by Kim Tran
Lately, people in general, and specifically white women, have been telling me that I’m “too confident.” They say my confidence is overwhelming, overblown and false. I DO have a certain way of moving my hips when I walk, and I refuse to suppress or silence my ideas. But, I’m also self-reflective and I listen when people express discomfort around my behavior. Because my boundaries and safety are frequently ignored, I try to respect social and personal limits. However, in this instance, calling me “too confident” is a form of white-liberal-feminist racial control. Confidence, for womyn of color, is loaded, political, radical, and should not be policed.
When white women say I’m too confident, it’s because they have a set idea of who I, as an Asian American queer womyn, am supposed to be. For white liberal feminism, confidence has become the ideal way to take the corporate workplace by storm. I would venture to say that if I were a high powered white woman, like Sheryl Sandberg, no one would be calling me too confident. But, as an Asian American womyn, I am expected to be more quiet and less aggressive. Why? Because stereotypes, or controlling images, work differently in different communities. Unlike white women, Asian American women have been pervasively defined by a history of forced sex work, colonialism and American imperialism.
Our resistance, our protests, our voices have been silenced. My former student and co-teacher, as well as spoken word poet, Jade Cho, once said, “In America, we Asians grew up hungry for heroes.” Indeed, students are never taught about the legacies of Asian American elders—deeply radical activists like Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, and Pat Sumi, womyn who provide a sense of our revolutionary potential as a community. Simultaneously, we’re also never taught the historical racism we’ve experienced in the United States since the 1800’s. We’re unaware of policies that enforced menial wage labor or others, like the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, that labeled us “idiots, feeble-minded persons, criminals, epileptics, insane persons and/or mentally or physically defective”.
Asian Americans have been denied our oppression and our resistance. Until graduate school, I was ignorant of the ways our ancestors taught us to fight for justice. Because people only learn about how Black folks fought for Civil Rights, my students, shocked, have said to me, “We’re surprised you’re so down with the struggle.” Comments like these disturbingly demonstrate how rooted the perception of Asian American womyn as docile and quiet is. We’re not portrayed as powerful or dangerous, but China dolls who will “love you long time.” Because of the invisibility of our experiences with racism, we use our loud, proud, confident, anti-racist proclamations to separate us from our systemic erasure.
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In her poem, “Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou makes “sassiness,” “haughtiness” and, yes, “sexiness,” a threat to SYSTEMIC white supremacy and patriarchy. Responding to anti-Black racism, she says both are undermined when Black womyn claim what is rightfully theirs: their beauty, their brilliance, their worth. Dr. Angelou is naming the political meaning behind shining as a Black womyn. While her poem is written specifically about Black womyn, it inspires and encourages me, as a queer Asian American womyn , to reclaim the beauty of my body and intellect for myself and my community.
I come from a community in which only a quarter of people have a bachelor’s degree and almost 50% of women report domestic abuse. When I was younger, my father would tell me I was ugly, worthless and stupid. As an Asian American womyn, I carry centuries of colonialism and racism. In the past 10 years alone, I have survived sexual assault by my partner and attempted rape. My confidence is a miracle. My confidence is a political decision and refusal to cower at the hands of oppression, both by systems and individual people.
Through pain, I have learned how to carry myself as though I am precious. And in so doing, I’m telling the world that I am. My saucy walk and uncompromising speech is a challenge to racism and patriarchy. It’s also an homage to the fierce womyn who came before me and paved the way—through struggle—for me to shine.
Yet, my shining is both illegible and unavailable to white liberal feminists. It cannot be co-opted or sold in stores next to bundled sage and quartz crystals. It’s inaccessible—something that can’t be universalized—and therefore it’s a upsetting and unsettling. At a recent conference, Feminista Jones told a room of predominantly white women that when she calls Black girls magic, the most violent way they can respond is by saying, “all girls are magic.” She’s right. We must hold the line of racial difference. So, I’ll simply add, as Black girls are magic, Asian American womyn are righteous and we’re both threatening to liberal white feminism that doesn’t want us to be either. Moreover, recognizing our beauty, our intelligence, our shine—outside of whiteness—can be a form of self-care that manifests in countless ways. Black Girl Dangerous’ own Jezebel Delilah recently put it this way:
“I love when other Black Womyn tell me I’m beautiful on the bus or waking down the street. It feels like collective self love and healing and liberation, like a slap in the face to internalized racism and misogyny. Especially when they comment on my skin, facial features, or body shape. Like, I just feel seen and connected in such a magical way because I know that it’s not just them appreciating my beauty, it’s them celebrating and affirming their own”.
It was just a few years ago that I first heard my mother say, “Baby, I’m pretty.” She was sitting at her vanity with only half her makeup on. In that brief moment, I was shocked because it was the only time she’d ever said anything vaguely confident. It opened a new space for me to claim my beauty and worth as she had. After numerous colonial wars and decades of surviving abuse from different men, she had finally turned a corner and turned back on her feeling worthless.
Asian American womyn have historically been excluded from being fierce and powerful, so feeling intelligent, loving our bodies and vocalizing it are ways we resist the very colorblind structures of oppression in which we live. Maybe more importantly, it’s how, at least this Asian American womyn, reminds white supremacy, and the white feminists who deploy it, that my community is beautiful: we are bold and we shine.
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Kim Tran is a graduate student in Ethnic Studies at the UC Berkeley where her activist and academic commitments are to refugee and queer communities. Her writing has appeared in The East Bay Express, The Feminist Wire, Role/Re-Boot and Feministing. More of her work can be found at www.kimthientran.com.