Tag Archives: Japanese internment

Day 2- Asian American Women’s Activism in the US

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At some point in American history every racial minority group has faced discrimination similar to what Middle Eastern women are now being subjected to and Asian women are no exception. In fact, “Japanese Americans spoke out against the proposal to intern Arab Americans during the Persian Gulf War.”[1]

This is not to say that racism against other minorities in the U.S. has ended, rather, it has evolved into a subtle systematic oppression where it was once a glaringly obvious hatred.

The United States has a long, varied and unpleasant history of blatantly racist legislation restricting not only immigration from the Asian continent, but also the freedoms granted to Asians already in the country. The forced internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II is one of the biggest blemishes on American history, and America’s sordid actions in the Philippines and Vietnam have created tense and complex relationships with immigrants from both nations.


Yet white Americans seem to think Asian Americans have not been affected by their racism. Author Emily Woo Yamasaki explains, “Asians in the U.S. are portrayed as especially adept at ‘making it.’ Vilified as cunning and dangerous on one hand, they are gushed over as the ‘model minority’ on the other.”[2]

Now “Asian immigration laws have changed such that the new Asian immigrant is not educated and professional but working-class or poor. Trade agreements such as NAFTA and GATT have broken down protections for workers and the environment in order to secure a free-wheeling capitalist global economy, and Asian workers, especially women, are suffering the worst of it — laboring under worse working conditions and being forced to compete for the most degraded, worst-paying jobs.”[3]

Much like how the laborious toil of individual Chinese immigrant men built the railroads, today the work of Asian immigrant women singlehandedly keeps the U.S. garment industry afloat.

“Activists have responded to these new changes with a renewed labor movement that cross borders and industries. Asian women organizers have been at the forefront of these campaigns.”[4]

Springing out of Asian American movement of the 1960s that was inspired by the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, the “first wave of Asian women’s organizing” formed because “Leftist Asian women in Yellow Power and other Asian American groups often found themselves left out of the decision-making process and their ideas and concerns relegated to ‘women’s auxiliary’ groups that were marginal to the larger projects at hand.”[5]

Asian American women remain active in the fight against patriarchy and domestic violence with groups like Korean American Women in Need (KAN-WIN)[6] and by participating in all facets of American feminism from writing to conferences to protests.

In the past, interned Japanese American citizens protested their treatment and fought for their rights even from within the walls of American concentration camps. Later, Asian Americans were instrumental working alongside Chicanos to organize the United Farm Workers Union and labor strikes demanding fair pay. They were also vital to the fight for Affirmative Action and Ethnic Studies programs.[7]

Today groups like the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA),[8] the National Asian Women’s Health Organization (NAWHO),[9] the National Association of Professional Asian American Women (NAPAW),[10] the South Asian Women’s Network (SAWNET)[11] and the Asian American Women Artist Association (AAWAA)[12] all serve the diversity of women who make up Asian American communities across the country.

Asian American women of all sexualities marched alongside their sisters of all colors to protest the grotesque treatment of Rodney King in the early 1990s[13] and continue their nonviolent activism today within organizations like the Women of Color Network (WOCN)[14] that works to stop violence against women. Asian American women are also prominent in ACT UP, an organization committed to solving the AIDS epidemic by utilizing civil disobedience,[15] and various LGBTQAI organizations as well.

Like their Arab American sisters, Asian American women are often invisible to the public eye–left out of all forms of media and racialized when they are seen.

Even though the Asian continent spans from Japan and Malaysia in the East all the way to Turkey in the West and includes nations full of Caucasians like Russia, Azerbaijan and Latvia, Asians in the United States are generally assumed to be Chinese or Japanese. Recognition of people as Filipina, Indonesian, Korean, Laotian, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese, Hmong, Indian, Tibetan, or any other national or ethnic distinction, is not something most white or black Americans could do.

That most Americans cannot differentiate between the various Asian nationalities has long been true. In King of the Hill, white Texan and main character Hank Hill asks his new neighbor about his ethnicity:

“So are you Chinese or Japanese?”

To which Kahn Souphanousinphone replies,

“I live in California for last twenty years but first come from Laos.”

Seeing Hank and his other white Texan friends’ confusion he explains where Laos is geographically and gives some facts about it such as the population.

Still not understanding, Hank again asks, “So are you Chinese or Japanese?”[16]

White Americans are so ignorant of Asian cultures that they assume, as stated yesterday, that all Muslims are Arab; Southeast Asian immigrants, and black American converts to Islam, form the largest portion of the Muslim population in the United States and all of the nations with Muslim populations exceeding 100,000,000–Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh–are in Asia.

Bisexual Korean American actress and comedian Margaret Cho fights for Asian American women’s visibility in the media as an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQAI and Asian communities throughout the U.S. She was also the first Asian American actress to star in a television sitcom.

Far from the stereotypes of Asian women as docile and submissive (geisha girl) or evil and plotting (dragon lady), Cho allows her audiences to see the humor in everything from politics to fat. Some of her jokes revolve around people confusing her for Lucy Liu, the Chinese American actress famous for Charlie’s Angels, or Sandra Oh, the Korean Canadian star of Grey’s Anatomy, and in this way combat typical American ignorance of the differences within the Asian American community.

While anthologies of black, Hispanic and Native American women can easily be found in the public library it is difficult, if not impossible, to find the same kind of documentation of the lives of individual Asian or Arab American women. Literature compilations by Asian and Arab women are available but biographies of women important to those groups’ fights for equality are not yet in America’s public libraries.

Compilations of feminist essays by women of color are careful to include Middle Eastern and Asian women but their voices are still too far and few between. Women must have access to their own histories and be able to draw upon the strengths of others in their communities to be able to learn and grow from past actions; Asian American women are no exception.

[1] Alaniz, Yolanda and Nellie Wong, eds. 1999. Voices of Color. Red Letter Press: Seattle, Washington.

[2] Alaniz, Yolanda and Nellie Wong, eds. 1999. Voices of Color. Red Letter Press: Seattle, Washington.

[3] Shah, Sonia. 1997. “Women and Gender Issues” Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. June 15, 2010 http://www.asian-nation.org/gender.shtml

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. 2006. Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology. South End Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[7] Alaniz and Wong, 1999.

[13] Alaniz and Wong, 1999.

[16] “Westie Side Story.” King of the Hill. Fox. 2 May 2006.

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