As an Asian American, I’m used to being dismissed from the “minority” tag, at least in general and political rhetoric regarding minorities in the U.S. Why? Because Asian Americans are considered the “model minority”; the immigrants who come here with fairly high levels of education, and whose kids are generally quiet, obedient, studious, and high-achieving in school. We’re the group that assumes semi-powerful positions in the professional world in the fields of medicine, finance, law, or engineering, which explains why Asian Americans lead all other groups in the U.S. in median household income. We’re the group that has achieved some version of the “American Dream”, more or less, and we’re the group that’s been successfully assimilated and accepted into the mainstream [read: White American] society, for all these reasons.
The status quo works for us, and so we’re generally averse to rocking the boat. It’s easier to sit in complacency in our homes in the suburbs, working our upper middle class, 9-5 jobs, raising kids and trying to precariously balance both our heritage and our fragile image as “the good immigrants” in American society, than it is to recognize the misfortune, the poverty, the injustice that exists every day outside our fortified walls for Blacks and Latinos minorities (and even working class white Americans), who are being shot or incarcerated in disproportionate amounts, and who are losing their homes and assets to banks that offer loans with interest rates through the roof. Furthermore, because of the favorable stereotype Asian Americans generally enjoy, it’s easier for us to pass off as “White” (socially, I mean) and there’s generally an urge to distinguish ourselves from Blacks and Latinos to maintain this image, until we’re hit with the reality that we are not, in fact, White (just check out this NYT article about the protests in the conviction of Peter Liang).
But I’ve come to understand through this presidential election that our six-figure salaries won’t save us anymore either; not with the absurdly high cost of healthcare premiums, nor the increasing cuts to social security, nor with the cost of college tuition inching higher and higher every year. Even before I’d heard of Bernie Sanders I was fretting about how I was going to put myself through 6 years of graduate school and pay for my own health insurance when I turned 26 and then save enough money to buy a house once I became a psychologist. I live in San Francisco and work in education now, and I pay almost half my salary in rent; I know how difficult it is to save money in this laissez faire economy as a middle class American. And I know that most of us Asian Americans, though we look to those $150,000/year jobs as the gold standard, are actually aiming to put ourselves squarely in the middle class as well, because we don’t understand that the real power lies with the millionaires and billionaires of the 1%.
The bottom line is that the status quo isn’t working for us any more than it’s working for the Americans whose families have been in the U.S. for generations. Just look at the anti-establishment sentiment that’s brought out both Trump and Sanders supporters in copious numbers.
In fact, this zero-sum, winner-takes-all capitalist system is now trickling down into our schools and into the minds of our children, who are suffering in unprecedented amounts from anxiety and depression because it’s not working for them either. This is unsurprising given how our public schools have increasingly become a means to an end for feeding workers into the capitalist structure, instead of a place for identity development, learning by exploration, and creativity.
I experienced the intensity of this pressure to “succeed” and make enough money to “survive” during high school, which was a microcosm of the capitalist game. I came from a community that was 40% first-generation Asian American, financially privileged, and high-achieving. We’ve had Asian American valedictorians for the past five years at least, and many of our students gain admission into schools like Princeton, Yale, UPenn, and MIT every year. This may sound like a good school, but ultimately the culture of cutthroat competition and the pressure to excel academically caught up to the school district this past fall when student hospitalizations and suicidal ideations were reaching alarming highs. We began to be compared to Palo Alto (“Paly”) High School, also with a large population of Asian Americans and the same high-pressure environment, now notorious for its suicide clusters. I can only guess what kinds of messages were being internalized by the students at Paly, but I bet they were similar to the kinds of things I used to hear in school that, not coincidentally, echoed the principles of free-market capitalism a la the United States.
Firstly, capitalism is a zero-sum game, where the winner takes all. In the Palo Alto article I linked above, researchers found that students strongly identified with the statement, “If someone does a task at work/school better than I, then I feel like I failed the whole task.” There’s no spectrum; there’s no metric for improvement in the way students are evaluated and evaluate themselves. I would often hear students wailing that they would never get into college over a B or a C on a test, or I’d hear students who took regular courses instead of honors or AP courses being told “good luck at Mercer” (the community college in my neighborhood), as if it were the end of their professional career. And I know firsthand how equating your self-worth to your academic “wins” (which had to be perfect to be legitimate at all) leads to self-destructive thoughts.
