I’ve watched in awe and appreciation for the past week as a Twitter hashtag created by writer and activist Suey Park, “#NotYourAsianSidekick, has achieved the impressive feat of trending on the social network, sparking a global discussion about Asian stereotypes, Asian American identity and especially, the challenges faced by Asian American women.
Park first used the hashtag on Sunday, December 15 to promote a Twitter conversation the next day about how feminism had minimized and marginalized Asian American women. “Be warned,” the tweet announced. “Tomorrow morning we will be have a convo about Asian American Feminism with hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick. Spread the word!!!!!!!”
The conversation couldn’t wait ’til the next morning. It began right away, and led to a torrent of posts from Asian American women who aired their frustration and anger, inspiring others to add their voices to the chorus.
Writer Kai Ma summed up in an excellent essay on Time.com, “#NotYourAsianSidekick Is Great. Now Can We Get Some Real Social Change?” how the hashtag caught the cultural zeitgeist:
Led by Park, who tweeted, “#NotYourAsianSidekick because I’d rather base build with fellow Asian Americans than rely on allies, who have a history of being absent,” thousands of feminists similarly gave an online middle finger to those that reject them, namely patriarchal Asian-American spaces and white feminists. What pierced through the tweets was a broad slam around the silence from non-Asian feminists around our causes.
These discussions are the latest evolution of the search for identity that sparked the call for Asian American studies in universities in the 1960s and ‘70s, that launched the first wave of Asian American publications in the 1980s, and then a wave of blogs in the last decade. Now social media is the way the current generation of young Asian Americans communicates and builds communities, albeit virtual ones.
In a thoughtful analysis on his Wall Street Journal blog, Jeff Yang gives props to Park and notes that the conversations that the hashtag has sparked aren’t new; the issues have been around since the concept of an “Asian America” was identified. He cites a crabby tweet from pioneering Asian American attorney and activist Mari Matsuda:
We theorized #NotYourAsianSidekick ideas since the 70s but kids gotta learn it from a damn hashtag. Still no Asian Am Studies at most U’s.
Park responded to Matsuda in a tweet, “@mari_matsuda Only because you and so many have taught us” and then followed up with “PS, I’m a big fan and hope we don’t disappoint you,” to which Matsuda replied:
@suey_park you won’t disappoint. It’s good work. Same struggle, same fight. Glad to see young sisters claim cyberspace with wit and courage.
It’s a nice sharing of the torch from one generation to another.
In his WSJ blog, Yang hopes the hashtag will lead to a revival of interest in establishing Asian American studies in academia. I think that would be great, but I also hope that Park’s offline efforts will lead to Asian Americans (women and men) who aren’t going to college to be able to articulate their experiences and feelings and rage too. I’d hate for an awareness of Asian American identity and gender politics to be solely held by academics and educationally privileged.
Park, who’s currently herself a graduate student in ethnic studies at Colorado State University, is smart and savvy and has consciously gone about creating this particular community, though she probably didn’t think it would catch on this quickly and deeply. I don’t think she’s just interested in preserving this stuff in universities. She seems to be loving how the conversation is drawing in everyone, including teenagers, and Asians around the world.
She’s a digital provocateur, throwing intellectual molotov cocktails into the interwebs and lighting fires of discussion. A few months earlier she came up with #poc4culturalenrichment as a hashtag to discuss how the white mainstream uses people of color as adornment, an affirmation of their coolness/progressiveness/political correctness. It didn’t catch on (although people still use the hashtag).
This time, Park hit the jackpot after carefully choosing the words and tone — even the number of syllables and whether the final consonant should be hard or soft — of #NotYourAsianSidekick. The hashtag is a very conscious construction. The phrase is broad enough to cover a lot of topics, and isn’t obvious agitprop. She explained in a “She the People” interview for the Washington Post:
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.
Park is an unexpected super-hero for Asian American women — and for Asian American men, because frankly, the hashtag is broad enough to also stir discussion and self-empowerment among both sexes. A diminutive, soft-spoken 23-year-old Korean American, she has a sunny, smiling personality that is disarming by traditional, male-run social codes, which lights up with intensity, passion and depth of knowledge when she talks about feminism, Asian America, stereotypes, politics, sexism, white privilege, racism and revolution.
I got to meet her this week at a gathering of the Denver chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association and her presence made for a lively discussion. That is, when she wasn’t excusing herself to conduct phone interviews.
By her count, she had been interviewed 13 times in the past few days, including several time by the BBC. She had just flown back from Washington DC after being on NPR, and participating on a panel discussion on Al Jazeera America (the host of the show wasn’t a good listener and exhibited irritating white privilege at the panel of Asian American women she kept cutting off) (NOTE: The video of this panel discussion is no longer available, though the page is still there).
She’s in the middle of an extended and intense 15 minutes of fame. She knows the mainstream media are callow and will move on to the next bright shiny distraction, but she’s making the most of the maelstrom she’s unleashed, and she’s manipulating the media to great effect, building her brand so that she can use the afterglow of all the attention to build her base of followers and continue the convo.
To help build that base, Park and her team of like-minded provocateurs who helped launch this media movement and manage the communications that it’s generated, now have a partner, 18 Million Rising, an Asian American Pacific Islander activist organization. 18MR is now managing Park’s massive email load, and has launched a website that’s building a database of community members who sign up to support #NotYourAsianSidekick (everyone who registers gets a sticker). The organization’s a great fit for Park and her mission.
Although Park still lives in Colorado, she’s moving on to Chicago in a couple of weeks to build on the momentum of her hashtag to convert the online trend and the virtual community she’s building into a real-world social movement with 18MR’s help. In fact, she wants to turn the movement into a revolution. Turn the talk into action.
The late jazz musician, poet and godfather to rap Gil Scott Heron once recorded a wonderful track, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Little did he know, that he was right.
This revolution won’t be televised. It’s gonna be tweeted. And it’ll be cool.
Here are links to some of the coverage of #NotYourAsianSidekick
Suey Park: Asian American women are #NotYourAsianSidekick – Washington Post, “She the People” by Casey Capachi
What #NotYourAsianSidekick means to me – Washington Post “She the People” by Ruth Tam
Inside #NotYourAsianSidekick – Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” featuring a panel that includes Suey Park
WHEN #NOTYOURASIANSIDEKICK TOOK OVER TWITTER – Angry Asian Man
Asian Women to Twitter: I’m #NotYourAsianSidekick – BlogHer, Grace Hwang Lynch
#NotYourAsianSidekick reveals the best — and worst — of Twitter – Reappropriate
Why #NotYourAsianSidekick Started a Social Media Brushfire – Wall Street Journal, Jeff Yang
Dec. 30 more links
A tricky conversation for Asian American feminism – China Daily USA
Jan. 2014 more links
Follow the tweets using #NotYourAsianSidekick
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