Though the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick ‘erupted’ at the end of last year, it has been on my mind lately as I think through how various social media platforms are used for or facilitate certain kinds of interactions, and how those interactions are often coded through dichotomies of virtual/real and talk/action. For those who missed it, #NotYourAsianSidekick was a hashtag started by 23-year-old Suey Park to address racism towards Asian-Americans in ‘feminist’ spaces, exotification, the ‘model minority’ myth and other microaggressons and structural oppressions faced by Asian-Americans. (See some Tweets at BlogHer).
The way in which the hashtag was framed varied, and each iteration can tell us something different about how interactions around hashtags—particularly those mobilized towards sociopolitical critique or commentary—are being conceptualized, and the intentions and stakes attached to those interactions. “I think for a lot of women who don’t feel like they can really come out as feminist, #NotYourAsianSidekick is a way to come into that conversation,” Park told the Washington Post. Calling it a ‘conversation’ highlights not only its text-based but also its dialectic and interactive nature—it necessitated multiple speakers. (On a note which I will return to later, Park was referred to as an ‘organizer,’ a term often used for those involved in coordinating more ‘traditional’ protests). If we are increasingly using digital platforms as spaces to resist or negotiate power, are ‘conversations’ replacing ‘protests’?
It would be too easy to create this additional dichotomy. As the way in which #NotYourAsianSidekick was covered by various major media outlets shows, there are resonances between what we think of as ‘traditional’ protests (in our romanticization and fetishization of 60s-era activism) and these online political moments. Screenshots of hashtags easily function like photographs, used to illustrate how the drama unfolds of escalates, as #NotYourAsianSidekick was presented on Buzzfeed,and interjected with narration: “The hashtag immediately caught on. First, to recognize the patriarchy that exists in Asian-American cultures.”
While Occupy Wall Street was criticized and dismissed for not having a singular, coherent message, a key distinction between the kind of organizing and protest that happens on Twitter and the kind that happens in physical spaces (marches, sit-ins, etc.) is that Twitter allows, embraces and encourages a plurality of messages. Hashtags, on the other hand, allow messages to be both individual and collective; there is no need for a ‘unifying’ message because the hashtag is designed to provide it. The hashtag allowed Park and other to talk about a range of intersecting issues: “queerness, disability, immigration, multiracial/biracial issues, compulsory coalitions, challenging anti-blackness, mental health, body image, and all things feminism. It was all of the things we were told to never talk about,” Park told Buzzfeed.
In Border Hacks, Rita Raley writes that “Rather than interfering with the operations of infrastructure, Web activism aims to transform the social conditions in which that infrastructure is situated." Though she is focusing on electronic civil disobedience (e.g. ‘hactivism’), this is a key point for understanding #NotYourAsianSidekick as well. As Park hints at in the quote above, not only are there taboo subjects within activist communities, but for Asian-American women specifically, stereotypes of submissiveness, obedience and docility are used as silencing tools.
Therefore while a post on Asian-American activism, feminist and pop culture blog Reappropriate claimed that “#NotYourAsianSidekick also proves that Twitter is the wrong place to have this conversation. 140 characters isn’t enough to express a lifetime of experiences — both oppressive and uplifting — and to be able to do it in a place where it can be heard and taken seriously,” Park and the other participants demonstrated that they in fact could operate within the infrastructure to contest the conditions outside of it—in this case, the way in which society perpetuates a model of female Asian passivity and silence.
Predictably, #NotYourAsianSidekick was problematized for not being material enough. On Time.com, a piece by Kai Ma entitled “#NotYourAsianSidekick is Great. Now Can We Get Some Real Social Change?” made a strict distinction between ‘digital activism’ and ‘social change,’ argued that “an ephemeral platform like the Internet—though it may feel cathartic—is not always terrible productive,” and celebrated that “according to it’s website, #NotYourAsianSidekick has plans to take this beyond Twitter.” According to Ma, “it has to.”
But as John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt write in Networks and Netwards in their analysis of the Zapatista movement, “The overall aim is sustainable pulsing—swarm networks must be able to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, then dissever and redispere, immediately ready to recombine for a new pulse." What Ma dismisses as ‘ephemeral’ is actually a crucial component of #NotYourAsianSidekick. The ability to ‘swarm’ around a target—in this case, intersections of racism and sexism—and disperse just as quickly is what allows so many issues to occupy space in different temporal moments.
Similarly to the Electronic Disturbance Theater’s statement that "this is a Protest. FloodNet is not a game,” Park said: “This is not a trend, this is a movement.” It is no longer to think of movements as having a specific endpoint or goal—the point is to keep moving and to create ripples in the process.