This zero-sum attitude is surely the reason for the widely held American belief that those who suffer have earned their suffering somehow, because they lost at the game, and they are losers. Just take a look at this open letter to Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco by tech CEO Justin Keller to get an idea of how the privileged view the downtrodden in our society (for those of you who don’t know, San Francisco’s housing crisis and absurdly high costs of living are directly impacted by the growth of the tech industry and exacerbated by the tax breaks that the city offers to keep companies here).
Keller’s attitude brings me to my next point, which is that political rhetoric most often decries the poor and labels them deserved. Our current conservatism completely fails to acknowledge systemic oppression; that we do not all start out on equal footing, especially not if you’re poor, or Black, or mentally ill, or a veteran, or undocumented. The Republican party, since Ronald Reagan, has been painting poor Americans as lowly moochers who were too stupid to “go out, get an education, work hard, and earn it”, in Keller’s words. Sadly, I’m now realizing that these were the same conservative sentiments I heard expressed in high school about teachers, social workers, nurses, and other professions earning middle class salaries. We see how our greedy, capitalist system treats those who can’t afford to pay for their healthcare costs or their mortgages and, in our desperate attempt to end up on the other side of that divide, we internalize the belief that those people just didn’t work hard enough, they weren’t talented enough, but we’re better than that because we work ourselves to death. Just this past fall, one of my good [Asian American] friends from high school, who is passionate about social justice, butted heads with her more conservative colleagues about the blatant racism on Yale’s campus on Halloween. When she told her father that they scoffed at her, he told her she should “show them” by earning a six-figure salary and driving by in her future Mercedes. And this is just one example of how deeply we as a society have internalized the link between money and power.
The focus on accelerated math, the lauding of professions like investment banking and engineering, the dismissal of art, creativity, and emotional finesse; not only are these highly gendered condescensions, they are also pervasive attitudes that mimic what is rewarded and what is not in free-market America. And they fail to acknowledge the fact that, in order to function, our society needs the teachers and the nurses and the janitors and the senior center workers and the therapists and the waiters and waitresses and cashiers. We simply cannot function without them, and yet, more often than not, we treat them like scum.
This past fall, the superintendent of my school district began to address stress levels on students by attempting to make structural changes to our academic system. It was met with extreme opposition, mostly by Asian American parents who were fearful of the consequences of moving testing into accelerated math up to 6th grade instead of 4th grade. I wrote a letter to my school in support of his vision about how we can definitely afford to reduce the culture of toxic competition and promote more community and inclusivity for a healthier, happier student body. Often, I would hear the response “the world is competitive, and we have to prepare our children for that reality” from parents who believed the district was “coddling” their children by trying to reduce stress. It was another clear indicator to me of how deeply we had ingrained the belief that we deserved so little, no matter how hard we worked.
This is why Bernie Sanders absolutely deserves the Asian American vote. Our current brand of capitalism does not work for the 99%, in which we are included, no matter how relatively privileged and educated we might be. While we slave away to the point of suicide in our studies, our tax money goes to a defense budget that exceeds spending on medicare, social security, education, veterans’ benefits, clean energy, and science research combined. While we struggle to save up and pay for our cars, our homes, or our student loans, Wall Street is potentially gambling with our hard-earned money. While the tycoons like the Koch brothers or the Walton family of Wal-Mart hoard billions of dollars in profits for themselves and their workers starve on food stamps subsidized by us, we blame and vilify the victims instead of fighting against the real bad guys. And, while we race and stumble over each other for those few Ivy League seats, we turn a blind eye to our Black, Latino, and Native American brothers and sisters who have faced unimaginable horrors from police brutality to historic, system racism; at least, until they indict one of our own.
Bernie Sanders is advocating for solidarity and inclusion. He is fighting for socialist, equitable policies because he knows how hard middle class Americans work and how little they are getting in return. He is acknowledging our inherent need for all kinds of minds, and all kinds of occupations to create a functional and enriched society. He is educating us about hard truths regarding a system we have complacently accepted, and tried to fit into, for too long. He is demanding that we organize and fight back, because that’s how real change comes about, and nothing worth fighting for is ever easily won. And, if at age 74 and after 34 years of a career in politics, Bernie Sanders still believes, we have zero excuse not to join him.
