Apr 3

From Here to There: My Experience in Hashtag Land

I begin this post hesitant and a little scared. Wait, me? Scared? I know I flaunt how I’m a fierce and fearless feminist online, especially here and on Angry Asian Girls United, but I’m hoping most of you realize there’s a human behind this blog. I haven’t been very active in the past few months, whether it’s posting original articles or even sharing content relating to Asian and Pacific Islander American issues. I’ve been scared of the physical toll stress and tension takes on my body (which I unfortunately discovered this winter). I’ve been scared of retribution and online harassment for daring to speak out on anything.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was inspired partly by my good friend Vanessa Teck’s article on why she pulled out of a panel with Suey Park and her thoughts on social media activism. It made me think about the past year, and all that’s happened that’s led us to this point.

I first met Suey in 2013 when I was approached to serve on the board for an Asian American student organization in the Midwest. We met in person at a conference in Michigan and immediately bonded over our opinions, beliefs, and shared love for dressing cute while kicking ass. I admired her fire, her ability to stand and walk for hours in heels because it allowed her to look men in the eye as an equal, and her articulate voice in her writing. We talked about what it was like to blog as Asian American feminists and complained about the heteronormative patriarchal culture in many organizations and communities we had been a part of. We honestly thought that we had found a kindred spirit in each other.

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Throughout the summer and fall, we supported each other through tumultuous events, like leaving the organization we had met in and my firing - along with two other interns - from OCA. We were more than just collaborators and co-authors, we were friends who talked about relationship problems and life decisions and insecurity. We had a trust and faith that wasn’t easily found in most of my friendships. We were in love with a quote from poet Warsan Shire: “There is no intimacy like that between two women who have chosen to be sisters”.

Somewhere along the line, the differences in our tactics started to become clear. I was at a point in my activism where I was tired of being relentlessly angry. I was tired of fighting every single battle that I came across and having everything I do revolve around hatred and enemy-making. Especially after the OCA termination where I felt the very painful sting of being burned by an organization and community that I felt had become my family, I started thinking about love. I wanted to do things out of love, I wanted to support others through love, I wanted to have tough conversations and help spread education and awareness with love. The OCA termination was the result of reckless actions and no amount of rhetoric or justifying can make up for that, at least for me. I wanted to be deliberate and conscious with my activism and win the war, even if that meant losing a few battles.

So what happened? I think that to many, the “beef” between me and Suey came as a surprise. We were each other’s biggest cheerleaders during #NotYourAsianSidekick, but few knew the reality of what happened. I always hesitated in bringing it up because it seemed divisive. I struggled with my own ego, and ultimately realized that #NYAS succeeded BECAUSE everyone had a stake in it.

Suey approached me the the night before we started the hashtag asking me to collaborate and be an equal partner with her. We were hoping for a conversation, but never expected how large and fast it grew. The day #NotYourAsianSidekick happened, Suey and I decided through GChat on a number of questions and topics we wanted to introduce to the conversation to facilitate discussion and try and steer the hashtag. We reached out to several others, including Cayden Mak of 18MillionRising, to be co-facilitators and designated “tweeters” for specific topics like Asian American masculinity and queer politics. Suey had to go offline during the buildup and peak of #NYAS, which I completely understood and encouraged because the massive amount of traffic was incredibly overwhelming. I also ended up leaving the conversation to breathe and take a break from the anxiety and barrage of tweets.

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To me, #NotYourAsianSidekick served its purpose. It was a focus point for people to talk about their experiences and empower themselves through hearing others’ stories. That’s exactly what we wanted — for Asian American feminists, womxn of color, and typically oppressed voices to seize the opportunity to tell their own stories and be their own heroes. But still, as someone who was part of it from the beginning and facilitated the conversation and did my best to push for it to trend, the following erasure of my contributions hurt. I think that now is a good time as any to talk about the aftermath and media circus following #NYAS. Almost every time someone reached out to me to talk about #NotYourAsianSidekick, they dropped me or stopped responding because they got an interview with Suey. Media is always hungry for a hero, and they found one in Suey Park. The stress from being in the public eye and the confusion when I realized #NotYourAsianSidekick was being credited to a single person caused health problems for me, another reason I haven’t been as outspoken lately.

