, progressive context?

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Rachel Kuo, AAFC

RK: Both the understandings and utilities of Asian America and feminism as political formations are continuously shifting and evolving. When we mobilize around Asian American identity, we’re talking about a category that encompasses a whole swathe of differences that are often unequal and linked to asymmetrical and uneven histories and encounters with state violence and empire. Asian American feminism provides us framework to move forward to engage a politics that brings to the forefront differential experiences of class, transnational dynamics of global capital, the ongoing legacy and impacts of settler colonialism. For example, we’ve been in alliance with Flushing-based group Red Canary on their campaign to decriminalize sex work — Asian American feminism allows us a way to connect the dots on racism and sexism embedded in both our immigration law and systems of policing (ex: stemming back to the 1875 Page Law) to mobilize with Red Canary from an abolitionist frame. Asian American feminism pushes us to connect our personal histories and desires for liberation to a larger framework.

There’s also a long history to Asian American feminism — that we’re indebted to Black feminist thought; Asian America itself was formed both in the context of the Civil Rights movement and Black liberation (and this history demands more out of us in the present moment to work in solidarity with Black-led movements). I think a core challenge in our present moment is rebuilding a left politics (which other Asian American organizers have also located as a pressing concern), and an Asian American feminist perspective pushes us to move away from politics that are only about accessing wealth and property on stolen land, only looking to the state for solutions, and doing messier work of growing with and organizing alongside with communities beyond our own for survival.

TDT: While mainstream feminism lacks an intersectional lens, other movements on the margins (while pertinent for women of color and very inspiring to us) don’t always address all of the issues specific to the lived experiences of Asian American women, queer, trans and GNC people. Because we are a very small (but quickly growing) population in this country, we are usually the ones responsible for making our voices heard and our issues addressed. So, while our work engages in intersectional feminist politics and is informed by Black feminist thought, Asian American feminism is grounded in our communities, which includes those whose backgrounds encompass East, Southeast, and South Asian, Pacific Islander, multi-ethnic and diasporic Asian identities.

What frustrates you all most about “white feminism”? How has it most impacted your life?

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Senti Sojwal, AAFC

SS: White feminism is just white supremacy in heels. Working in the reproductive health movement, I often see a lack of intersectionality from white-led organizations in addressing the complex lived realities and social and economic needs of marginalized communities in relation to health care access. White feminist issues and frameworks also take center stage in dominant conversations about gender equity in our cultural landscape today. Part of our work at AAFC is to claim this space, amplify the longstanding contributions of our people to social justice praxis, and center our experiences in this movement.

RK: I think white feminism, and by extension, white guilt, tears and fragility, can soak up a lot of time and energy that takes away from being able to give more generously and engage more deeply within our own communities. Additionally, white feminism isn’t synonymous with ‘white women’ or ‘white people’, but is also the ways whiteness seeps into political spaces and continues to replicate itself. For example, when one’s politics is just about ‘lean in’ upward mobility at the expense of others — combating this can be challenging, particularly in communities where people do experience marginalization on other axes of identity.

How do your collective members manage balancing AAFC with their day jobs (if they have them)?

SS: Even as a classic Libra, balance is hard, and I don’t always get it right. I have a full time job, grad school, organizing commitments, and many life-giving friendships that are so important to me. I try and be gentle with myself, practice saying no, and remind myself it’s okay to slow down. Therapy is essential, and so is doing the actual work of liberation with people you love, trust, and will ride for you. I try and get enough sleep, stay organized, and let go of things that are out of my control.

TT: I’m also a Libra (Senti and I have the same birthday!), so I’m constantly searching for balance. I’m not sure if I’ve ever really achieved it, but I’m trying! I work primarily as a freelance writer, so my schedule is all over the place and mostly self-managed. I’ll admit that I often find myself working on collective work when I should probably be figuring out how to make money or advance my career, but all of it feeds me in some way, so it is what it is. Plus, if you’ve ever written on deadline, you know that 75% of your time ends up going to distracting yourself with other work besides writing.

How do you make time for self care and mental health in the midst of your organizing work?

