These are my thoughts on identity activism. It's also part II of my essay on Asian American feminism and part III of the recent 44's dialogue on the same topic (check out Xian's excellent post here).
I e-mailed 44's Maogirl last week and asked her for her opinion on my opinion of Asian American feminism. She e-mailed me back and wrote the following (re-posted with her permission, emphasis is mine):
one of the reasons i think asian american feminism is a failure (and as far as i'm concerned, it hasn't accomplished anything of value, hence it's a failure) because it's founded on the search for identity, which i think is self-defeating.
let me try to explain: let's postulate that a large number of asian americans searching for (racial) identity are doing so in a post-structuralist sense...where the idea of identity is not based on WHO they are, but who they are NOT. asian american identity seems to be founded on an identity of absence. they are asian american because they are not white. it's about who they are in relation to dominant white culture, they're the hegelian "other."
Maogirl then went on to explain that many Asian Americans define themselves by white people, i.e. your an "FOB" because you're too different from white people, or you're "whitewashed" because you're too similar. Frank Chin once also said that the search for identity was, in his words, "bullshit." I kind of understood this before, but Maogirl helped put it in words. Activism based on a search for identity is a waste of time.
Whenever I tell people that I am involved with Asian American activism on a local level and that we run an intellectual group, they're always say things like, "Oh, you're trying to find your roots" or "Oh, you're trying to find out how to best assimilate." It doesn't matter if I'm talking to an Asian person or a white person; they always say the same thing. One Asian guy actually said to one of our board members: "Oh, so you're kind of like an Asian American therapy group." Right, because we Asian Americans all need therapy. Notice how society always seems to point the finger at the Asian person, as if to say, "You're pathological, and you're working to solve your own problem." When we first started Thymos (our group), I simply ran along with this approach because we didn't have any set agenda, and I wanted to see where the conversation would lead us. Now I say, "We talk about issues, we educate one another, and we talk about things we need to do to move forward. Join us and see what it's about."
That's the problem with making identity the centerpiece of activism; it accuses the searcher. It describes the searcher as different, and it defines the searcher in relation to the rest of society. Therefore, in the mind of the identity-activist, the rest of society is normal, while the activist and his entire community has the problem. Because it focuses so heavily on the identity-activist, the identity-activist's mind isn't focused on changing society to fit the identity-activist, the identity-activist's mind is focused on changing the identity-activist's culture to fit society. If society was the sick party to begin with, the healthy activist becomes sick and the sick society remains sick. Someone fighting with the traditional Kingstonian approach to Asian American issues will eventually get tired and burn out, because the more he or she tries to fight with the Kingstonian mindset or techniques, the more he or she channels that anger internally. It is ultimately futile.
Hell, we already all have identities. We're family-people, we have careers, we're involved in activism. I'm a father and a reader/writer. What other identity do we need? Real activism must focus on education and results, not just a search for identity.
Going back to that Asian American feminist question, maogirl continues:
now, i think this is problematic particularly for asian american feminists. if you're going to fight for identity politics, you need to have a fucking identity in the first place, not this limbo that a lot of asian americans seem to occupy. do asian american feminists latch on to feminism because being a chick is the only identity they can really be confident in? i don't know. but as with their racial identity, these chicks need white people for their feminism, to help them define themselves.
This is exactly right. Look at the work of Amy Tan or Maxine Kingston. Tan's book is about Asian women assimilating into white culture through learning English, attracting white men, and being part of the grand ol' orientalist story of the heathen Chinee learning the ways of the white man. Kingston's Woman Warrior is about learning from the West and implicating and emasculating the Asian man based on Western standards (and Kingstonian lies). In the Kingstonian world, white is normal. Asian is pathological. The entire foundation of Kingstonism AND Asian American feminism has been to raise whiteness on a pedestal. Hence you see the racial dichotomy in feminist films like "Falling For Grace" and "Red Doors," where attracting a white man is seen as an important step to take in life, something that all liberated Asian women do. Meanwhile, the Asian heroine goes far out of her way to leave Chinatown and all of those Chinamen in Chinatown in order to find her true identity as an Asian American woman. Most of these movies don't even have an Asian male suitor for the white man to compete with. The Asian man is so degraded by these "Asian American feminist" works that the he doesn't even possess an individuality; he's just one more Asian male body in the whole Mongol horde.
This is why I say that Asian American feminism is racism, or that it has historically perpetuated racism. What else has it done, other than reinforce the same orientalist values that we've known and experienced for years?
Now--and this is to acknowledge the excellent points made by Xian and Cattygurl over the past week--it may be possible for Asian American feminism to re-invent itself. I personally do not like the Asian American feminist label, since carriers of that banner have been responsible for much anti-Asian racism in this country (i.e. the racialized stereotypes perpetuated by "Falling for Grace"), but if Asian American women decide that they need a more feminist approach to solving problems, I'm all for it. But in doing so, they will have to differentiate their movement from the prior Asian American feminist movement of the past. This isn't my rule; this is a rule of leadership. You can't take a movement with a broken reputation and expect to get anywhere with it. If you had the best battleship in the entire navy and called it the S.S. Benedict Arnold, no one would want to be a part of it. And if people joined it, they'd fail at anything they attempted. Such is the power of reputation and culture.
To put this into context, a few days ago, I went to a birthday party for the mother of a friend. The birthday party was held at a restaurant on the east side of Portland called Rheinlander. It is housed in a beautiful German style building (see picture above), and they serve great German food. What is of particular interest in this case, though, is that the restaurant takes German culture beyond the food. The waiters and waitresses all sing in German, and they have an accordian player who walks around the restaurant and plays German music. The entire staff carries German pride with them, and they know their traditional music and style (I don't know if they're actually German, but they look like they are!).
Now how does this relate to Asian American feminism? It's simple: Germany rebounded from its reputation as an instigator of genocide and racism. They left WWII with perhaps the worst reputation in modern history--not only did they democratically elect a mass murderer and an anti-Semite, but they entire German population watched him murder 6 million Jews as he undertook a massive campaign to take over all of Europe and eventually the world. Today, Germany is once again a leader in Europe. Racism is under control, and while people won't forget the crimes that the German government committed almost seventy years ago, people also can see beyond that reputation.
How did Germany do this? They took responsibility for it. They apologized profusely to the people whose lives they damaged, and they cooperated with the world in order to make amends. They banned Hitler's Mein Kampf. To this day, you cannot legally possess a copy of that book in Germany because it's against the law. There is no ambiguity about it.
Now Kingston's attacks on Asian men are obviously not nearly as serious as war crimes, but any future Asian American feminism must take history into account. If there will exist a movement that calls itself "Asian American feminism," I believe that it must disown the previous thirty-five years of negative activism created by the Kingstonians. Leaders cannot allow that ambiguity to hang over the heads of the people they seek to lead. What Kingston did was either misguided or wrong--because clearly the Chinese word for "slave" and "woman" isn't the same, and clearly footbinding wasn't nearly as pervasive as she portrayed it. The end result was a form of feminism that did nothing to help Asian Americans, whether they be men or women. As maogirl says of Asian American feminism, "it hasn't accomplished anything of value."
I myself am open to a new Asian American feminism, if that is what Asian American women feel is necessary to bring about equality. There is no doubt that sexism still exists, and if a feminist movement is necessary to get people to recognize sexism, I'm all for it. Let's fight inequality on all fronts. As Xian wrote in his feminism post, we basically want to change the world. So let's do it by setting the right foundation, one which brings us together and focuses on truth and gets away from the mistakes and mischaracterizations of the past. We've got the intellectual capital, the physical capital, and everything else we need to change the world as it needs to be changed.