Navigating identity while being Asian and femme

Katie Nishida, senior public relations and advertising major

Guest column by Katie Nishida, senior public relations and advertising major

I am an Asian-American woman, more specifically a fourth-generation Japanese-American woman. Since I started studying feminism and theory my freshman year at Chapman, I have identified as a woman of color. This identity and realization of the intersections behind being a woman of color was monumental for me. Intersections meaning, how the different parts of my identity (gender and race), impact one another.

Suddenly, most of my uncertainty and discomfort I felt at Chapman made sense because I was starting to navigate my place in society and how the absence of whiteness ultimately affected my everyday life.

The emphasis of intersectionality is imperative for current radical feminist movements because it encapsulates the nuances of identity and connects them to theory and practice. Exploring my personhood through this lens was empowering because it put the simultaneous misogyny and racism I experienced into words.

However, as I grew further into my feminism, I started to realize that while the label “woman of color” was viable in some feminist circles, it is not the entirety of my identity. Studying intersectionality was a phenomenal starting point, but as I became more self-aware, the conflicts and questioning that accompany my intersecting identities became more apparent.

This caused me to begin feeling anxious and afraid that the inability to fully understand my Japanese identity was going to prohibit both my activism and myself from flourishing, but I knew that as long as I felt a lack of connectivity from my culture, I would always feel disingenuous at the thought of claiming my Japanese-American identity.

With a growing eagerness to absolve my cultural existential crisis, my feminism then shifted into confronting the way my existence as an Asian woman has been used both as a leverage of white supremacy and a subordinate of patriarchal structures.

Feminism made me conscious of the world and forced me to realize just how deeply white supremacy has impacted my Asian-American community. Race in the U.S. was constructed to work as a hierarchy, and realizing where Asian-Americans fall in that ultimately impacts my sense of self. Despite a history of racial discrimination (Yellow Peril, Chinese Exclusionary Act, Japanese internment camps), the model minority myth purports that Asian-Americans have been able to assimilate into white communities with “excellent work ethic,” making us more valuable within capitalism. Because we are valuable as contributors to capitalism, our upward mobility toward whiteness has increased, thus leading to rampant anti-blackness in our communities.

Fully realizing the weight of my racial identity in its relation to whiteness has been a huge step towards understanding my Japanese identity, and it makes me conscious of the push and pull of oppression and privilege Asian-Americans experience. In addition, it makes me attentive of and frustrated at the way Asian-American people have been used to perpetuate white supremacist thought and anti-blackness in our cultures, but I am even more frustrated at many non-black Asian people’s avid participation in this.

However, it also brings me closer to the community knowing that there are Asian-American movements confronting and resisting anti-blackness, acting on the idea of collective liberation.

As an Asian-American woman living under patriarchy, my feminism also makes me hyperaware of the way people, especially men, interact with me. Going to a predominantly white university, I am either invisible, “other”-ized or even exoticized and perceived as an outsider to Western culture. I consistently notice that people talk at me and not to me. When trying to date, I notice that romantic partners rarely see me as a person with agency, nonetheless any different from other Asian women. Both are a result of Orientalism, which created a homogenization of Asia from a Western perspective, Asian femme bodies are psychologically stripped of autonomy and are automatically assumed to be submissive, docile and passive. This is damaging for the psyche of Asian women because the result has been the oversexualization and overt fetishization of our bodies while still being expected to remain complacent and silent.

These facets make the intersections of my identity tricky. I often feel trapped by Orientalism and enraged by the model minority. I constantly feel like I must make an extra effort to perform and prove to other people that as an Asian woman, I am incredibly capable of being powerful, a leader, a real-life person outside of the constrictions of the patriarchal binaries that orientalize my being. But I am also empowered by the complexities of my identity because it inspires me to act in order to better my own community.

Realizing how much of my cultural identity growing up has been constructed around those facets has been damaging, creating constant internal dilemma. Feeling like both a pawn and perpetuator within white cisgender hetero-patriarchy is a tough reality to confront. Trying to navigate through this has been and will continue to be painstakingly difficult. However, the more I challenge myself understand my identity, the more I am learning that my life as an Asian-American woman is a culmination of so many things – my ancestors, my grandparents’ struggles in and after the internment camps, my mother’s strength, my unabashed resistance of white supremacy and capitalism, and my drive to connect to my Japanese-American heritage. My existence is dependent on power structures, but also goes beyond them.

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