SS: I’m reading adrienne maree brown’s “Pleasure Activism” (thanks for the loan, Rachel!), and it’s having a huge impact on me. In it, she argues for rooting our social justice work in the pursuit of pleasure and joy. As activists, it’s our highest calling to make the revolution irresistible. Self-care is not an aside or a counter to the work of community building and resistance — it is part and parcel of that work. To center our pleasure and wellbeing is not frivolous. It is political, liberating and necessary. When you begin to think about self-love that way, your life can light up in a whole new way.

JAK: I make time to write and reflect. Whether that is in my journal, through writing workshops, or in community with other writers, it helps me to clear my head, stop and take a deeper dive into the meaning of the life I am living.

TDT: I go to therapy. It’s key.

Who are your inspirations and why?

TDT: Helen Zia, who is a queer Chinese American journalist, author, activist and organizer. She is definitely one of the giants whose shoulders I/we stand on. Her work writing, organizing and seeking justice after the murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit was a crucial part of the Asian American movement in the 1980s, when it was still a newly minted political identity.

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Tiffany Diane Tso, AAFC

SS: Audre Lorde, forever, because she taught me the power of my voice. AOC, because she has shown us what we are capable of, even when when it all seems impossible. Cardi B, queen of bad bitches everywhere, because she is eternally herself and always speaks her mind.

RK: I recently spoke about Grace Lee Boggs at a history workshop we did.  Last summer, I got to visit her and Jimmy Boggs’ archives at Wayne State University in Detroit to look at her old speeches and letters. As someone who primarily works as a scholar and academic, Grace continues to be a model of what it means to be engaged in community work. She got her PhD in philosophy in the 1940s and worked for a longtime with Black radical scholar CLR James. She’s someone whose ideas and insights I deeply respect on a theoretical and analytical level, particularly her critiques of racism and capitalism through her labor organizing work. In her time as a movement leader, she started a Revolutionary Study Group for political organizing and also created a lot of newsletters and print material, which is something that I’ve found a lot of love doing (re-presenting different political ideas and arguments in alternate media formats).

What lessons do you all recall on from your upbringings/homes into your organizing work?

JAK: Having immigrant parents who didn’t speak English and worked long hours to provide for our family made me aware at a young age of the marginalization and shaming of communities. I believe strongly in a movement that centers the most marginalized because that is where we need to begin to seriously bring about change. This doesn’t mean it’ll be easy since “communities” are not a monolith and bring challenging thoughts, viewpoints, and assumptions that may be completely different from mine. Even with my own parents and family, there are many instances that I completely disagree with their viewpoints. However, without conflict and differences, there is never growth.

Looking into 2020, what are issues and topics you all are paying the most attention to?

SS: We are today seeing some of the most sweeping and draconian abortion bans in the history of our country. There is no freedom without reproductive justice — this includes access to abortion, birth control, sexual health services, comprehensive sexuality education, legislation that supports every person being able to live authentically, and so much more. Reproductive justice is economic justice is racial justice. It is high time for a sea change.

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Julie Ae Kim, AAFC

JAK: Immigration and rollbacks of protections for LGBTQ people. It seems like there is new legislation everyday that puts immigrants, women, queer/trans people in danger. The breaking apart of families at the border, the limbo of those who have DACA, legislation that tries to erase queer/trans existence. It’s a lot and it’s fast.

TDT: All of that, and also the environment. Things need to change and drastically. People like to act like the billionaires are going to bail us out and fly us to another planet or galaxy after we’ve used up and destroyed the earth, but let me tell you now that these rich people don’t give a fuck about what happens to us. They just want to continue building their own immense wealth and power, despite the fact that they already hoard and monopolize so much of it.

Tell us about your First Times series. What was the creative process behind building this series, and why did you want to spotlight these specific stories?

TDT: The concept of a digital storytelling project arose out of the desire to create spaces that reach beyond our physical location (NYC), since the only way to get involved previously had been coming out to events. We recognize that Asian/American feminists are all over the world, and we wanted to allow people who don’t necessarily live in the area an opportunity to be a part of the movement even if they can’t physically show up. Plus, we wanted to give Asian American feminist writers (including ones who had never been published before) a platform to share their stories with a diasporic community of other Asian/American feminists.

