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Making Asian American Feminist Politics

This interview was originally conducted between Dr. Rachel Kuo and Erique Zhang on April 20, 2020 with additions on June 11, 2020. 

Erique Zhang (EZ): Can you talk a little bit about your research and your activist work? How did the Asian American Feminist Collective (AAFC) get started and what kinds of work do you all do?

Dr. Rachel Kuo (RK): My research looks at race, technologies, and social movements, and my current project examines political solidarities across unequal difference through examining processes of information coordination, production, and circulation. My background is in design and communications strategy, and my research draws a lot from my experiences in media-based organizing with local grassroots campaigns and community groups, such as graphic design or setting up technological infrastructures to build organizational capacity. 

Often, as campaigns grow, managing information becomes a problem—for example, open permissions around communications channels creates information excess and disorganization (the nightmare of the reply all), but closing permissions opens up another can of worms, like who has access? Who’s going to do the labor of maintaining and compiling information? What are parameters around sharing information? What platforms should we use to protect people’s data? Underlying these questions are really concerns around trust and navigating how unequal difference in movements also unevenly expose different participants to risk. A broad question underpinning my work has focused around how movements use technologies to create and sustain connections across incommensurable differences. There’s a ton of work that goes into decisions around information storage and management and these communications processes often shape how someone can participate within a movement. 

Building with the Asian American Feminist Collective (AAFC) has really shaped a lot of of my thinking on digital media and politics, especially around how relationships are envisioned and enacted through the work of networking. AAFC came out of an event series around Asian American feminism after the 2016 presidential elections and ongoing tokenization of women of color in the name of ‘diversity and inclusion’ during the 2017 Women’s March. I got involved through a friend and colleague and met several of the other AAFC co-founders through the Asian American Feminism x Politics event. After the series, we wanted to create something more durable. We originally conceptualized the collective as an open online working group and in initial meetings, had sketched out our proposed plan for an open hub on Slack. However, at the time, we quickly realized we didn’t have the capacity to build out an infrastructure for people to participate in a sustainable way. It took around two years of experimenting with our structure. In forming the collective, what became crucial was the importance of process (‘how we are together’) to get to where we want to be.

Our current model now includes 5 people and we primarily focus on media-making (zines and an online storytelling platform) and community building (events, gatherings, talk circles, etc) as ways to facilitate political education. For example, we offer workshops, including one on Asian American feminist history. A lot of our work is also based in collaborations, like Red Canary Song, Bangladeshi Feminist Collective, and 18 Million Rising, and we rely on resource sharing between informal networks, whether that’s access to spaces, people volunteering time, artists donating performances and writing. Collaborative work has really allowed us to build deeper relationships on local and national levels. 

We often remember (and study) movements’ external media forms, like speeches or flyers, or more presently, through hashtags and social media posts. However, to really contextualize digital data like tweets, we can’t just scrape and extract them from their digital environment. We need to better understand some of the internal processes in the creation of these outputs and the material conditions that make this output possible. For example, with AAFC, we just hosted a tweetchat on community care under the hashtag #FeministAntibodies. While tweetchats are ‘live’ events with updates happening in ‘real time’ there’s a lot of pre-work to make that live-ness happen and to create a participatory media environment. That’s spending some time to gather your people and ask them for time and capacity; that’s also multiple people spending a couple of hours on a Google doc pre-writing some answers and having conversations about language and content.

EZ: The AAFC has produced three zines so far, each of which has addressed a different topic in Asian American feminist activism (Building an Asian American Feminist Movement and How to Make History, and most recently, Care in the Time of Coronavirus). Additionally, you formatted the Critical Race and Digital Studies (CR+DS) Syllabus into a zine as well. Zines, of course, have a long history in DIY subcultures, such as the hardcore punk community, as a way to self-produce work at nominal costs and share that work with others. What is it about zines that appeals to you as a scholar-activist?

RK:  What appeals to me about zines (even in digital form) is that they’re tied to their material and aesthetic form as well as potential distribution—how you’re printing, folding, and assembling. For me, they serve as both a form of information design and also an archival practice—many of the zines I’ve been involved in making have been a way to bring together artists, writers, and organizers through the shared space of a zine’s spread.

In the beginning of her piece Minor Threats, against the coercive inclusion of minor objects like zine into institutional archives, Mimi Nguyen describes musician Ota Atoe’s encounter with a queer Asian girl at a party through seeing a copy of Race Riot in her bag and how early POC punk zines helped her meet other POC punks. There’s something about zines, through intimate circulations (both digital and hand-to-hand), where you can find your people like radical feminist communities—and at the same time, these circulations also trouble easy and coherent legibility and delineations of categorical communities.

