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Suey Park: Asian American women are #NotYourAsianSidekick

“I think for a lot of women who don’t feel like they can really come out as feminist, #NotYourAsianSidekick is a way to come into that conversation,” says 23-year-old organizer Suey Park on the thousands of tweets that poured in Monday using the hashtag she started to unite a conversation around Asian American feminism. (Photo courtesy of Suey Park.)

Suey Park (@suey_park) is the 23-year-old freelance writer and organizer behind the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick, which quickly became a trending topic on Twitter Monday with thousands of Asian American women and others from around the world adding their 140 characters to the conversation on Asian American feminism.

“Honestly I am ill-prepared for the magnitude of what is happening and I think that’s okay because I don’t think I should be the only one having these conversations or the only one speaking for millions of people when I’m trying to say that we’re nuanced and not just one person,” said Park, who is originally from Chicago and now lives in Colorado.

She said she planned the tweet-up to take place Monday morning with only a handful of close friends who agreed to join her from across the country and was shocked at the thousands of responses that rolled in during the first few hours.

Park, who is Korean American, said she is not asking for a seat at the “feminism table,” where she says Asian American women are often seen as a “token.” Instead, she says, her intention is to create a new space where Asian American feminism does not leave any group behind and where they’ll be anything but a sidekick.

She The People caught up with Park during a break from checking her Twitter feed.

When did you start to become interested in Asian American and feminist issues?

It was a long time ago — from when I was really young. Even from the start of kindergarten, I was quickly racialized and made to understand that I was different based on what my mom packed for me in my lunch bag. On the playground other kids would pull their eyelids to their side and run around and chase me. I always thought to myself that someone must have taught them that. What kid would know to put their hands on their eyelids and make their eyes slanted? It’s not like they would look at an Asian girl for the first time if they never heard of Asians and do that. So it really proved to me that racism is taught.

And it was during college that I developed my current political ideologies.

What was the conversation you had with yourself before you decided to start the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick? And why did you choose that phrase?

Well, I think the hashtag is interesting because it doesn’t say Asian American feminism in it. I had the intention of building a base and what feminism is without putting a label on it. I think for a lot of women who don’t feel like they can really come out as feminist, #NotYourAsianSidekick is a way to come into that conversation.

I also wanted it to be accessible to young girls. I didn’t want a generation of high school girls to go through what I went through. You’re allowed to fight back. And you are allowed to play the violin or not to play the violin. There is no model for what an Asian American is.

What do you think are some of the pressures Asian American women face?

It is so confusing having these white ideals of what beauty looks like and realizing that most of the women in my family are around 5 feet 2 inches and then trying to live up to those expectations. And on the flipside the standards of beauty in my Korean church and in my Korean family are heavily influenced by Western ideals but are unattainable by Asian Americans. I saw a lot of eyelid surgery in my church, not that I want to perpetuate that all Asian Americans get that surgery. But I also saw a lot of pressure to dye my hair lighter, wear color contacts, to wear Abercrombie jeans, to wear Ugg boots and Northface and it was all these symbols to make me look more white but could never make me white enough, which was really frustrating, so of course I took that out on my body.

As an Asian American woman you’re told that you have to be smart and pretty to be heard. And you have to be exceptional, and of course people want us to be exceptional, so it was hard for me because I did struggle with math and science and I couldn’t live up to the ideals of what my sister could. So then I internalized that I had to be the pretty one and that I had to be the thin one and that became extra hard for me as I hit puberty and I wanted to hold onto it. I had an eating disorder for eight or nine years and the problem with that is that it really takes away a lot of potential. I was so distracted with controlling the way my body looked that I didn’t even get into political organizing, I didn’t ever have a voice because I was so consumed with controlling myself, so how could I empower other women?

I also think there’s also a lot of silence around mental health issues and eating disorders in Asian American families whether it be because of a cultural barrier or a communication barrier. There’s a lot of pressure to not struggle. It was hard for me to tell my parents about my eating disorder because I didn’t want them to know I was struggling because I knew they had sacrificed so much to give me this good life and so-called American dream. For them to know that I had an eating disorder was hard for me to walk through with them.

What were the tweets that stood out to you the most?

I think what was most disappointing was that even some “progressive” white people or “progressive” Asian Americans were telling me that I was demanding too much and telling me that meritocracy exists and that I should stop complaining and try to overcome my circumstances — the typical spiel.

What are you saying to those on Twitter who are claiming #NotYourAsianSidekick is generalizing white peoples’ attitudes in particular towards Asian American women?

I think a lot of white people have a visceral reaction to the fact that they belong to a structural whiteness. But I think it shows us something really important, which is that fraction of discomfort is nothing compared to a lifetime of being racialized and put in a subordinate class of people in the U.S., so when it comes to that and I compare the two I really don’t feel bad at all.

I also think it’s really ironic that this hashtag was going on for days and that people couldn’t even learn enough to think about what it means to them in their own lives. Immediately I’ve become the cool Asian friend and all of my Facebook friends who thought I was really annoying for talking about racism, my feelings and my eating disorder are somehow now tokenizing me as a successful Asian American woman. I mean, how token is that?

Was there something about doing this over social media that you think resonated with Asian American women?

I definitely think that people were really brave for putting themselves out there knowing that there could be backlash. I think it was an act of political unity saying that if one person is putting their voice out there then maybe they should join them.

This one girl emailed and said she logged into Twitter that morning and wasn’t expecting to see the hashtag but she noticed it and she said she was following it all day. She didn’t feel comfortable retweeting or using the hashtag herself because she was just discovering that Asian American women don’t have to put up with these stereotypes of us and so she didn’t want to be cyberbullied and uncool. But she realized that she can start using her voice and in the future maybe she can also start using those hashtags and being more active in sharing her opinion.

What comes after #NotYourAsianSidekick?

18 Million Rising is helping me with a campaign for #NotYourAsianSidekick so look out for that. In my own life I’ll be producing some personal essays talking about all of those things that we never talk about.

I want these conversations to be ongoing and not just be rooted in having these conversations but having these conversations be transformative to a point where we’re organizing around them. There’s so much potential if we’re able to activate the millions of Asian Americans who are out there.

I think it’s about building a new space honestly and finding variety within the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community. I don’t think this is just a trend because there’s so much more to discuss and to unpack and really do-over.

Also on She The People: Contributor Ruth Tam shares her personal feelings about #NotYourAsianSidekick.