Being an Asian woman in America is complex. There are stereotypes we face by dint of being Asian: myths perpetuated about being subservient, obedient and model minorities. There are the notions others inflict on us from their own lens: nativism in the phrase “go back to China” (even when we’re American, even when our families have been in the United States for generations, even when we’re not Chinese) and sexualization by men who hit on us because they have “an Asian fetish.”
There are the typical biases, and then there are the surprising ones: as an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) woman, much of the racism and microaggression I experience actually arises in response to moments when I exercise my voice and take up space.
Well-meaning and “open-minded” White people will say things like “you’re so articulate!” or “it’s so refreshing to see an AAPI woman who speaks her mind!” without realizing that they are reinforcing the very stereotypes they think they are bucking. These are the “compliments” I receive as an AAPI woman—backhanded compliments that serve more as insults. Added to this mix are the battles we face just as women, creating a double-bind for those of us with hyphenated identities.
This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, it’s time for some truths about the AAPI community and about AAPI women. We are actually overwhelmingly progressive, and a key part of the women of color voting bloc. AAPI women have been at the forefront of the resistance to the Trump administration, and continue to challenge the status quo. Women still make less than men, still don’t have mandatory paid parental leave and still live in a culture that normalizes sexual harassment and rape. We fight alongside other women on these policy fronts every day, while also countering issues specific to AAPI women—like fighting U.S. militarism and anti-immigrant policies that have led to so many of the most damaging sexualized and exoticized stereotypes about us.
At National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), where I serve as executive director, we live by two mottos. The first is “not your model minority” and the second is “be seen, be heard, be fierce.” These mottos instantly resonate with many of the AAPI women I encounter because we all experience a double invisibility in America. As women, we fight to be seen as equal to men in the workplace, with regard to our own bodily autonomy and in policy spheres. As AAPI women, we fight to be seen as powerful individuals who are in no way meek, submissive or fetishized.
AAPI women experience these biases and stereotypes about our culture, our heritage, the national origin of our families and our gender, at an intersection. Perhaps the best encapsulation of what we face came the other day, as I was boarding a flight. Looking at my name on the boarding pass, a gate agent laughed and said, “I’m not even going to try and pronounce that!”
I pronounced my name for her and made her say it three times until she finally got it right. I’m sure she expected that I, an Asian-American woman, would keep my head down and let the joke pass, maybe even politely laugh along. But I wasn’t going to let this stereotypical expectation of me—and the refusal to even attempt to pronounce my name—slip by without a fight.
As the incredible actress Uzo Aduba’s mother once explained to her, if White people can learn to pronounce Dostoyevsky, they can learn to pronounce Uzoamaka. This story is yet another reminder of who people think is worth extra effort, and who is not. Who is visible, and visibly powerful, and who is not. AAPI women like me are stepping up to take back this power and stand in the spotlight. We are worth the extra effort.
It takes courage and resilience to fight invisibility despite living at the intersection of so many biases. But here’s a truth about the AAPI community: our voices are loud and our fierceness transcends stereotypes. We’re here to take up space—our collective fight depends on it.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the only multi-issue, progressive, community organizing and policy advocacy organization for Asian American and Pacific Islander women and girls in the United States. Follow her on Twitter @schoimorrow.