The visual appeal of zines is something really I love too. For example, I really appreciate the visuals of Sumni’s gorgeous illustrated zines in different bindings and formats and Jia Sung’s fantastical watercolors and painted zines. The history zine for AAFC takes some aesthetic inspiration from Moonroot, a queer Asian and Pacific Islander zine collective that has a beautiful digitally rendered hand-cut aesthetic combined with hand-drawn and written spreads. 

Zines invite a different practice of reading and engagement distinct from an information-saturated infinite newsfeed or prolonged scrolling. (Its digital forms can also prioritize accessibility for a diverse range of reader needs). Taking guidance from its printed, folded, and stapled form and aesthetic design, a zine can also translate and package other digital objects, such as Google Docs of crowd-sourced mutual aid lists, Twitter chats, Instagram posts and online comics. Specifically, the latest zine on care and coronavirus zine was a way to practice rapid response in a way that’s driven by longer-term movement visions, which is a recurring observation from interviews I’ve done with community organizers about technology, information, and movement building.

In my research, I approach digital studies through a longer history of race-making, technology, and politics, and have spent a lot of time in this archives looking at analog forms of information circulation, like zines, newsletters, and circulars, and also reading the memos, letters, and meeting minutes that detail how people coordinate that production labor and collectively craft movement language. The process of zine-making is one that invites collaboration, like connecting with people about their writing and artwork or co-writing and discussing content.

It’s been interesting to also see that as a form, zines have been taken up by groups thinking critically about technology, design, and movement building, such as the Design Justice Network, which emphasizes processes of co-design and media as tools for liberation. I really love the work of Una Lee and others, who created a zine on Building Consentful Tech. Zines feel like these precious objects, and I still have my paper copy of their zine from an Allied Media Conference workshop a couple years ago. 

EZ: In Care in the Time of Coronavirus, you address the ways in which Asian/Americans (to borrow David Palumbio-Liu’s formulation, which he uses to draw attention to the slippages of [legal, cultural] citizenship in discourses surrounding Asians in America) have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the introduction, you and your colleagues write: “Together, this collection of stories, essays, and artwork shows how we experience, resist, and grapple with a viral outbreak that has been racialized as Asian, is spoken of in the language of contagion and invasion, and reveals the places where our collective social safety net is particularly threadbare.” There’s a lot to talk about here. For one thing, in American history, Asians, and particularly Chinese people, have been associated with disease (see, for example, Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides). This seems to link with what is known as Yellow Peril, or the fear of Asian (and again, particularly Chinese) people “invading” the United States: in other words, Asianness itself becomes a “contagion.” How are we seeing these rhetorics play out with COVID-19?

RK: The rhetoric of Asian, particularly Chinese people, as contagions has been a huge part of the media and information environment racializing the virus, including false information avoiding Asian food and neighborhoods and racist comments on social media platforms. For example, on Twitter and Instagram, some users were referring to COVID-19 as “kung flu”. We’ve also been seeing media outlets using generic images of Chinatowns or Asian people in masks without context. For example, the New York Post used a picture from Main Street in Flushing, Queens (a predominantly Asian neighborhood) to announce the first case of coronavirus in Manhattan. The racialization of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” is also something that comes directly from the Trump administration too, in deflecting responsibility of mismanagement and severe underestimation of urgency and risk. We’re also seeing anti-Chinese sentiment play out within the Asian diaspora in ways that reveal longer geopolitical histories between Asian nations too.

Part of this story is also one about the racialization of Asian capital as something destructive, which Iyko Day writes about in Alien Capital. Early on (and still), COVID-19 was also called the “Wuhan virus”, which is very much also bound up in racial discourses around globalization and capitalism as tied to Asian labor and mobility. Andrew Liu has a great piece on how global capitalism’s role in the spread of the virus also follows commercial pathways. 

We’re also seeing how racist rhetoric is playing out in people’s day to day experiences. At the start of the AAFC zine project on coronavirus, we had a community call for stories to gather first-hand accounts of people’s experiences with racism connected to COVID-19. We had a lot of submissions where people described incidents of public harassment and racial targeting on public transportation, in grocery stores, at work, and at schools. We got stories about how people would shout for hand sanitizer when they saw someone Asian enter a room; people physically removing themselves from spaces with Asian bodies; expressions of disgust and racial slurs; or people telling Asians to ‘go home’ or ‘get out’ of the U.S.  What’s become clear is that the pandemic has really demonstrated rampant existing inequalities of people’s access to safety, and this is also extending to digital safety. Recently, Equality Labs, a South Asian movement building home, has been organizing for platform accountability from Twitter and Facebook to address COVID-19-related Islamophobia and hate speech.