Are you ready to join the revolution?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a strong sense of what was and was not fair. I learned the definition of sexism at the ripe age of 8, and it was my first exposure to the cruelties and injustices of the world. I’m ashamed to admit that this revelation came from early exposures to my own heritage, and I’m even more ashamed to admit that I learned about sexism through mainstream American media as I grew up in this country.
I remember learning about a hideously primitive tradition called “Karva Chauth” through Bollywood movies. I learned that it was an Indian holiday where married women fasted all day until their husbands came home from work, at which point they performed a pooja (religious ritual), all in the hopes of bolstering their husband’s longevity.
I remember learning about menstrual seclusion, about rape, and about sexual harassment soon after. I remember seeing pregnant women on screen receiving the “good wishes” of “may you have a son” from their elders. And no, these themes were never utilized for the purpose of intelligent social commentary; just for entertainment, and to reinforce the patriarchal status quo.
I remember learning that the western world wasn’t much better, hypersexualizing women in the entertainment industry, targeting women to advertise everything from skin products to diet pills, and building a history of hiring women workers as “cheap labor.” To this day, there exist examples of unequal distribution of wealth between men and women from companies to hospitals to entire female-dominated industries that are considered “less prestigious” by society, presumably because they just don’t offer the kind of salary that would make them competitive in our market-obsessed world. Female-dominated professions like teaching, social work, nursing, and other care-taking roles that require an enormous amount of emotional labor have been undervalued by American society (both perceptually and monetarily) for centuries.
Suffice it to say, I learned from a very young age that being a woman in this world is a vulnerable thing. And I grew up extremely conscious of the stereotypes, judgments, and criticisms the world makes of women and that women make of each other. Sexism was my first and harshest wake up call to the sirens of social justice, and it is social justice that has emerged as core to my identity, and I’ve chosen to dedicate my energies to the pursuit of justice to this day.
So that’s why, when Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright made sexist and manipulative comments on national television this weekend, I was outraged. Outraged that I couldn’t both be a feminist and an ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders, who I believe is hands down the best candidate for women. But Gloria Steinem, who was and continues to be a “revolutionary feminist icon”, would have me believe that I’m supporting Bernie because “the boys are with Bernie.”
Her comment is not only sexist, it’s also agist and heteronormative. It blacks out an entire group of women that identify as LGBTQ+ and it’s patronizing to the young. But the biggest irony of all is that the notion that women are only as good as their appeal to men, that women “chase men” because they’re desperate for attention and approval, and that women can’t, or choose not to, think independently of men for fear of being rejected, is a classic sexist argument that has been made about women through the ages. Hell, just this past July my ex-boyfriend told me his traditional Indian mother, upon obsessively perusing the Facebook pictures of her son’s new girlfriend, thought I seemed “smart enough to know how to get a guy like [him].” I applaud Gloria Steinem, whose comment has somehow remarkably found its way into the patriarchal dogma of traditional Indian mentalities.
Meanwhile, Madeleine Albright insists that there is “a special place in hell for women who don’t support each other”, another comment aimed at the large group of young women who support Bernie Sanders. I found this particularly amusing as someone who has a strong spiritual foundation. Here, she not only confirms that we’re going to hell, but that hell exists at all. I, for one, don’t believe in hell, but what does my voice matter as a young, non-white, non-Christian woman? It doesn’t. For Madeleine Albright, the only thing that matters is that I take orders from a bigoted and exclusive elder who parades around with the high title of “feminist” as she campaigns for Hillary Clinton.
To the Madeleine Albrights and Gloria Steinems of the world: shame on you for calling yourselves feminists, because you’ve forgotten the foundation of feminism itself. That foundation actually goes beyond feminism and into the core of all the world’s major religions, which is the belief in equality. What does this mean in spiritual terms (and to feminists)? That we are all human, that we all sweat when we work and bleed and cry when we’re in pain; that we all smile and laugh in life’s most joyous moments; that no matter what form we may take as black, brown, white, red, male, female, or something in between, we all suffer in the same ways, and for that, we all deserve to be treated equally.