Folks wrote about their family histories, their pathways to political/racial consciousness or feminism, coming into their sexualities — there was so much to explore with the “first times” theme. I loved how different each submission was, and yet how relatable many were to me. My hope is that by giving these folks a platform to share their voices and their experiences, that any Asian/American out there reading might feel inspired and a little less alone. I put a lot of care into editing and publishing these stories, because of how intensely personal they all were. I knew that each writer was sharing a part of themselves with us, so I wanted to make sure we did their stories justice, so that they feel held by their community and continue to write, share and heal.

What is one of the favorite projects you all have worked on as a collective, and why?

SS: I love our #ThisIsAsianAmerica Instagram series that showcases immigrant family histories. I love seeing the richness and variety of our experiences and community. I also really loved hosting our Valentine’s Day Sexuality Talk Circle, and gathering Asian American women, femmes and nonbinary people together to talk about the intersectionalities of navigating desire, sex and identity from our unique perspectives.

What are the most important lessons you have learned since launching AAFC?

SS: There’s a deep hunger and need for these community spaces, more than I could have imagined. Consensus-based decision making is possible. “White Boy Tears” is a great name for a gin cocktail. Movement building is a process, make it one that brings you profound joy.

RK: While a lot of our more visible work exists online (ex: our digital storytelling project; and #ThisIsAsianAmerica and Asian American feminist history are on Instagram), a lot of the lessons learned around feminist praxis in collective work are happening less visibly. Commercial digital platforms aren’t really designed for movement work in mind — you can’t slow down, hold space for conversation, etc.  Movement building (including if we’re building to scale and building with structural stakes in mind) requires deep relationship building. It comes out in how we show each other appreciation, acknowledging the reproductive work that goes into sustaining movements, and how you can also engage disagreement in thoughtful and caring ways. We’re learning a lot about our own capacity and how to be more interdependent. Each event, project, etc comes with a lot of lessons learned on how we move forward. For example, we learned that people really crave meeting having intentional spaces to talk and meet other people. We’ve also learned a lot about the politics of space in New York City, including around affordability, accessibility, and community partnership.

What advice can you give others that want to politically activate more, but aren’t sure where to start?

JAK: Start with yourself and where you are at: your family, your neighborhood, your school, your life. Educate yourself by reading books. Have conversations with people who have different views. Vote in your local elections. The small actions snowball into bigger ones.

RK: Get started somewhere and keep going back! Finding a political home to get involved with (and thinking about a city like New York) can take time in terms of deep and intentional relationship building. This work can’t be done alone so finding people that you can grow with is important too. There’s also a lot of work to be done between showing up to protests and rallies; a lot of movement work happens through taking time to get to know other people through conversations, showing up consistently to meetings, volunteering to take notes, bringing snacks, etc.

We ask this question to everyone we interview: If you could tell your younger selves anything, what would you tell them?

SS: You’re already the person you’re supposed to be — enjoy her, honor her, cultivate her. Expend less energy on men. Be nicer to your mom, understand it all comes from a place of love. It’s okay to be vulnerable. Don’t ever make yourself smaller.

JAK: Embrace the ambiguity, most of life isn’t binary. Trust your intuition. Take notes on what makes you light up and strive to make that a big part of your life.

TDT: Caring is cool. Don’t let the world shame you into hiding.

RK: Slow down and rest. You don’t have to please everybody but be patient and generous to those who are giving you the same kind of care. Echo-ing Senti here too on being kinder to my mom.

What events do you have coming up, and how can readers keep in touch?

TDT: This summer is looking bright already. In June, we’re sponsoring and helping host a Queer & Trans Asian Short Film screening event, as well as hosting a big queer Asian picnic. In July, we’re putting on a workshop with Sonalee Rashatwar, AKA @TheFatSexTherapist. Keep an eye out for these announcements and everything else we’re working on.

Photos by Ally Zhao.