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Performance artists Aiwa Pooamorn and Gemishka Chetty (supplied)
Performance artists Aiwa Pooamorn and Gemishka Chetty (supplied)

SocietyNovember 22, 2019

Timid? As if! Asian New Zealand women on racism and resistance

Performance artists Aiwa Pooamorn and Gemishka Chetty (supplied)
Performance artists Aiwa Pooamorn and Gemishka Chetty (supplied)

From academia to activism to media, Asian women are often ridiculed, overlooked and dismissed. Helen Yeung talks to Asian New Zealand women about the everyday racism they face – and how they’re fighting back.

Last year, I was at the launch of an academic journal which included my essay on East Asian erotica. The essay discusses the common misconception that women in East Asian erotica represent a critique of patriarchy, and argues that this belief stems from Western stereotypes of East Asian women as passive, hyper-sexual entities for male consumption. During the event the Pākehā man hosting the launch leaned over to whisper something in my ear: “Powerful phallus, huh,” he chuckled as he shook my hand. That moment stayed with me. It was infuriating, reminding me of how as an Asian woman, my work in academia will always be secondary, dismissed, and subjected to racism and misogyny.

It was not the first time I experienced discrimination on a professional, insitutional scale, but it made me feel small, smaller than ever before. It reminded me of when I was 18, the only person of colour in my history class, and a male Pākehā student, well-known for being a white supremacist, brought a copy of Mein Kampf to class and started reading and laughing at the passages with other students. The teacher stood and watched, and no one was ever held accountable.

It also reminded me of how powerless I felt in my first news writing role, when I was mistaken as the cleaner on my first day. Later on, I sat and listened while Pākehā journalists openly claimed that people of colour were “stupid” for protesting against hate speech and white supremacy in Aotearoa.

The author, right, at a zine fest in Hong Kong (supplied)

It’s disheartening that such instances are not one-offs, but replayed and repackaged in different forms over time. Knowing this, I wanted to know how racism had affected the lives of other Asian New Zealand women. Here’s freelance writer and content creator Lucy Zee on her childhood: “I grew up in a small beach town and often there were drunk men in their twenties screaming at me “Two dolla sucky sucky” when I was about 13 or 14 years old.” Hearing this, I was immediately reminded of an experience I had in my teens: a Pākehā man would come up to me each time I was on a shift as a customer service rep and ask me to be his “little oriental doll”. He would park his car outside and watch me while I worked.

As women of colour living in a white-dominated society, we are often one of the last in line for opportunities in the workplace. I’m reminded of the term “bamboo ceiling” as coined by Jane Hyun in 2005 to describe the barriers faced by Asian-Americans in the professional sphere. Hyun’s work outlines how Asian American women are subject to additional barriers such as discrimination, sexual harassment and a lack of career development as a result of their intersecting identities. In 2014, academic Peggy Li discussed how Asian American women are often homogenised into one monolithic group in which they are perceived as politically passive or apolitical, lacking the drive or aggression required for leadership positions.

Rebecca Jaung

Korean-New Zealand doctor and medical researcher Rebekah Jaung says Asian women are often perceived as shy, reserved and oppressed. It’s a belief that has arisen from “western cultural imperialism, where other cultures are assumed to be less ‘enlightened’ or ‘civilised’. It dehumanises Asian women by assuming that we don’t have the capacity or agency to speak for ourselves.”

Educator Shivani Karan agrees. She thinks the most negative stereotype of Asian women is that they do not act with, or even possess, any agency – a stereotype based in misunderstandings of cultural differences. “It has become a stereotype that Asian women are timid and passive to chauvinistic behaviour and control from Asian men. However, toxic masculinity has no cultural boundaries and Asian women actually have a rich (untold) history of leadership and action within their own societies,” she says.

Freelance artist, producer and poet Gemishka Chetty lists some common stereotypes of Indian women like her: “That our pussies smell like curry, that we will all be in an arranged marriage, that we are submissive, polite, and that we all know Kama Sutra.” Chetty explains that these perspectives originated from inaccurate representations in media, created by and for the pleasure of men, particularly white men. “I think it stems from the white male gaze, and the colonial perspective that Indian women are seen as Other, are treated as Other, and are merely deemed by society as objects to be owned, mocked, and violated.”

Within Western cultures, Asian women – and women of colour as a whole – have been significantly underrepresented in positions of leadership as a result of structural barriers. This is often misunderstood as us failing to have the ability to take part in leadership roles, or even positions of resistance on a personal or political level. When we do, we are often restricted to being “experts” on culturally relevant issues. “We are rarely given the space to just simply exist, as human beings, with all our complexities, confidence, hesitations, anxieties, and impatience. I think if we have a politically-charged agenda, it’s seen as though we somehow manifest negative conflict into our lives,” says Chetty.

Zee believes Asian women are given the bare minimum entry level chance to be political in the mainstream, and they are often unwelcome or completely ignored. “It sometimes feel like we’re shouting and everyone has their Airpods in. They know we’re here but they’re not all that interested in listening.”

The author, left, with activist Jasmin Singh (supplied)

Jasmin Singh, a Punjabi-Malaysian woman, Masters student and graduate teaching assistant, says it’s often assumed that Asian women are not prepared to be confrontational when it comes politics. She recalls an experience she had during a protest last year. “A friend and I went to paint some banners for an upcoming anti-facist protest [and] one of the white men asked if we were political. It didn’t really seem to be a question he would ask to others in the room, but we could legitimately be the targets of this question.”

