It began with a single tweet, posted by 23-year-old freelance writer and organizer Suey Park, that said: “Be warned. Tomorrow morning we will be have a convo about Asian American Feminism with hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick. Spread the word!!!!!!!” Within hours, #NotYourAsianSidekick had grown into a torrent of Twitter posts by Asian-American women sharing their frustrations and even rage over a society that patronizes them and a feminist movement that renders them invisible. For days, Asian-American feminists, myself included, felt like we were witnessing something extraordinary unfold. It all seemed like the birth of a crusade — stickers now included.
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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. Case in point: the only harsh critiques I saw around Katy Perry’s yellowface were by Asian-American journalists and bloggers, whereas Julianne Hough’s blackface Halloween costume was roundly denounced. We’re living in a world where the stereotype of Asians as the “model minority” — so retro yet still ubiquitous — allows people to tell me, point-blank, that Asian women don’t experience poverty or domestic violence. So of course, I want to tweet that exact sentiment.
But in conversations about #NotYourAsianSidekick, two seemingly conflicting facts stand out. The first is that a global movement around Asian-American feminism has been ignited. The second is that this movement is more than several decades old. Asian-American feminists have been battling these issues for generations, activist scholar Mari Matsuda tweeted yesterday: “We theorized #NotYourAsianSidekick ideas since the 70’s but kids gotta learn it from a damn hashtag. Still no Asian Am Studies at most U’s.” Matsuda, who like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs, has a strong history of activism — actual picketing and taking to the streets — and her point was a good one. One of the reasons we are marginalized is because battles hard-fought by activists like Matsuda are undernourished.
The Internet is fast and far-reaching and Twitter alone has hosted some of the most fascinating conversations on race and gender this year. I’m all about not being your Asian sidekick — I support and applaud the platform — but can we please move from digital activism to social change? As Reappropriate, an Asian-American blog pointed out, “#NotYourAsianSidekick demonstrates that our ideas as Asian American feminists are out there, under the surface, waiting to be heard. But #NotYourAsianSidekick also proves that Twitter is the wrong place to have this conversation. 140 characters isn’t enough to express a lifetime of experiences — both oppressive and uplifting — and to be able to do it in a place where it can be heard and taken seriously.”
It’s true that the multiple movements of decades past — which included feminists, civil rights activists and Asian-American activism — left behind some issues that perhaps led to this place, where a group of mostly younger Asian-American women have found a moment of remarkable solidarity in 140 words or less. But it is also fitting that according to its website, #NotYourAsianSidekick has plans to take this beyond Twitter. It has to. An ephemeral platform like the Internet — though it may feel cathartic — is not always terribly productive.
Ma is a writer, journalist and editor. She is the former editor-in-chief of KoreAm, an indie monthly for which she earned the national New America Media Award for Best In-Depth and Investigative Reporting for her feature story on gay marriage and the Asian-American vote. The views expressed are solely her own. You can follow her on @kai_ma.