Shaping the Mainstream As An Asian American Woman: Politics Within Politics

Abstract

This commentary illustrates how women of color, including Asian Americans, are rarely associated with having an active role in American politics. Based upon my experiences as the communications director for a state legislative race in Virginia, I shed light on hidden stereotypes associated with the intersection of gender, race, and nationality that emerge within political campaigns. I also discuss how my female and Asian American identity took precedence over my leadership role for the campaign. These experiences demonstrate a great need for more women of color to lead political campaigns in a way that would alleviate demeaning perceptions of race and gender within mainstream politics.

The presence of women of color, including Asian Americans, is critical to shed light on stereotypes that men may not see in mainstream politics. Some may argue that misconceptions related to the intersections of gender, ethnicity, and citizenship will eventually became an irrelevant issue because the U.S. population is becoming more diverse over time. In fact, the 2012 U.S. Census shows that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are the fastest growing population in comparison to other ethnic groups.[1] Since people of color outnumber their Caucasian counterparts, there is the expectation that Asian Americans and other ethnic groups will be highly visible in mainstream politics.

However, this logic is faulty because women already make up more than half of the U.S. population,[2] and yet they are disproportionately represented by those who hold elected positions at all levels of government. What seems like a nonissue is an issue that is problematic right now. Today, men still outnumber women as elected officials.[3] As of 2013, women make up only 18 percent of the 535 seats in U.S. Congress.[4] At the state level, nearly 25 percent of women hold offices among all legislators.[5] Political campaigns need to develop strong pipelines for more diverse campaign staffers, particularly targeted at women of color so that candidates have campaign staffers that reflect the diverse, unique, and varying needs of constituents before the 2020 decennial census. It may be too late for political campaign strategists to wait until after the year 2020 to find out if more people of color, including women, will influence the outcome of mainstream politics.

The intersection of race and gender plays an important role in American politics. Women of color, including Asian Americans, experience a double standard in terms of race and gender as campaign staff, operatives, and consultants. This double standard allows them to cast a wider net when strategizing on the key issues that constituents can resonate with their candidate. For example, women of color already have expectations of how the public and the media generally perceive women—especially perceptions about physical appearance, how they emotionally react, and whether they have a voice at the table. Because of their racial or ethnic backgrounds, diverse female campaign staffers have the ability to initiate a dialogue on how race plays a factor in a candidate’s viability to woo voters, which is equally important as discussing gender stereotypes on the campaign trail. The role of minority women goes beyond influencing the outcome of elections, both by their visibility in the public with their candidates and their ability to steer the political strategy for voter turnout. Therefore, candid conversations about race issues with campaign staff should be a part of campaign strategy for all candidates running for office.

Few programs specifically train women of color to become political operatives since they fall instead under the general umbrella of women. What is missing from current campaign trainings is an emphasis on building the pipeline for the next generation of women operating behind the scenes for political candidates. Several political training programs already focus on helping women run for local, state, and federal level offices, including Running Start,[6] She Should Run,[7] VoteRunLead,[8] and many others. These are extremely beneficial in addressing the gender parity in mainstream politics. As for trainings that support ethnically diverse female candidates, the Rising Stars Ready to Run program at Rutgers University provides tools to Asian American women and other women of color to get them elected or appointed to offices at all levels of government.[9] The only program that concentrates specifically on campaign management is EMILY’s List’s The Winning Edge program, which provides both men and women the opportunity to receive campaign training from political operatives so they could serve on House, Senate, Gubernatorial, and Presidential races.[10]

I have done the EMILY’s List training, but it does not provide a session on addressing gender and racial stereotypes framed by the media, voters, and the opponent to trainees. Based on my experiences as a Vietnamese American woman on the campaign trail, there is a great need for empowering more women of color so they can lead political campaigns in a way that would alleviate demeaning perceptions of race and gender within the predominantly male space of politics. Along my journey, I found that patronizing stereotypes determined how the public defined my role in politics. Perceptions about my role fell into silos based on stereotypes about my gender, ethnicity, or nationality, but rarely all of these identities at once.

 

The different silos emerged when I was the communications director for Hung Nguyen, a Vietnamese American candidate who ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2013. For example, those who encountered me on the campaign trail surmised that marriage must have led to my involvement in Nguyen’s political campaign. I am not married, nor do I bear the last name Nguyen, but a middle-aged Caucasian woman approached me at an Oktoberfest autumn festival asking me, “Aren’t you Hung’s wife?” On that very same day, a middle-aged Vietnamese woman, who was a Vietnamese restaurant hostess, said, “Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen, let me take you to your table,” as the candidate and I were reaching out to Vietnam War veterans. While I recognized that the generational gap between these women and me could have triggered their assumption, I immediately deflected the inappropriate assumption by introducing myself as the candidate’s campaign communications director. By doing so, I helped these two people recognize that a Vietnamese American woman accompanying a Vietnamese American political candidate can play other roles other than the political candidate’s wife.