I like how you bring up this longer history of racism against Asians too. I’m thinking a lot about what possibilities for coalition and solidarity can continue and emerge in this moment. Throughout the pandemic, we’re seeing how persistent racial inequities are impacting communities of color. For example, Asian people have shared that they’re afraid to go out in public spaces wearing a face mask. For different reasons, for Black folks, going out in public with makeshift masks can be dangerous too. As racial breakdowns of coronavirus-related infections and deaths have been published, we’re also seeing that the disease is disproportionately impacting Black communities. From AAFC’s zine, I really love how Kim Tran’s essay touches upon how anti-Asian exclusion in past and present is bound up with projects of racial violence that stem from white supremacy and what possible political alignments might be fostered. 

EZ: You open the collection with an essay by Kai Cheng Thom (author of Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, in my opinion one of the all-time greatest trans novels. Read it!). In this essay, taken from Thom’s 2019 collection of essays, I Hope We Choose Love, she writes: “In the midst of despair, I have come to believe that love—the feelings of love, the politics of love, the ethics and ideology and embodiment of love—is the only good option in this time of the apocalypse. What else do we have?” Along these lines, we’ve also talked before about the ethics of care. How are you thinking about love and care during this crisis?

RK: Kai Cheng Thom’s writing has been really helpful in understanding care as something interdependent as well as imagining revolutionary politics as a relationship that requires both mutual responsibility and “processes of rupture and repair.” I’ve been really thinking about the relationships and friendships in my life and having different forms and expressions of love and care, and also how these forms play out in virtual spaces. What does our current digital landscape enable and also limit in terms of how we can be with others to think, to feel, and to dream as forms of sustenance? Many other CR+DS scholars have pointed out the ways that systems of oppression regenerate in digital spaces; this crisis has really brought to the fore the material ways that virtual spaces impact our everyday wellness, such as what information is available and accessible on how to care for ourselves, each other, our loved ones, and our communities. I think it’s a time to imagine alternatives to our digital media and information landscape.

We’re seeing more than ever that our recent ways of being aren’t sustainable nor do they prioritize the wellbeing of ourselves and our communities. I’m also continuing to reflect on models of grassroots organizing that center the process of building slowly for the long-haul while also taking into consideration the urgencies of what people need to survive. I’ve been thinking a lot about Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book Care Work, where she talks about the fallacy of the crash-and-burn emergency model, which provides people with a sense of urgent purpose to come together as a community. Centering disability justice, she talks about how we need to build together more slowly in order in order to have more sustainable ways of being together.

EZ: As I alluded to earlier, when we talk about Asian/Americans, there’s often an implicit conflation of different Asian communities living in the United States: Asian immigrants, naturalized citizens, undocumented immigrants, American-born Asians. While these distinctions have always been fluid—and have always been intentionally collapsed in the American imaginary, by which I mean the assumption that Asians are all interchangeable—we’re seeing increased xenophobic and racist attacks against Asians as a whole. How do you see (presumed, actual) immigration status playing a part in the increasing violence towards Asians?

RK: I think that considering distinctions within Asian communities and how that difference is impacting people materially is so important! Earlier we talked about targeted racial harassment and attacks as they happen in public spaces…when we consider how difference in immigration status impacts how people are able to access social safety nets, we’re also seeing how racist sentiment intersects with state-sanctioned forms of violence. 

For example, we often see ICE raids in neighborhoods where people are presumed to have undocumented status. Systems of mass incarceration, including immigration enforcement and the detention and deportation machine, exacerbate public health crises and put people who are incarcerated at high risk of infection and death. Immigration enforcement measures are also making people afraid to seek medical care.  With job loss, business closures (including how corona-virus related racism has hurt Asian immigrant-owned businesses), people need public benefits in order to access healthcare, food, housing and other necessary services. However, our current immigration system creates significant barriers for people with undocumented and precarious status to access resources. 

For some context, in 1996, anti-immigration laws such as the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), along with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), not only expanded systems of policing, surveillance, and punishment for immigrants but also cut people off from benefits—any immigrant seeking public assistance during their first year in the U.S. would be deported. Further, any immigrant deemed to be a ‘public charge’—someone dependent on public benefits and assistance, could be denied admissions. At the time, the ‘public charge’ rule was arbitrarily interpreted. However, a recent ruling in 2019, defined ‘public charge’ as anyone who has received SSI, TANF, SNAP, Medicaid, and public housing assistance for more than 12 months (this could be someone accessing benefits on behalf of a family member too). So, we’re seeing a system that’s punishing lower income immigrants. 

