Thursday, November 11, 2010

A personal attempt to promote anti-essentialist thinking.

"According to the Department of Health and Human Services, depression is the second leading cause of death for Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women between 15 and 24, who consistently have the highest suicide rates among women in that age group. AAPI women over 65 have the highest rates of suicide among all races in that age group.” Also, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, studies have come up with statistics that find that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are much less likely than Caucasians to mention their mental health concerns to friends and family (12% vs. 25%), or mental health professionals (4% vs. 26%).

After having read and watched the movie adaptation of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” a movie that addresses many struggles that ring very personal to me, from the responsibilities of filial piety, how to deal with interracial relationships, generational conflicts, and the struggle of a 2nd generation Asian American on the whole, I’ve come to realize that Angela Harris’ criticisms of essentialism in general and her support and urge for a general push toward multiple consciousness in the feminist movement is something I adamantly agree with. Growing up as an Asian American female, the struggles that I have come across have never just been colored by one shade of any issue, but have often been layered with different facets of my life by many qualities of mine, most of which are intrinsic to who I am – being a female, being an ethnic minority, being a 2nd generation American, etc.

The push toward this movement, while not an entirely novel or new concept, is one that should most definitely be furthered. Suicide rates amongst Asian American tend to be higher than Caucasians, and according to UC Davis psychology professor, Stanley Sue, a part of that can be attributed to the fact that because there is such an emphasis on collectivist or a group mentality amongst families of Asian descent, there is often a common sense of failure that stems from cultural pressures to succeed that often becomes overwhelming, to say the least. One of Harris’ main criticisms of essentialism is that an “essential” experience is often isolated from other very important realities of experience. This is not the ideal way to go about it, obviously, if we turn exclusively to just the idea of gender essentialism. Different women come from different cultures, and different cultures produce different expectations of their children, or even adults.

It really stuck with me the fact that suicide rates in general were higher amongst Asian American women than men, especially considering I myself don’t stray too far from that age range. I have grown up with amazingly supportive and fairly liberal parents, especially considering the fact that they are 1st generation Americans, but a lot of my other Asian female friends and family while growing up, I’ve noticed, have had entirely more weighty pressures put on them than their brothers or boyfriends or husbands have had to deal with. Especially in East Asian culture, Confucianism spills over into every nook and cranny of their value system – and with that comes the ultimate obligation for a woman to bear her husband’s child, to take care of his parents as if they are more important than her own, and to not shame the family name – to understand and know the harsh consequences of doing so. Because she is already not carrying on the family name or is not considered biologically superior, she is apparently set to a higher standard and will ultimately be let go or exiled if she defaces the family name in any way, shape or form. Most Asian families, I’ve noticed, still have a strong sense of collectivist thinking – individual pursuits are squelched to pave way for a stronger group mentality and they act more as a collective unit, rather than anything else. More pressure is put on the female, especially the unmarried, younger female, than anyone else

Some of these notions come across as archaic and outdated, especially for someone like me having grown up in the very diverse and liberal city of San Francisco and as someone who was born in this country. But the fact of the matter is, one’s race and culture is something that is intrinsically tied to them for life. There are centuries and centuries of values and a system that is the bedrock of how one group of people function, and unfortunately it makes a huge difference whether or not you are female or male.

A step is not required toward necessarily solving any problem, but is just required in the right direction of how to understand and approach the struggles that one is facing. For someone like me, and I’m sure many, many others, it is essential (pun intended) to not essentialize or neatly shelf someone’s struggles into just one box. We are not merely one “type” of person with only one “type” of issue. We come with layers, shades, and everyone has a story.

On another general, but very important, note if you or someone you know may be suicidal, please seek help as soon as possible and call 1-800-273-TALK.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

A 12-year-old girl from the Hmong community in the Midwest is gang-raped by five boys. Out of shame and fear for her family's reputation, she does not tell anyone - not police, not family, not a doctor. Instead she calls one of the attackers. "Are you prepared to marry me?" she asked the boy.
Two female Japanese students from the west coast are blindfolded, handcuffed, and raped by two white men. The assailants videotaped and photographed the assault. The women were informed that if they told anyone, the tapes would be sent to their fathers. The woman who participated in the students kidnapping told police that Asian women were targeted because the attackers thought Asians would be too ashamed to report the crime.

These kinds of stereotypes about Asian women are responsible for many of the sex crimes targeting Asian Americans, according to
Asian American author Helen Zia.

"It's happened on an epidemic proportion," Zia writes. "It's this image of the Asian American woman being exotic and passive.... Predators think they have free rein with Asian American women."

In working with domestic violence victims, I found that Asian women would often find themselves perceived as submissive, obedient and obliging. And expected to tolerate sexual assault or violence by a husband.

Though Asian Americans comprise a highly diverse group originating from diverse cultures and backgrounds, some commonalities are necessary to be aware of in understanding and responding to violence against Asian American women. Shame, guilt, and the taboo nature of sex, often makes it difficult for Asian American women to report physical and sexual abuse. In my experience, immigrant women are concerned that their residence status may be threatened if they make the abuse public.

Cultural norms still stigmatize these women and hold them responsible for the abuse. The stereotype that all Asian Americans are hard-working, self- reliant and not in need of help makes seeking help for any personal or family problem that much harder.
I know this is not directly on point as it relates to female Asian suicide, but I think the pressures are very similar.

As feminists entering the profession of law, we must become familiar with the consequences of stereotyping and stand in solidarity with all women experiencing these kinds of pressures.