Cornell University, in the mountainous region of Ithaca, New York, provided the setting for a groundbreaking conference on “Asian American Women: Probing the Minority’s Minority” on October 23, 1982. Cornell’s Asian American Coalition sponsored the conference, which 75 students and off-campus visitors attended.
The ambitious agenda included speeches, workshops, and cultural presentations. A diverse group of speakers addressed topics ranging from Asian Americans’ historic fight against racist immigration laws to the modern-day search for identity in a society raised on the myth of Asian Americans as the “model minority.”
Speakers explained how U.S. society’s depiction of Asian Americans as “acceptable” people of color, who are not really oppressed, helps keep all people of color divided.
How true. As a Black woman, I found that I recognized and identified with the issues being raised. I also felt a common bond with the experiences described throughout the conference.
Keynote speaker May Chen, a teacher who describes herself as a New York Chinatown community political activist, provided an historic overview that exploded the myths. Asian American women are triply oppressed, she said, “as women, Asians, and workers,” and are frequently denied even the lowest-paying jobs. As a result, they have often been forced into prostitution both in the U.S. and abroad, especially during war times.
Evelyn Yee, also a New York Chinatown activist, led a workshop on media stereotypes of Asian women: “Finding Our Own Images.” And Liz Young, actress and member of Asian Women United, presented “Ourselves,” the first film by and about Asian women. Subsequent discussion centered on the “cultural limbo” Asians in the U.S. inhabit through wanting to be accepted as Americans while still retaining Asian culture.
Spotlight on stereotypes. Radical Women and Freedom Socialist Party member Emily Woo Yamasaki sparked lively discussion with her talk “Asian American Women and the Feminist Movement,” which pinpointed the capitalist economics and politics that shape U.S. culture, and wove together Asian American struggles with those of other oppressed groups.
Yamasaki used her experience as a film and stage actress to illuminate how capitalism exploits people of color and women through race and sex stereotyping. She explained that Asian American women are usually limited to “China Doll” and “Dragon Lady” roles which are designed to fix women as men’s playthings and Asian Americans as “exotic” and alien.
All women and people of color, she said, have likewise been saddled with denigrating images to “legitimize” their exploitation and perpetuate the chauvinist notions of white male-dominated society.
The rock bottom line. Yamasaki emphasized the need for all of capitalism’s victims — women, people of color, lesbians and gays, and workers — to unite against our common victimization. The alternative — remaining divided over our differences — is suicidal, especially in the face of growing rightwing attacks. She called on women of color, as rock bottom opponents of this triply oppressive system, to lead in building unity against the reaction.
Yamasaki cited the example of Merle Woo, an Asian American lecturer who was fired from the University of California at Berkeley for her lesbianism and her socialist feminist politics. Woo’s defense campaign, said Yamasaki, centers around the right to freedom of speech and academic expression and has rallied nationwide support from a diverse spectrum of people who recognize the multifaceted nature and importance of her fight.
In addition to her talk, Yamasaki presented a workshop entitled “Which Road for the Feminist Movement: Liberal Reformism or Socialist Feminism?” An enthusiastic group of conference attendees participated in this workshop, which explored the advantages of a multi-issue, anti-capitalist women’s movement as opposed to liberal accommodation to the system.
New directions for Asian American women. The conference succeeded in presenting different political viewpoints and in providing a forum for Asian Americans and non-Asians to discuss all issues relating to the “minority’s minority.” Young Asian American women especially gained from the opportunity to identify their oppression in U.S. society. But it took Yamasaki’s workshop and the socialist feminism of RW/FSP to get the conference on its political feet. I was particularly impressed with the intensity of the politics that Yamasaki represented.
It’s clear that the “invisible” minority faces rightwing attacks just as do Blacks and other people of color. We can no longer afford to let the oppressor play his game of divide-and-conquer. I am convinced that all people of color need to move forward together now toward true liberation for everyone. Revolution in our time!