There’s an uneven distribution of death and also differential forms of exposure and risk due to how people are able or unable to access resources and infrastructures. In most cities and states, we also don’t have adequate language translation and interpretation access for non-English speaking immigrants to locate resources they need either. 

Unfortunately, the assumption that Asians are interchangeable is something that’s also happening in terms of how data is being collected. A lot of the data about Asian communities gets collapsed—we need data disaggregation to get more accurate information about how different Asian communities are being impacted by the pandemic.

EZ: Given our current political atmosphere, I can imagine that immigrants, particularly undocumented ones, are especially at risk of physical and political violence during this time. What kinds of resources do you know of that are available to undocumented immigrants?

RK: The New Sanctuary Coalition, located in the Judson Memorial Church in NYU’s Washington Square campus supports people who are undocumented through their 1) accompaniment program—which ensures a citizen-witness and support at ICE check-ins, immigration court hearings, and other court appointments; 2) pro se immigration clinic — where trained volunteers and lawyers provide legal support and referrals and assist with asylum applications; and 3) bond funds posted by faith leaders. Their work is driven by larger visions of decarceration of prisons, jails, and detention centers. Right now, during the pandemic, they’re continuing remote work on these programs and organizing remote volunteers and mobilizing around calls to action to #FreeThemAll.

More than ever, we need our homes as a space for safety. Undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for stimulus checks or any form of government relief, which makes it difficult to pay rent. CAAAV-Organizing Asian Communities is currently raising funds for emergency aid for rent, food, and medicine and building longer-term infrastructure to organize working class immigrants in Chinatown and Queensbridge Housing tenant unions. Groups like the NYU Housing Justice Coalition are also organizing for affordable public housing in New York City.

Sakhi for South Asian Women supports survivors of gender-based violence. One resource to highlight are Economic Empowerment Advocates, which is currently assisting with benefits applications. Womankind also offers a multilingual helpline, including in 18+ Asian languages in dialects.  NYSLYC, the first undocumented youth-led organization in New York, offers a live document of resources, including information funding, housing and food access, and support networks during COVID-19.

EZ: So we last talked in mid-April. Since then, protests have risen up across the country and even across the globe speaking up about structural anti-black racism and police brutality directed towards Black communities. While the recent protests were most immediately sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, to name only a few, we recognize that such violence is systemic and historic. To this end, while our original interview focused on an ongoing wave of anti-Asian sentiment in the midst of COVID-19, we also feel that it is critical to address the recent and ongoing protests. What resources would you recommend, and how can readers show their support?

RK: When we last spoke, we briefly discussed solidarities and that has become even more salient in this moment. To say Black Lives Matter means dismantling the structures of white supremacy that have systematically devalued Black life. Some resources I’ll uplift include:

Black scholars within CR+DS have been writing and speaking about racism in technology and how Black communities produce and use digital technologies for a long time: Allissa Richardson’s Bearing Witness While Black; Charlton McIlwain’s Black Software; Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology (and edited anthology Captivating Technology); Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles’s  #HashtagActivism; André Brock’s Distributed Blackness; Rashida Richardson on data and discriminatory policy; Anne Washington’s work on public interest technology; Mutale Nkonde on the impact of tech on Black communities; and Meredith Clark’s work on Black Twitter to name a few.

#8toAbolition offers a vision for the abolition of police and prisons through a set of concrete demands that can be implemented into local organizing efforts at the municipal, state, and federal level. These demands include defunding the police and removing them from schools; ending contracts with private companies that provide data and/or technologies to law enforcement; and repealing laws that criminalize survival, such as fare-beating and panhandling. Demands also emphasize investment in community-based approaches to safety, such as non-carceral violence prevention programs, accessible housing, and neighborhood trauma centers. At the university-level, concrete actions to abolition include the termination of contracts with police departments and private security companies. This includes our current institutions, NYU and Northwestern divest from police.

In late April, Black Women Radicals and Asian American Feminist Collective held a conversation on both historical tensions and solidarities between Black and Asian communities and recently published a reading list addressing anti-Blackness within Asian communities, building solidarities, and histories of movement building. We’re continuing to collaborate on further projects as a longer-term commitment to feminist solidarities.

This moment is about building a different world and future and it’s going to take time and work.

Erique Zhang (they/them) is a PhD student in the Media, Technology, and Society program in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University and an affiliate of the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies.

Dr. Rachel Kuo (she/hers) has a PhD in Media, Culture, and Communication from New York University. She is a co-founder of the Asian American Feminist Collective and founding affiliate of the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies. 

Header Image Source: Amira Lin


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