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Empowering Asian American Women

Written by Cecilia Ding, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT#136122) and U.S. Certified Self-Growth Coach. This blog and others can also be found on Cecilia's website,

Awareness of Our Social Location

When I read and study psychology constantly, I am not just learning about the inner workings of emotions, our body, and the brain, but also I am learning about external influences that nurture us into who we are. I become highly aware of the ways my identity as an Asian-American woman, or Chinese American to be more specific, impacts the trajectory in life I have taken. We are all theoretically aware of the fact that we are a product of our environment. However, it is by seeing the numerous aspects the genderization and race seep into our lives and careers, I become more acutely aware of how much potential is robbed from me and many others.

I approach this in a positive manner as I do with other aspects of my life. Gaining knowledge does not equal more things to gripe about. Awareness informs me of the motivation behind my own decisions, and in turn, enables me to empower other women in their life choices. Did I really lose interest in a career path to become a CFO, or was I simply never encouraged or perceived myself in that role? Did I leave wall street secretly because I felt I didn’t fit in? Did I choose romantic partners based on how much they could protect me because I never believed I could stand alone by myself? Behind the answers to these questions lie many missed opportunities and underestimation of what I deserve. Unfortunately, I am not even close to being alone. This fits very strongly with an overall pattern of the majority of women’s choices, even in highly educated and developed countries. Given that we are bombarded with messages that make us believe we are ultimately worth less than men or other dominant counterparts, this is no surprise. From the inability to control 100% of what we do with our bodies as women to underrepresentation in every leadership role in companies and government as a woman and Asian American, we see evidence of our “less than” status everywhere. We perpetuate it because we internalize it in order to fit in with the status quo. Sometimes we even perpetuate the same discrimination onto others, even those who are exactly the same social locations as ourselves in gender, race, or other aspects of our intersectionality. We are not seen, and in turn, we do not see others like ourselves.

Using my own loss to fuel social change

I mourn the loss of those opportunities, encouragements, or just respect due to me because of the position I occupy in the totem pole of social and economic status. However, I also know I am luckier than many people in my own community or other communities even more marginalized. That is why I am passionate about using the opportunities and awareness I have gained about myself and social engineering we all experience to empower others.

I am especially passionate about bringing that empowerment to other Asian American women. I can relate to much of their struggle both within and without their respective culture. When I first immigrated to America, in the first few years of my acculturation starting at 13, I remember many incidents of being treated differently because of my identity in various service or job situations. I was not aware at the time how my fate was being affected by societal factors. I only remember feeling low in my own self-esteem. In addition, I also didn’t know how to ally with others like me. In fact, I remember feeling there was some tension whenever I run into another one of “me” in the street. In retrospect, it could have been just my insecurities. However, I also suspect I shared the same anxiety and fear of standing out with many others who looked like me. Seeing others like ourselves only reminded us of our differences from the rest of the crowd. Consequently, we distanced ourselves from the very people who should be our allies. This phenomenon is stronger in the Asian community, particularly newer immigrants, than many others because we cling to the illusion that if we “behave”, we can maintain our model minority status and be left alone. Our own nonconfrontational cultural tendencies further fan the fire of complacency.

This self-preservation instinct is understandable but unwise. To ensure our survival, we must unite with others with our intersectionality. Furthermore, we must unite all the other categories of marginalized people. It is only in recognizing the value and humanities of many others who are oppressed, many more than us, that we can fight for ourselves.

The famous German Pastor Martin Niemöller, who was initially aligned with the Nazis but later had a turning point when he was himself imprisoned by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler. He was known for his publication Of Guilt and Hope. In it, he expressed his guilt for not having done enough to oppose antisemitism as a German citizen. A few of his most famous lines have been used in many areas to highlight how we cannot afford to stand back even when it seems we are not the ones persecuted.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

I want to empower Asian women in my practice to unite and look out for themselves. Equally importantly, I want to help them to transfer their own self belief and activism within the group to without. Only by strengthening our collective power as minorities can we bring about powerful changes for all.

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