Invisible, often liminal- Growing up as an Asian-American Immigrant Woman in the United States

Often when we talk about race in the United States, the classic picture is that race is polarized into two: black and white. Starting from a very young age, I had never truly understood these divisions, and felt confused as to where I fit in. If I was labeled into a color, it was always “yellow” and it was often said as an offensive joke.  I didn’t understand my place…I wasn’t white and I wasn’t black. I remember looking around the demographics of my classrooms noticing that I often felt alone. In history class, we talked about Columbus, the slave trade, and 9/11, but rarely did we ever engage in dialogues about asians, much less Koreans, except in passing when we note that North Korea is still radically separate from its southern counterpart, and the fact that the United States fought in the Korean War.  I remembered a clear moment in my U.S history class when we discussed apartheid in the United States, and I sat in the room wondering which restroom and school, if any, would I have been able to use and attend if we were still in that time? Was I a person of color?

The ever familiar sense of liminality and not quite fitting in was also manifested in my college life through my labeled identity as an “ undocumented” student, or from opposing side’s terms, an undocumented alien. Already, I had felt a sense of confusion growing up all my life in a country where I didn’t always find people who looked like me or understood me or my background. My identity as a Korean-American was treated as a novelty, an exquisite chance for somebody to stumble through the two or three Korean words and Korean people they knew, as well as informing me how much they loved Korean food. Of course, many of these statements were harmless and were not meant to create the sense of separation and isolation that often came as a consequence. Statements like, “So, where are you originally from?” have been scattered throughout my life, and I felt a sense of guilt or confusion as I always explained (much more thoroughly than someone expected) how I lived in Maryland most of my life, lived in Washington State for when I was young, and oh, yes, if this is what you were really asking- my family is from Korea and I was born there.

Overall, I am still exploring my multiple identities and it has been quite a journey. Through my work at the Women’s Center and beyond, where I am surrounded by people who are ready and willing to engage in thoughtful and critical dialogues, I am inspired and gradually feeling that I am worthy and do belong in this space equally.

A really awesome and affirming article from Time, brought a lot of my insecurities and feelings to light, explaining that, this idea that Asian Americans are “tech” oriented and know how to sit in front of a computer, overlooks the disproportionate amount of Asian American tech workers and those in leadership. In addition,  “What it says is this: Asians and Asian-Americans are smart and successful, so hiring or promoting them does not count as encouraging diversity. It says: there is no such thing as underrepresentation of Asians and Asian-Americans. The problem with this belief, historians and advocates assert, is that it not only obscures the sheer range of experiences within Asian and Asian-American populations, but also excludes them from conversations about diversity and inclusion in leadership and non-tech sectors.” This statement rang true in so many aspects as I have had students and faculty alike, assume me to be in a STEM field or that I would be “good at math”, etc. I look forward to bringing to light these cultural stereotypes, assumptions, as well as working to break them, to work to have representation of Asian Americans as the diverse and whole people that we, and everyone else, are.

Reflections of October Pink

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I had my first mammogram today. I am still in the waiting room as I write these thoughts into the notepad of my iPhone. Despite the very hopeful notion I have that everything will be okay, I also have the overwhelming feeling of wanting to cry. All the Octobers of pink and more pink have created a sense within me that the question of breast cancer for me as a woman is not an if but when. Somewhat like the rape schedule most women live with on a daily basis I’ve realized through this process of doctor’s visits and tests that I operate in a sort of breast cancer schedule as well. The inevitability feels all too real.

Watching shows like L Word and Parenthood with main characters who were diagnosed with breast cancer always sends me into overwhelming sadness as I delve into their plot lines. I cry. I cry for the fictional characters but I also cry in fear. That could be me. My partner. My best friend. It has already been my aunt. My cousin. Co-workers. Friends of friends. I have created a chosen family for myself completely centered in women and womanhood. As I grow older, I know this list will only grow.

And, as I sit in this waiting room for my results I question if my fear is warranted. Or is just the onslaught of October Pink that has conditioned me to believe this is a real reality for me? Am I too hyper-vigilant? Is this real or just another social construction that inhabits within me due to my gender and gender socialization? Did all the Race For The Cures and pink ribbons and Denim Days of my childhood not only create an awareness but a deeply rooted fear?

