The Washington Post

What #NotYourAsianSidekick means to me


(Ruth Tam)

When writer and organizer Suey Park coined #NotYourAsianSidekick last Sunday, I first thought it was a critique on Asian representation in cinema. But it quickly became clear that despite the name, the Twitter hashtag was being used worldwide by Asian feminists to critique white feminism and air lifelong grievances against Asian stereotypes.

The hashtag was viral for hours. I watched as an observer and participated as a Chinese American. #NotYourAsianSidekick has dropped from Twitter’s Trending list but mainstream media continues to cover it and the message has lingered with me. How have I at times felt like an Asian sidekick?

In elementary school, kids pulled back their eyelids and chanted what they thought were Chinese words.

In middle school, a boy blocked me from getting to my seat on the bus, declaring it was because I “wasn’t white.”

In high school, the same friend who told me I was his “favorite Asian” told me my house “smelled like Chinese grossness.”

In college, my roommate would point me out in group pictures, laughing at how I was “one of these things that wasn’t like the others.”

At my workplace, I was confused for another Asian American employee by a co-worker who ignored it when he realized his mistake.

At every chapter of my life, I have been made to feel like the other. So much so that I have conditioned myself to feel most comfortable when I am standing alone as the sole Asian. Despite growing up in a Chinese family, my world is saturated by so many more white perspectives that I once assumed that they were the standard.

Even at the most “diverse” and “progressive” schools and workplaces, I felt like more of a token and less of a mainstay. Sadly, things didn’t start clicking until I began traveling and I realized the tangible value of my opinion and the opinions of people like me. In sharing these opinions, we felt stronger in our collective history, and that unity has helped us speak out against Asian tokenism in a white-dominated culture.

Yuri Kochiyama, of Oakland, Calif., looks at a memorial erected for the inhabitants of a Japanese-American World War II internment camp, in Rohwer, Ark., Sunday, Sept. 26, 2004.(Mike Wintroath/AP) Yuri Kochiyama of Oakland, Calif., looks at a memorial erected for the inhabitants of a Japanese-American World War II internment camp  in Rohwer, Ark., on Sept. 26, 2004.
(Mike Wintroath/AP)

There are plenty of Asian American women who figured this out long before I did and used their power to fight against both racism,  sexism and the insidious ways those two can conjoin. During the ’60s and ’70s, Japanese American feminist Yuri Kochiyama committed herself to civil rights and intersectionality and yet, ask most millennial feminists to name an Asian feminist and the answer is probably a cartoon.

Not only is propagating whiteness as the norm a shame, it’s straight up misleading. Remember all those trend pieces about the growing Asian American population? If there are so many of us, why don’t I hear more of our voices? And when I do, how come they’re still framed as some sort of cute or risky experiment?

So, mainstream media, don’t sport this hashtag on your news Web site as “trending news.” That basically condemns it to be forgotten instantly, only to resurface as an UpWorthy post six months from now before disappearing forever. Giving real, long-suffering frustrations the “trend treatment ” is yet another microaggression to add onto an already long list.

It would be naive and dangerous to assume only Asians have felt this isolation. In August, a likeminded hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen was used to reveal how white feminists ignore race in the fight for equal rights.

In conversation with She The People’s Casey Capachi, Park said she’s not looking for a seat at the “feminism table,” where she says Asian American women and other minorities are tokens. Instead of pushing into a crowded room where feminists of all kinds are still ignored, Park and increasingly engaged Asian Americans are opening a door to new spaces for Asians to share without judgement.

Does it worry me that the enthusiasm behind #NotYourAsianSidekick could actually just be a trend? Yes. But as someone who struggles to solidify her place in the feminist conversation, I can’t afford it to be.

Ruth Tam is a writer based in Washington, D.C., where she web produces for The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

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