When Anderson Cooper asked Bernie Sanders about his religion during CNN’s New Hampshire town hall last week, Bernie revealed that he understood the concept of equality in a profound way. He said,
I believe that, as a human being, the pain that one person feels, if we have children who are hungry in America, if we have elderly people who can’t afford their prescription drugs, you know what, that impacts you, that impacts me…So my spirituality is that we are all in this together…
This is, by far, the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever heard any politician say in my lifetime. Because it signals to me that Bernie is thinking–he’s really digging deep–and going beyond the form that we take on in this life because he sees the humanity in all of us that goes beyond our bodies. He understands that the symbol of having a black president hasn’t eradicated police brutality or race-related discrimination in this country, just as having a female president will not eradicate violence against women and the de-professionalization of female-dominated occupations. Why? Because Bernie Sanders goes beyond the surface, and he understands that the root of our problems lies in the greed and dishonesty that pours into our political system in the form of money, through male and female politicians, including Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders is the best candidate for women because he is the only candidate who has fired up the base without taking money from special interests. Not from Goldman Sachs, not from private prison lobbyists, not from private pharmaceutical companies, not from the oil and gas industry. He is the only candidate who has exposed how much power these special interests have over the political process. Hillary Clinton is unlikely to crack down on large corporations who benefit from tax evasion and other loopholes that, if closed, could have a HUGE impact on women by funneling billions of dollars back into our economy.
Bernie Sanders also understands that war begets more war; violence more violence. He knows that we’re already spending trillions of dollars on defense, and he wants to end the self-righteous, power-hungry behavior of the American military-industrial complex. Hillary Clinton wants to exercise that power; first having voted for the war in Iraq, then coercing President Obama to drop bombs over Benghazi, and most recently, advocating for a no-fly zone in Syria. Take a moment to imagine what we could do with all the money that’s being stored, untaxed, in the Cayman Islands, and all the money that’s wasted on our defense budget.
With these trillions of dollars, we could:
- Create jobs in disenfranchised communities which have high rates of male-on-female domestic violence. Studies show that feelings of shame–of deep and painful rejection–are the strongest drivers of violent crime. In particular, heterosexual men, who face immense societal pressure to be financially successful, and who also lack job prospects and recognition by society (generally, poor men of color) are much more likely to resort to violent crimes as an outlet for their anger¹. And disenfranchised women who depend on them for financial support are at their mercy.
- Raise the minimum wage to $15/hour (women make up over 75% of the U.S.’s low-wage workforce)
- Invest in universal healthcare coverage, which includes increasing the budget for mental health. This is crucial in a country where twice as many women as men suffer from depression.
- Invest it in our public schools that have struggled on a tragic (and strategic) property tax-based system, that largely impacts low-income communities and strips schools of basic resources and facilities (and, 87% of the U.S.’s public school teachers are women. Think about how this could impact the teaching profession).
- Fund paid family leave, which includes maternity and paternity leave. Finally, we could show some respect for female workers’ roles as mothers and caretakers; a respect that has been long-dismissed by corporations and other employers in this country as somehow insignificant and invaluable.
Those are just a few of the ways that Bernie’s policies and modeling will directly benefit women. And Bernie is free to do all of those things because he isn’t bought and paid for.
But, how, you ask, is Bernie Sanders going to achieve these things with a broken political system? Sure, maybe he’s got fewer ties to the big banks and corporations that exploit the middle class, but he’s never going to achieve his goals with the Congress he’ll inherit, and he can’t be the best candidate for women if he does nothing in office.
Wrong. Bernie Sanders’ entire campaign has risen from the margins because he knows that power doesn’t transfer well from the top down–I think of awful education policy decisions like NCLB and Race to the Top immediately–power is strongest when it comes from the ground up. And like burning, volcanic lava erupting from the core of the Earth, the American people have risen up from the ground indeed, and answered his mighty call to start a political revolution.
Change only comes when we mobilize the masses and demand that politicians in this country do their job. Bernie Sanders has this power of the people on his side. Hillary Clinton does not.
To those Gloria Steinems and Madeleine Albrights of the world, you should be proud of the young women who can see the connection between economic inequality and the burdens facing American women. You should be proud of us for seeing beyond a surface-level detail like Hillary Clinton’s gender. And you should be proud that we came to this conclusion through the intelligence of our own minds, instead of through the manipulation of the corporate media, which would have us believe that Hillary Clinton is the best candidate for women, simply because she is one.
Well, she isn’t. And I’d be damned if your shallow comments would have convinced me otherwise.
- Gilligan, James. Preventing Violence. (2001).