I debate about posting these very personal thoughts on what for all extensive purposes is my work blog. Part of me feels these are not thoughts appropriate to share around the “water cooler” but thoughts meant to keep private or share only with close confidants. But my “water cooler,” my work – it is my passion. My work is the work rooted in these fears, these social constructions, these lived experiences of women. If I can’t or don’t talk about it as a professional who works in a women’s center, who believes in consciousness raising and “the personal is political,” who else will? Women’s centers and their community members exists to center these conversations, make space for inquiry, and give comfort for the fear. I share my thoughts to create brave spaces for us to critique the “pink industrial complex” while also validating the very real experiences of those living with breast cancer, those surviving breast cancer, those who have died from it, and those who wonder if it will happen to them.

In the waiting room, I got the answer I needed. I am fine and I can breathe a sigh of relieve… at least for now. And, yet I leave feeling I still have more questions than answers.

Why Equality Isn’t Fair: A Lesson from Fourth Grade

With much discussion in Women’s Center staff meetings about actively applying our work in the Center as student staff members to other areas of our lives, I have recently been thinking a lot about how my experiences and education in social justice and activism coincide with the various roles and responsibilities I hold outside of the Center. Currently in the process of working towards receiving teacher certification in elementary education, one of my most valued roles this academic year is my internship as a student teacher in a fourth grade classroom. Watching my students embrace new concepts and grow as individuals each week has not only brought an immense amount of pleasure and fulfillment into my life, but it has also caused me to think rather critically about how learning in the classroom translates outside to the “real world”. I’m not talking about how that math equation we learned last week can help us to calculate a tip on a restaurant bill, or how that new vocabulary word can be used to impress our relatives, but instead about how simple classroom dynamics can set a pretty important example for those of us who are long removed from our own elementary school classrooms.


Although we live in a society that preaches equality and fairness, perhaps one of the most important concepts I have learned in the classroom thus far is that equality and fairness are far from interchangeable terms. Imagine a classroom where students are instructed to independently read a chapter out of a textbook and take notes on what they are reading. Several students are reading quietly to themselves and taking notes on a sheet of paper, while another student is listening to an audiobook through headphones, and yet another student is talking to a classroom volunteer who is writing notes down for the student. If this were an equal environment, all students would be required to complete the assignment in the exact same way. But is equality in this situation really fair? Without certain accommodations, students with learning disabilities or special needs may be unable to complete the assignment on their own. The truth is, equality is only fair when everyone is the exact same to begin with. This is an extremely unlikely situation not only in the classroom, but in life in general. Instead of promoting fairness amongst individuals within a community, in actuality equality erases differences that exist within a group of individuals and only supports those with the most privilege. Equality is a “colorblind” approach to fairness and it can be especially harmful when it prevents students from lower income families and those who struggle with disabilities from obtaining the resources they need to succeed.

equityBecause not all students (or people, for that matter) are born with the same abilities and some experience challenges that inhibit that their success, some individuals need more resources in order to just catch up to their peers. Therefore instead of talking about equality, we need to focus on another approach: equity. While equality simply seeks to level the playing field for everyone, equity seeks to provide more resources to those who need them. Take for example the large population of English Language Learners (ELLs) attending schools today. These students are often significantly behind their native-English speaking peers- not because they are unintelligent, but because they lack an upbringing that enables them to understand the language in which they are being taught. Therefore, these ELL students need more resources (perhaps in the form of ESOL classes or classroom accommodations) simply just to survive in the school system. Equity forces us to examine various privileges that exist within a community or a society and prompts us to make certain accommodations that will assist those with a lack of privilege. Instead of seeing just one route to success, equity forces us to pave multiple roads for multiple people. It isn’t an easy process by any means, but the extra work we put into through society through creating equitable situations brings us closer to fairness than equality ever will.

UMBC Women Who Rock: Susan Dumont

UMBC Women Who Rock is a new blog series I’m working on throughout the 2014-15 academic year. In my role as Women’s Center director, I have some of the best opportunities to become acquainted with some of UMBC’s best and brightest women on campus. I admire the ways they live authentic lives unapologetically that challenge the stereotypes and assumptions that are often assigned to women. By debunking these stereotypes and forcing us to check our assumptions, they allow us to expand our notion of what a woman is and can be.

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UMBC Women Who Rock!
Susan Dumont, Office of Student Life’s Coordinator for Fraternities & Sororities

Goodness, if the semester was a Half Ironman, I’d be somewhere out there on my bike, at some mile marker that makes the finish line still feel very far away. I’ve been working on the concept for the post since mid-September and here I am, a month later, re-opening this document trying to get to the finish line. Susan Dumont’s voice is here with me though, repeating the refrain that I heard her say often before she completed her first Half Ironman this summer: “I like doing things that I don’t know I’ll be successful in. I want to find out what’s really possible.” This blog post certainly isn’t my Half Iron(wo)man but I’ve appreciated the motivation nonetheless.

