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Posts Tagged ‘Asian American Labor’

Tiger Organizers

Posted by litdaily on May 6, 2011

Two recent profiles of Ai-jen Poo and Bhairavi Desai, Asian American community organizers, have received none of the media attention and publicity lavished on the provocative story of  “tiger mother” Amy Chua. Media is much more open to news stories and personal narratives that portray Asian Americans as exceptionally successful in well-paying professions and as model minorities who discipline themselves (and their children) into self-improvement, through harsh means if necessary, instead of complaining about their life conditions. The attention devoted to financially successful Asian Americans is used to disavow the concerns of Filipina maids or South Asian taxi drivers.

These profiles remind us of the history of Asian Americans in activism and their fight for social justice as part of working class inter-racial coalitions. Stories of Asian American labor organizers are invisible because they do not fit neatly into the model minority rubric that defines Asian Americans in public discourse. Barbara Ehrenreich profiles Ai-jen Poo, the founder-director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, and finds her political trajectory an unlikely path for the daughter of Chinese immigrants:

My image of a union organizer, based on extensive personal experience, is a big, loud guy with a bullhorn, not a slender, soft-spoken former women’s studies major whose reflexive response to a crowd is to melt into the sidelines. Nor does Ai-jen Poo look like a typical D.W.U. member, at least no more than Jennifer Lopez looked like a housecleaner in “Maid in Manhattan,” and the incongruities only multiply as you get to know her. She’s the daughter of Chinese immigrants, a neurobiologist and an oncologist, and her original career plan was to be not the scientist or lawyer you might expect from such a lineage but a potter.

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Asian Americans have always been involved in politics and activism, and their participation has increased significantly over the past few years. But this involvement has done little to dislodge the perception of community organizer as an unlikely career for Asian Americans—a testimony to the power of the model minority myth. The myth feeds into the media frenzy that privileges the representation of tiger moms, and denies the labor of domestic workers that makes it possible for the “tiger mom” to sucessfully “juggle” career and children. Poo’s organization fights for the rights of domestic workers, who are mostly immigrants, women, and racial minorities.

There are interesting parallels between the details that Ehrenreich draws on to write about Ai-jen Poo and Lizzie Widdicombe’s profile of Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of yellow-taxi drivers’ union New York Taxi Workers Alliance, in The New Yorker issue of April 18, 2011. Like Ehrenreich, Widdicombe chronicles Desai’s struggles in terms of organizing employees in an industry where individuals work for themselves rather than in a shared workplace. The taxi drivers are mostly men, immigrants from South Asia and Africa, and the task of organizing them includes navigating racial strife. Both Poo and Desai arrive at their advocacy roles through their academic background in women’s studies. The profiles also note that Poo’s and Desai’s presence in labor activism carries the element of unexpectedness on account of both their race and gender. Widdicombe writes the following about Bhairavi Desai:

The T.W.A. first came to prominence in 1998, when Desai initiated a strike that, to protest new rules imposed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, kept most of the city’s twelve thousand yellow cabs off the street for a day. Since then, her group has grown, and it now claims fifteen thousand members, almost a third of the city’s licensed cabdrivers. Desai can often be seen on the local news, or at public hearings, making passionate arguments on behalf of cabdrivers that are seasoned with statistics and left-wing rhetoric. She is an anomaly in the male-dominated taxi industry (she has a degree in women’s studies and history from Rutgers). A girlish thirty-eight, she is five feet two, with big eyes and a high-pitched voice (72).

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So the next time people ask me about the “wealthy and professionally-qualified” Asian American doctors and engineers that they encounter everywhere, I will be happy to point out these latest media profiles of women labor organizers, two recent additions to a long but mostly invisible history of Asian American activism. And then perhaps I can imagine the day when tiger organizers’ work would be considered not anomalous but significant, valid and visible, and as much a marker of Asian American success as wealth and professional qualifications.

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