How I became radicalized as a female, Asian-American activist

Jeannie Jay Park sits next to her mother and grandmother in dresses

Growing up as first-generation Asian-American in this country, shame was my inherent state of being. It was the only context in which I could understand my Korean identity; yet I now realize, it was never my shame to carry. No, that was the systemic burden of white supremacy.  

White supremacy is the most complex labyrinth of a system that we are born into in this country: where every single person, whether their race or privilege, is born into a place in its layered webs in society and serves a subliminal purpose to upholding it. 

As a Korean-American woman, that looked a lot like feeding into the model minority myth. My whole life, I was taught to be quiet and suppress my innate Asian identity to be more white to assimilate — all while staying grateful for what I’m given, even if it was​​ the pity handouts and scraps. But it didn’t serve me and it certainly didn’t serve the sacrifice my parents and ancestors made to get me to where I am today.

Jeannie Jay Park sits next to her mother and grandmother in dresses
Photo by James Bee / Photo courtesy of Jeannie Jay Park

My grandmother and mother taught me sacrifice, respect, and humanity. My grandmother is a Korean War refugee. She taught my mother, who taught me, to always advocate for my power. But growing up, I can’t count how many times I stood beside my mother with white teachers and parents and witnessed her sacrifice her power. 

I used to resent her for never talking back. But now I realize, she never talked back so I could. She was silent, so I could be loud. She sacrificed her power, so I could find mine.

I am only loud because I know the pain that lies behind our silence too deeply.

I am only a disruptor of these myths because I feel how suffocating it is to be conditioned under them. 

I am an activist because it's the only way I could make sense to heal and come back together with my Asian identity and the parts of myself I thought I had forever lost. This is how I reclaim the power that the young Asian girl within me thought she had to sacrifice to survive. 

"Activism, to me, as much as it is about protesting and organizing large-scale demonstrations, is about speaking my truth."

Activism, to me, as much as it is about protesting and organizing large-scale demonstrations, is about speaking my truth. I didn’t intend to be an activist. I just possessed this burning question of: “What do I need to say in order to feel free standing in my truth? What do I need to create in order to try to heal?”

We are at a rare moment where history can be rewritten and where it will go will determine whether another generation of young Asian girls will have to carry this trauma. We have an opportunity to make sure they don’t — and to break the cycles of anti-Asian racism that have long been here. 

Jeannie Jay Park yells into a bullhorn at a protest
Photo by Ryan McGinley / Photo courtesy of Jeannie Jay Park

What we are seeing is nothing new. It’s important to remember that the term “Asian-American” was initially created by Asian women activists in the 1960s who mobilized Americans of various Asian ancestries in the spirit of unity and transnational solidarity by working with other communities of color. Take Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama, for example, who notably worked with Malcolm X in the 1960s.

As an Asian-American youth, I know that we are inherently connected to a strong history of protest and rebellion in this country. We must learn and continue to build upon these histories of solidarity and coalitional politics that our community has.

Our parents’ generations may have been silenced, but our generation of AAPI is not. We are done being America’s model minority, and by uniting with our voices (voices many of our parents and ancestors did not have the privilege to exercise), we hold this power. With social media as well, our generation harnesses greater powers than before to mobilize and push for true sustainable reform and collective action. 

The headlines and media attention around COVID-19 and the Atlanta shooting is all so temporary, but what about the intrinsic ways America has pushed an anti-Asian agenda from the start? 

What about Hollywood and its harmful tropes of “dragon lady” and Asian women as submissively docile sex objects? What about the fast fashion that came at the cost of exploited Asian laborers? What about America’s agendas throughout Asia of globalized modern warfare and settler colonialism? How are we committing to combat and bring light to those, beyond this moment of time? 

"We cannot find safety to heal within the same structures that have routinely caused harm to our people."

For me, this starts with organizing safe spaces for collective healing in the face of the most recent waves of anti-Asian racism, because we cannot find safety to heal within the same structures that have routinely caused harm to our people. 

Many looked to increased policing as a solution to the recent upticks of violence. But what about 19-year-old Christian Hall, a Chinese-American who was killed by the police last year with his hands up during what was a mental health emergency where he should have been tended to with care?

In reality, more policing will only further endanger our most vulnerable communities that have far too long been underrepresented and exploited by a system that many immigrants and elders have simply lost trust in (as we saw by the data gap in the lack of officially reported hate crimes). 

Hate crime legislation, such as the recent COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, only expands the power of anti-Asian abuse at the hands of its biggest perpetrators, the police, and fails to get to the root cause of the violence: white supremacy. 

Instead, through centering the community through protesting and mutual aid, which is more about creating sustainable alliances between people in our communities in the first place, we see the lasting value of intersectionality and transformative justice. We see activism extending beyond the streets, into people’s homes, and beyond the temporal moments of tragedy. 

Mutual aid efforts such as Safe Walks in NYC, an organization which recruits volunteers to escort elderly Asian neighbors safely to and from home, provide restorative, community-centric care in much-needed acts of solidarity. 

Jeannie Jay Park holds a lit sky lantern with two other people
Photo by Ryan McGinley / Photo courtesy of Jeannie Jay Park

The first protest I ever organized was a BIPOC women's solidarity march in the wake of Atlanta with Warriors in the Garden, because I felt it was vital for us as AAPI to unite with all BIPOC communities during this time. It was a celebration of women of color coming together in solidarity and protest of not only the lives lost in Atlanta, but all BIPOC women's lives stolen from us.

We must stand grounded against the common root of our violence: white supremacy. And we can only truly combat white supremacy when we all stand united and work together in solidarity. 

Warriors in the Garden is a non-violent, abolitionist protest collective in New York City that I now organize with. Centering abolition and transformative justice in all the spaces we create, we are warriors dedicated to eradicating all forms of white supremacy and protecting our communities of color. 

Intersectionality is all about uplifting these communities — specifically the ones that lie at the most vulnerable margins and intersections in our collective fights. The fight is nothing if not intersectional. 

Author Jason Reynolds best said, “If we understand how the tree works, how the trunk and roots are where the power lies, and how gravity is on our side, we can attack it, each of us with small axes, and change the face of the forest. So let’s learn all there is to know about the tree of racism. The root. The fruit. The sap and trunk. The nests built over time, the changing leaves. That way, your generation can finally, actively chop it down.” 

"I never realized just how quiet I was, until I saw how radical it was seen as for me to be loud."

I never realized just how quiet I was, until I saw how radical it was seen as for me to be loud. I was blind to just how suffocating my conditioned silence and shame had become, until I broke free from it. In a desperate effort to heal the hearts of Asian mothers I did not know but felt like could be my own, I ended up finding my own awakening to my repressed Korean identity. 

I think about the radical imagination the young Asian girl within me once had; the way she saw the world, before the world saw her. I want to get back to that. 

A radical imagination of who we could be, if fully liberated from the wrath of white supremacy.

Jeannie Jay Park is a Korean-American intersectional activist, creator, and model.

She is the founder of Sanitation Nation, a not-for-profit brand merging fashion and activism focused on building intersectional solidarity, and co-lead organizer with Warriors in the Garden, a leading protest collective in NYC.

Article Details

November 18, 2021 9:40 AM
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