A former Green Party candidate, Jaung says she was often advised that she should increase her chances of election by joining a bigger political party, since they’re always looking for “qualified” political candidates of colour. “The fact that Asian women in the political space can be considered as interchangeable units demonstrates how much we still need to break down boundaries and normalise our existence there,” she says.

As Asian women, we often become political pawns in the name of diversity. That’s particularly true of East Asian women, who are often perceived as the good, hardworking, assimilated “model minority”. When we do reach positions of power, this role rarely comes without restrictions over what narratives we are able to disseminate. This issue was well-illustrated in a diagram showing a sadly typical experience of a woman of colour in the workplace. She enters an organisation as a result of a tokenised hire; she faces racism and microaggressions from her white co-workers and raises these issues to the organisation; the organisation denies, ignores, and blames; the organisation decides that the woman of colour is the “real” problem, and forces her out.

Chinese-Pākehā theatre-artist and performance-maker Alice Canton believes such negative stereotypes have been a barrier to success. “There are parts of my personality that I swear would have been fucking celebrated and amplified if I was a white dude. I can be relentlessly analytical and can’t stand pointless power play, so if I see something wrong I’ll point it out.” As a result of speaking up, Canton says she’s been told to stop “acting superior” and “to get off her high horse” when questioning authority or lackluster leadership.

Shivani Karan at work (supplied)

Shivani Karan stresses that Asian people are often perceived as a monolith, their lived experiences disregarded and undervalued. It’s a belief she has come up against as she tries to get funding for a self-directed film. “The ideas I have brought forward for funding have been dismissed because they were not considered ‘New Zealand stories’ for ‘New Zealand audiences’. I was told by a senior in an established film commission said that I was just like another Indian girl he knew that was making a film.”

Alongside Aiwa Pooamorn, a Thai-Chinese mother, poet, performer and installation artist, Chetty recently co-produced the theatre show Go Home Curry Muncha for the Auckland Fringe Festival. “The Pākehā majority is often confronted by the things we say in our shows, and art,” says Pooamorn. “Some Pākehā are hostile towards us, and have accused us of being racist. But we have grown to expect these kinds of reactions at our show. However it still can take a toll on us, if we don’t do the emotional prep work before.”

I recently collaborated with Chetty and Pooamorn on an art installation called Have You Ever Been With An Asian Woman Before?. Held in St Kevin’s Arcade in Auckland as part of a First Thursdays event, the installation featured saris, textiles, heavily lit incense and M.I.A. looping in the background, and addressed the fetishisation of Asian women in Aotearoa. Although I had previously worked in creative spaces, this was my first time being at an event open to the general public. Needless to say, we experienced a fair share of racist, sexist comments from Pākehā, with one woman angrily telling this was not what she “expected’ and others chuckling dismissively at our work.

Aiwa Pooamorn and Gemishka Chetty in Go Home Curry Muncha

The role of such ‘microaggressions’ within wider racist attitudes is often overlooked. As Jaung explains, Asian women enter spaces where interpersonal racism is normative, and the impacts of institutional racism are intensified. However, microaggressions can be slippery slope towards more violent forms of racism. During the 2018 elections, Jaung was targetted by an online white supremacist group that regularly posted about how “disgusting” it was that she was running for parliament.

Zee has also received a lot of hate and abuse for speaking up on racism in Aotearoa, but believes it’s worth it. “I would take on 100 more angry emails if I at least got two people in this country to reflect on their own racist actions and decide to make a change because of my work.

“Bring it all on, ‘cos guess what? The block button is free.”

I‘m reminded of the bullying and harassment I experienced growing up, and all the anger, frustration and sadness that consumed me when I spoke out against racist comments from my white peers. There were always moments where I held myself back because I was scared of being looked down on, but later on I realised those people were just small specs of my life. As Chetty puts it, “This is my own form of rebelling against society, and commenting on things that I have found uncomfortable with society while I was growing up. I wouldn’t be creating art if it wasn’t politically charged.”

Here’s some advice I would love to pass on to other Asian women: I know it can be difficult at times but don’t be afraid to speak up on the issues you stand for. Don’t be afraid to be too loud or outspoken; be unapologetic and proud of it. Lucy Zee agrees. “People won’t see that you’ve upset a demographic of Pākehā people that might be their main audience, they’ll see that you’re brave and strong and your moral compass is right where it should be.”

Alice Canton reminds us to take care of ourselves and find a group of allies who will care, support and uplift you when times are difficult. “I also think it’s important to understand more widely the intersection of race and identity in Aotearoa, and where Asian women ‘fit’ in this horrible matrix of discrimination,” she says. This includes acknowledging the hardship and injustice for Māori women, Pasifika women, non-white women, transwomen and non-binary or gender queer people.

For Pākehā audiences who have made it to the end of this article and are now wondering what you can do, here’s some advice from the amazing Asian women who have collaborated on this piece.

“Please don’t continue to spout and accept the ‘Asian women are passive’ narrative. Listen to the people around you and hear what they have to say about their lived experiences and how they would like to change our current situation,” says Jasmin Singh.

“Learning about our own prejudices and changing our behaviour is growth,” says Rebekah Jaung. “There is no shame in not knowing something, as long as you are prepared to listen.”

Keep going!