As the countdown to the 2020 United States presidential election progresses, I have been questioning who I am. This will be the first year I can vote and express my opinions and interests as an American citizen, so I intend on making the right choice. In order to ensure that I vote for the candidate who I believe will best represent my background and experiences, I have to know what my identity consists of first.
When asked to sum up who I am in a sentence, my answer always remained the same: I’m a first-generation, Korean American female who is a Democrat. It was not until a couple of years back that I began to identify as a feminist as well, after I learned to erase the stigma that is commonly placed on feminists. In adding this new component to my identity, I realized that my identity is malleable and changes as the conditions of society shift through time. But even so, I wasn’t completely sure what it meant to be a feminist, to fight for equality, to appreciate diversity.
My attempts to look into the history of feminism led me to a never-ending internet archive filled with articles referring to the efforts of feminists in “waves.” This did not, however, represent the feminism I had envisioned — in every journal, article or book I read, the wave metaphor referred only to the efforts and successes of the white feminist, completely shutting out the stories of minority communities. My research brought me back to the questions of what does it mean to be a feminist, whose legacy am I carrying on my back and whose voices am I hearing?
People, societies, identities and feminism are complex and multilayered. These frameworked institutions, gender, sexuality, race, class and other methods through which humans organize society overlap, intersect and fuse with each other in countless ways. All these aspects have consequential effects on peoples’ lives and histories, much like how various forms of oppression work together. To diminish the complexity of these human experiences into a one-layered wave metaphor, which assumes the position that feminism is a singular concept, leads to a selective view of feminism that excludes underrepresented communities and individuals.
Understanding identity and histories of oppression requires the critical examination of all of its facets as intertwined and co-constitutive throughout time as intersecting, rather than as separate and independent of each other. The wave metaphor ignores that inequities are the outcomes of intersections of different social locations, power relations and experiences.
Categorizing feminism throughout U.S. history in terms of waves is also flawed because it propagates the idea that feminism has intergenerational divisions where one wave ends and the next one begins. This set up of boundaries in time is false; there is much continuity and overlap between one wave and the next. The issues that became mainstream in the second wave of feminism were only able to reach such high levels of awareness and support because of the work that was done by feminists who were breaking the borders of the first wave. These feminists who were on the margins of the wave often do not receive the recognition that they deserve because they were unable to partake in “mainstream feminism.” Even when the issues they were fighting for became mainstream, their voices were overtaken by those who were able to reach a national audience and fit the description of a typical feminist (e.g. white, English speaker, middle class).
The wave metaphor short-sightedly perceives that mainstream feminism was the only type of feminism to exist in the United States, which is not at all indicative of where we were in the past, where we are in the present nor where we are going to be in the future. That is, feminism today is in multiple places and crossroads of intersectionality, and the continued label of a “wave” is not complex enough to encapsulate the kaleidoscopic intersections upon which social justice is building itself around.
A proper approach to feminism in the past, present and future is through the lens of intersectionality and transnationality. That is, intersectionality offers language that describes and recognizes the ways in which racism, capitalism, sexism/heteropatriarchy, ableism and other structures of power relations work together to shape life chances, experiences and positions within society.
Race, class and gender are not fixed or separate categories/identities or problems that can be solved at one collective time; they are not uniform, as they are flexible and thus shape people’s lives differently based on their backgrounds. As such, these institutions and social justice issues overlap, intersect and fuse with each other in countless ways, with consequential effects on people’s lives and histories.
When I vote during the elections this year, I will do so with the consideration of my story and complex identity as a feminist, Asian American woman, recognizing that I come from a place of both oppression and privilege. I will tell my story and allow others to tell theirs.