Finally, February 2014. I have been involved with the East Coast Asian American Student Union for three years. ECAASU is something I’ve spent many a late night thinking about, because it isn’t something that completely aligns with my beliefs, but I respect it for the opportunities & resources it provides to AAPI students. At this year’s ECAASU Conference in Washington D.C., I held a workshop on #NotYourAsianSidekick and Asian American feminism. Although Suey had previously expressed support and excitement that I was speaking on #NYAS on the East Coast while she was touring schools in California, I started seeing tweets by her criticizing ECAASU and stating “She wouldn’t be caught dead there” while tagging me. I reached out to her to check in on her change of heart and received messages accusing me of using her, of being part of “mainstream Asian America,” with anger that I wasn’t supporting her. She had decided that my decision to work with nonprofits and organizations who did not match my ideals perfectly was intolerable. It was like some switch flipped in the span of a few weeks.

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It felt like a bad breakup; I had been dumped on Twitter and officially burned. I was left with a phone full of angry messages, a broken heart, and a confusion for how we had reached this point. When did #NotYourAsianSidekick become unrecognizable? When did Twitter become, as a friend put it, one giant comments section? When did being an Asian American activist turn into a “whose side are you on” ultimatum?

I’ve been active on Twitter for as long as I’ve been an active blogger. I’ve spoken at workshops on social media and how to incorporate hashtags and mentions into community organizing. In my opinion, “Twitter Activism” reminds me of Occupy Wall Street: it provides platforms for those who may not be comfortable speaking or acting in other ways. It helps those with social anxiety and disabilities get involved in a way that is comfortable and accessible. Both Twitter Activism and Occupy gave a voice to a movement people don’t always see. Both brings awareness and attention to very important issues and provides a space to talk about it. Is it the best space to hold very complicated and controversial conversations? Probably not. I’d love to live in an ideal world where conversations like this can happen without flame wars or trolls, but that’s just not the reality we live in. There are endless pros to using social media as a tool, but I think Vanessa put it best:

Social media activism is great, but not when it transforms into entertainment. When we turn people into celebrities, we forget to be critical of them. And isn’t it our responsibility to nurture one another by challenging each other to be better? The dialogue that has come from these hashtags are needed, but the issues we truly need to face have been overshadowed by their virality. It has become more and more common to attack each other via mentions and question each others character. That’s easy to do. What is difficult is looking beyond that and realizing that these issues affect all of us. I am tired of all this centering/decentering bullshit, because you cannot address one issue with realizing how it intersects with another (not to mention all the academic elitism that comes with using terminology like that). I want to build environments that allow for individuals like myself who want to be a part of the movement to feel SAFE to grow… to create relationships without having to worry about automatically labeled as us vs. them.

It’s been surreal watching the past two weeks unfold. Thousands of people are pitting themselves against one another in a messy and dirty war, many of whom are people I looked to for guidance when getting started as a blogger. The hope and idealism I had when I first started out in Hashtag-Land is gone. I never thought that the internet, this magical whirlwind of open forums and platforms, would turn into this dichotomous hell.

Let’s call this what it is: cyberbullying. I’m not saying it’s Suey, but I am saying that it’s her followers. There is a large group of people who have created an echo chamber that repeatedly enables and reinforces bad behavior. Harassment. Stalking. Name-calling. Character assassination. Misinformation. Emotional manipulation. Propaganda. This isn’t calling people out for racist, sexist, homophobic behavior — it’s using these terms so freely that we lose sight of the actual racists and sexists and bigots. It’s hurling the term gaslighting so often at other people and inaccurately while actually gaslighting the same people. I think that there are a lot of people who follow Suey for her politics while not knowing her tactics. I’d probably do the same if I wasn’t aware of the way she treated people.

I guess this all leads to one question: what now? I’m still hesitant and I’m still scared. I don’t want to post anything and I don’t want to write about politics or feminism or racism. I have seriously considered going completely offline, just getting a job, moving to California, and pretending there aren’t a million things I want to say about the institutional and individual oppression we face every single day. Every time I tweet something relatively political, someone comes after me with academic rhetoric, claims of homophobia and racism, and accusations of being a sell-out. I’ve gone from confident and optimistic speaker glowing about the magic of social media in community organizing to scared and increasingly apathetic college student contemplating leaving activism behind. And I think that is one of the saddest things that’s come of all this: people who feel like they’ve lost their voice because our wonderful online world turned into a cesspool of hostility and harassment.

I end this piece feeling more hesitant and anxious than when I started it. But at the same time, I stand here hand in hand with too many others who feel the same way. I am blessed to be surrounded by a loving and supportive community that is always ready to push me to be better and critique me in a constructive way. I don’t feel alone, and as scared as I am of what may follow, that means the world to me.