Reflecting on Ethnic Studies, Feminism and Intersectionality in Relation to Asian Americans

During a tangent discussion on racism in History class many years ago, a Mexicana friend of mine expressed, “Yeah, but Asian Americans don’t suffer the same way we do.” Despite the discomfort of this statement, I did not respond to it then. It was a mixture of not knowing how to respond or counter such a definitive opinion, and not wanting to create any hostility. Yet even then, I knew I had wronged myself by not responding.

Some time after, while sitting in an Ethnic Studies course, I heard the phrase “Oppression Olympics” and I recalled my friend’s statement and several other similar conversations. She was somewhat right; Asian/Americans didn’t suffer the same way, but it didn’t mean they suffered any less than other racialized populations. Suffering differently didn’t necessarily reflect an accurate measure of suffering. Racial oppression of those in the margins should not have to be expressed in a competitive hierarchy of suffering. Rather, there should be an effort made to understand the cultural significance of these differences and work collectively in engaging and critiquing oppression/oppressors.

It was not until college when I took an Asian American Theories course that I heard the term “intersectionality”. I have understood oppression regarding race, gender and class as separate things. Crenshaw allowed me to understand these planes of identity as intersecting rather than parallel to one another. Kimberle Crenshaw denotes intersectionality as, “the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions” of people’s experiences. In relation to her own identity and her occupation she connects intersectionality specifically to the oppression and experiences of black women. Along with further learning about the oppression of race, Ethnic Studies gave me the language to further understand the oppression of class and gender. As Audre Lorde had expressed, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” In thinking about intersectionality, I thought more about my own identity as an Asian/American bisexual woman. I began to embrace my understanding of feminism and attempted to relate it to my life.

But it was then that I realized I didn’t have any figures in my life who had a grasp of what feminism was. I didn’t fully understand feminism other than placing importance on a woman’s choice. I wondered, does feminist consciousness exist within Asian/American populations and where do I go to seek this knowledge? Often times in my studies, I noticed that the readings I have had were mostly written by white or black women; on rare occasions, I’d find a work by an Asian/American feminist. I decided to take Chican@ courses to find other understandings of oppression and feminism, but I still felt a disconnect.

I also began to notice that within ethnic studies, specifically Asian American Studies, there is an expansive amount of time spent locating Chinese American, Japanese American and Korean American experience in the history of Asian America. Having both Cambodian and Vietnamese blood in my veins I was excited at the 1-2 days spent on Southeast Asian/American works in some of the Ethnic Studies courses. But this is in comparison to week-long agendas made for East Asian/Americans. I was left again feeling disappointed again as things felt hierarchical. I was somewhat perplexed. These courses allowed for a voice of the silence. It provided varying narratives and a different pedagogy that countered white, male, hetero-normative hegemony. But I felt that in its own structures, Ethnic Studies & Gender Studies had its own version of hegemony.

I have continued to assume that in trying to deconstruct the powers that influence, another power will rise and give influence. It becomes cyclical. I don’t think we can ever rid of the concept of hegemony, even with the efforts to deconstruct it. I was left with more questions, more things to critically think about; sometimes it feels as though I’m lacking the language (and confidence) to express these things. Perhaps it is time for intersectionality to “return” and maybe evolve? Maybe we haven’t reached the inclusive feminism we’ve desired. I know that I also have to expand my literature and be active in seeking and participating in Asian/American feminist work; I shouldn’t have to wait for it.