This feeling of having someone else’s goals and work ethic inspire and complement my own instead of perceiving them as a direct threat or source of competition feels really different for me. Maybe because Susan and I both hail from all-girl high schools, my mind has drifted back to my high school days many times while working on this blog post. The smartest girls were also the most athletic girls. They were also the most popular girls. But in my experience, the cool girls knew they were cool and that cool factor usually made them pretty mean.

Oh Mean Girls…

Cue Mean Girls and Queen Bees. They made sure you knew they got the highest grade in the class and when you were still struggling on that math problem they rolled their eyes at the impossibility of why you just didn’t get it. This “us versus them” climate made the first few years of high school pretty miserable and at times, I still feel anxious just thinking about running into them again one day. I know somehow, they’ll take me back to those high school days where I never felt good enough.

When I mentioned this to Susan, I thought she would affirm my experience with similar stories of the all-girls school mean girl. She couldn’t, though. She went on to share how her high school experience developed her self-concept and provided empowering experiences for her. She went on to share about her time at Lake Forest College which was greatly impacted by her involvement in Greek Life. Not only was she in a sorority but Susan was instrumental in starting the first nationally affiliated chapter on her campus. She feels proud about creating a legacy that has shaped the sorority community at Lake Forest to have healthy national organizations. Susan began her adventures with triathlons in grad school. This is when she first connected with professional triathlete Linsey Corbin who along the way has modeled a philosophy for Susan to build the life you want and to bring good, healthy, challenging people along with you. Now that’s a counter narrative of the mean girl!

Currently, Susan is in her second year of Law School at University of Maryland, Baltimore. All of last year, I would follow her Facebook posts and chat randomly with her about how busy she must be as full-time staff member at UMBC, law student by night, and triathlete in her “free” time. I looked on from a distance with awe about how she was doing what I thought was impossible. Then over the summer, we found ourselves reflecting on the law class every graduate student in a Student Affairs program has to take. It was one of our favorite classes which is often not the case for most student affairs professionals. After our conversation, the idea of going to law school got into my head. I wanted to learn more and explore the possibility. I made a mental note to follow up with Susan about it. I never got to send that email, though. Instead, a few days later, there in my inbox was an email from Susan inviting me to one of her law classes in the fall. Without that email, I don’t think I would have picked up that LSAT study guide or visited that civil procedures class or logged onto the UMB’s law school website and signed up for an admissions day visit.

Susan crossing the finish line of her first Half Ironman with a cowboy hat from Linsey Corbin!

Susan crossing the finish line of her first Half Ironman with a cowboy hat from Linsey Corbin!

At this point in popular culture, almost all of us have heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I’ll be honest and say, I only got through parts of the book, but my take away is similar to my experience in high school: lean in at the expense of other women and fight for those few coveted positions at the top. To counteract this idea, I spend a lot of time thinking about how women can lean over for each other and themselves. How can we change the culture in a way that we’re all benefiting and moving forward rather than just a few of us racing to the top?

Susan exemplifies ways in which we can all lean over for each other. Susan never confirmed my doubts that I wouldn’t be able to handle law school. Rather she pulled me aside invited me to lunch and said you can do it too. She’s challenged the way I’ve been socialized to expect that other women are going to treat me crappy, gossip about me, or make sure I know that I won’t ever be able to great as them. She leaned over and assured me that making space for me to pursue my own talents and create my own dreams, wouldn’t diminish her own. Susan encouraged me to set needs new heights for myself and that’s why she is one of UMBC’s Women Who Rock!

Who are the UMBC women in your life that inspire you to think outside your expectations and assumptions? What are the counter narrative stories they’re sharing with us allowing UMBC and our greater community to be more of exactly who we want to be? Comment below and maybe you’ll just find them featured in a future UMBC Women Who Rock post.

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Check out other UMBC Women Who Rock:
Amanda Knapp (featured August 2014)

Honoring Stonewall, LGBTQ History Month, and Reina Gossett

reina gossett

In celebrating LGBTQ History Month, it’s important to remember those who don’t fit into the mainstream representation of the LGBTQ community. As the LGBTQ community has made gains in society, it is important to recognize that the face of the movement is increasingly white, cis, male, gay, upper class, able-bodied, and heteronormative. When arguments for marriage equality are made, our leaders look back to Stonewall as a way to validate their arguments. Stonewall, after all, sparked the beginning of the LGBTQ rights movement in America. So it’s only right for us to assume that because the face of the LGBTQ movement today is one that is predominantly white, cis, male, gay, upper class, able-bodied, and heteronormative, it has historically been the face of the movement. We know that this is not true.

