Way back in September, on the first day of class, my classmates and I were asked why we wanted to take our high school feminism class. At first, my response was general but genuine — I wanted to be informed and become a better feminist. But upon deeper reflection, I realized that I really wanted to learn how to take action. Through this class, I have been introduced to the idea that the simple act of speaking out constitutes a powerful tool to bring about change.
I have come to understand that breaking silences is a way of reclaiming power. While it manifests itself in different forms, from the founding of Ms. Magazine in 1971 by Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pittman Hughes to Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony against Clarence Thomas, I believe it is crucial to eradicating systems of oppression in our society. The patriarchy seeks to silence the voices of those it oppresses, thus rendering them vulnerable to imbibe the messages of a racist and sexist master narrative. We may hope that if we don’t speak about these things, maybe they will go away. However, while we stay silent, the patriarchy continues to exist (and injure).
Audre Lorde is adamant that we must learn to speak through the fear while acknowledging that this is no easy task, as Black women and other marginalized individuals have struggled for years in a racially hostile environment. She explains in her essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Black women “were never meant to survive. Not as human beings. And neither were most of you here today, Black or not.” I was struck by her declaration that although it is easier to remain silent, “your silence will not protect you.” This has important implications for our society as a whole but in particular, I believe, for the Asian American community.*
When the first major wave of Asian immigration to the United States occurred, many of the new arrivals saw assimilation as the best option to prosper in the face of racism and xenophobia. They discovered they could appease the white man by staying quiet and not stirring up trouble. They thought they would escape the burden and hardships experienced by other minority groups. They didn’t. For the Chinese laborers who were prohibited from entering the country for decades by federal law to Japanese Americans who, in 1942, were sent to internment camps as a “wartime necessity,” the United States was the opposite of welcoming. Even in 2016, over a decade after the 9/11 attacks, South Asian-Americans are still regarded with suspicion and are the targets of hate crimes.
On the whole, white America sees Asians as subservient and non-confrontational. The pervasive myth of Asian Americans being the “model minority” continues to dominate public consciousness. Yet, these stereotypes are not a compliment. The model minority myth is harmful. These stereotypes make it appear as though Asian Americans do not encounter discrimination and inequality, and serve as a tool of white patriarchy to obstruct solidarity between Asian Americans and other communities of color.
Asian Americans are paradoxically both the perpetrators and the oppressed. We are caught in the black and white binary that is America’s reality. Today, I often feel invisible in mainstream media, politics, etc. This erasure stings but I hope it serves as a lesson. We should not be silent and we should not remain idle, especially now with the imminent Trump presidency, it is important to raise our voices and join in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the indigenous-led resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and so many more. I need to break silences for myself and those who are unable to. I am outraged by the violence and prejudice that stems from ignorance, therefore it is my duty to speak up and engage people in purposeful dialogue.
Listening is the opposite side of the coin. I am not sure if it matters whether people are speaking if no one is listening or choosing to opt out of uncomfortable conversations. People who refuse to listen are perpetuating the silencing of marginalized groups.
Within the walls of my small, progressive high school, I have heard students speaking over their peers. These young adults claim that they want to “smash the patriarchy” and “be radical,” meanwhile they actively dismiss the experiences of girls of color, former public school students, queer students, etc. in favor of the articles and statistics they have seen online. They attempt to explain why they are right, which may seem helpful, but in reality, as Andrew Hernann astutely writes, “explaining, especially when it is non-consensual, is an imposition because it speaks for and over others.” Hernann goes onto address how listening is fundamental to having dialogues because “if we’re only there to express ourselves and our ideas, that’s mimicking the way that oppression moves and functions.”
I found these ideas evocative of another one of Audre Lorde’s essays, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Lorde argues that if we continue using the master’s tools, or the tools of the patriarchy, we cannot hope to eradicate these systemic issues. Specifically, Lorde calls for us to embrace our differences and see them as sources of strength rather than alienation. This also requires us to be intersectional in our thinking across the board. We must be willing to bring an intersectional lens to all that we experience, including the often one-sided perspectives and analyses that are perpetuated by white feminists.
For example, in her critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, bell hooks writes in “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In,” that we must elevate the voices of all women, not just wealthy, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender women. According to hooks, Sandberg promotes a “faux feminism” and uses her “race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.” Feminism is meant to liberate all. To ignore or merely tolerate women who differ from Sandberg’s privileged white “lean in” perspective is hardly an improvement.
Ultimately, we are more powerful when we are united.
Hatred thrives in silence and fear. When Gloria Steinem visited our high school feminism class, I agreed with her belief that feminism “shouldn’t need a name – and someday it won’t.” I hope that by breaking our silences and hearing the voices of the voicelessness, we can bring about change and make this dream a reality.
* I would like to note that I am not so naïve to think that my personal experiences as a Chinese American girl are necessarily representative of those of the larger group, nor am I unaware of the privileges I have enjoyed as a transracial adoptee with a white mother.