When we think of LGBTQ rights and Stonewall, we don’t think of all of the trans women of color who have both presently and historically risked their safety and continuously had their lives threatened in order to try to claim a right to navigate in our society. What we think of is people like Harvey Milk whose politics are catered towards those of a privileged LGBTQ identity. We think of Neil Patrick Harris, who is a living representation of the effects and benefits of those privileges. We don’t think of people like Sylvia Rivera, who was present on the actual night of the Stonewall riots. We don’t think of Reina Gossett, either, a trans woman of color who is representative of the same kinds of intersectional oppression faced by Sylvia and all of the others present at Stonewall. It is important to remember that what is the face of the community is not representative of the community itself, that there is marginalization within the community that leaves certain narratives untold.

As a trans woman of color, Reina Gossett’s narrative is one that is largely untold. Mainstream trans women of color such as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock do an excellent job at bringing widespread attention to unheard narratives, but Gossett delivers this narrative from an activist perspective. Gossett’s emphasis on social change and social action are things that I strongly identify with. With Gossett coming to UMBC, I find myself able to see how social justice can be practiced through social programming. I see how people like Reina Gossett, people like me with marginalized identities and generally untold stories, can find platforms through which we can have our voices heard and inspire change.

I commend Critical Social Justice, the Women’s Center, and Student Life’s Mosaic: Cultural & Diversity Center for choosing Reina Gossett as the keynote speaker for LGBTQ History Month. I am appreciative that untold narratives are being given a space to exist and thrive when they are not given such opportunities by mainstream media. It is important to remember that the while the L and G are the most prominently seen part of the LGBTQ community, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are representative of the community. Trans people of color exist now, and have existed since even before the Stonewall riots. Our stories will not be erased or eradicated.

Male Privilege in Women’s Spaces

When I was asked if I would be interested in joining the Women’s Center staff, my first reaction was, “HELL YES.” The Women’s Center had very quickly become my favorite place on campus, and I was excited to jump on the opportunity to be a part of something that had been such a positive addition to my life. Last spring was a great time for me. I got more involved. I joined the Queer Leadership Council and the LGBT Campus Climate Workgroup. I was elected Outreach Coordinator for Freedom Alliance and Director of Public Affairs for GWST COMM. Recommendations, internship opportunities, and leadership roles were flying at me and it was great to feel like my skills were desirable.

How might male privilege show up in women-focused spaces?

How might male privilege show up in women-focused spaces?

But the more I thought about it, the more suspicious I became. How much of this have I actually earned? Aren’t there other people who are much more qualified than me for these jobs? How must my classmates feel about a freshman showing up and taking over? Am I taking over? How does privilege play into this? Do I even belong in these spaces? I have been thinking about these questions for months and I want to take this opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a male-identified staff member at a women’s center and the complicated combination of male identity and queer identity.

I think a lot of trans guys and people of trans male identities forget that even though some of us may have once identified as women or are sometimes read as women, we still have male privilege. Despite our queerness and the bureaucratic level problems we face with documentation or health care, there is still a place for us on the glass escalator. Now, this is not true for all of us– trans men of color, gender nonconforming trans men, or those who do not easily or readily “pass” (when one fits the standards of what a man or woman looks like well enough to not have their gender questioned) have a much more difficult time with this. For the sake of this post, when I say “trans men” I specifically mean trans men like me: white, medically transitioning, “passing” men.

My biggest struggle has been figuring out a way to see how my privilege has given me advantages in my life while also remembering that I actually did earn some of it. It’s a balance between knowing when to be proud of myself because I’ve earned something and knowing when I’ve been given something. I’m still trying to figure out how to contribute and participate in feminist and women’s movements without riding the glass escalator to the forefront. I’m learning to listen more than I speak and to support the efforts of others to liberate themselves rather than leading their liberation.

As for the Women’s Center, I think I will always be questioning and changing how I fit into my role here, just as women’s centers have changed since their first appearances in the 1970s. Women’s centers are still women-focused spaces but have branched out to include women of color and LGBTQIA women and people. Many women’s centers (including ours) have even started looking at toxic forms of hegemonic masculinity and how it affects women and men alike.

I belong here for now. My roles and responsibilities will change as the needs of my communities and the communities I support change, and I am still learning. I welcome feedback and criticism from community members– after all, you are why I’m here.