What I looked like led to the conclusion that I was the candidate’s spouse. This typecasting demonstrates that cultural insensitivity toward women of color remains a problem today, as it suggests that minority women in positions of power are not the social norm, especially in mainstream politics. I would argue that the pervasive assumption about me aligned with Walter Lippmann’s perspective on stereotypes, emphasizing that what people viewed physically at the surface or on the outside triggers people’s associations with specific characteristics when it came to public opinion.[11] In this instance, a woman in politics had no real role in politics, except to be the spouse, simply because she appeared to share the same ethnicity as the candidate. Such assumptions asserted that I did not belong among the predominantly male space of political campaigns.

The fact that campaign staffers are predominantly Caucasian and male reinforces my minority status as an Asian American female in mainstream politics. The New Organizing Institute (NOI) recently reported the gender and racial composition of campaign staffers who worked on federal level races in 2012. NOI’s analysis showed that Asian Americans accounted for only 2 percent of federal campaign staffers, while 22 percent were African Americans and nearly 10 percent were Latinos.[12] The numbers for women were a little more promising. Among all federal campaign workers, more than 45 percent of them were women.[13] NOI was unable to capture the type of work that campaign staff did, making it unclear if these minority campaign staffers conducted outreach or other significant roles. As a result, NOI questions whether people of color and women obtain leadership positions on the campaign trail based on its findings.

More data can help better determine the gender and racial disparities among all campaign staffers. Another aspect of the data that NOI did not consider was the cross-tabulation of gender and ethnicity or race of its sample. Just from these sheer numbers alone, I suspect a very low percentage of AAPI women worked on campaigns at the federal level. These are the only numbers that I am aware of that capture the demographic breakdown of campaign staff working during the elections. Data that would allow researchers to analyze the demographics of campaign staff at local and state level races, along with identifying the positions they hold for campaigns, may allow for a more thorough evaluation. While more variables can help make NOI’s data more comprehensive, NOI’s study provides a point of departure to move forward with promoting more AAPI women, and other women of color, in leadership roles of political campaigns.

Notwithstanding the gender-based assumptions made about my role in Nguyen’s political campaign, the visibility of my ethnic identity seemed to dominate perceptions made about my gender. Even within my own campaign team, my ethnicity took center stage. When I accepted Nguyen’s offer to be on his campaign team, I thought I would be executing Nguyen’s overall communications strategy without having to show a predilection toward one racial or ethnic group, but I was completely wrong.

Mainstream politics pigeonholed me into conducting AAPI outreach, despite the fact that I held a leadership role for our campaign. I officially became the token Asian American to represent the campaign at events organized by the Korean, Chinese, and, of course, Vietnamese community groups, since more than one-fifth of the district’s population comprised Asian Americans. I understood why the campaign delegated the task of reaching out to the AAPI community to me. Physically, I looked like those in the AAPI community, and I had a deep understanding of the unique cultures and histories of different Asian groups—which made it an effective strategy to place me there. Any candidate would send her Asian American staffer to conduct community outreach among AAPI constituents. While it was ideal for me to attend Asian American field events, my presence in these spaces caused my Asian ethnicity to take precedence over my leadership duties on the campaign.

Even more patronizing was when my ethnicity became a tool to portray the campaign’s respect for cultural diversity in mainstream media. At one point, a political consultant pulled me into a photo shoot with a group of all Caucasian women, posing with angry expressions to show their distaste for state legislators in Virginia who infringed upon their reproductive rights. According to the consultant, a Caucasian male, I was “helping to bring diversity into the photo.” I resisted at first because I knew my role was to steer our campaign strategy, and not to pose in photo shoots. However, I went with it because I valued cultural representation in all aspects of politics.

Interestingly, the “diversity photo” told its own story. No one questioned what was wrong with placing only one woman of color in the photo to signal the inclusiveness of minorities. Everything was wrong about this image because that person was an Asian American woman, supporting an Asian American candidate. Even more so, why did the male consultant exclude other women of color and male allies in the photo if diversity was truly an issue? My presence alone in this photo insinuated favoritism toward only Asian groups—that only Asians supported my candidate. I raised my concerns with Nguyen that his voters could interpret the image inaccurately. Overall, the intersection of my race and gender identity was visible in the political space. The political community hinted that it was not my place as an Asian woman to help lead a state-level campaign, but rather as a token minority to represent an Asian candidate.

Furthermore, emphasis on the Asian American identity became a prevalent aspect in getting the campaign message across among specialty media outlets. From the perspective of ethnic newspapers, Asian Americans were a part of mainstream politics. The candidate earned media coverage by the Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese news outlets because Nguyen was one of two AAPI candidates challenging incumbents. The reporters I knew told me in confidence they would not cover stories if the candidates were not of AAPI descent. For example, the Korea Daily highlighted Nguyen’s campaign efforts when he attended the same events as Virginia Delegate Mark Keam, who is the only Korean American to serve in the Virginia House. Our campaign easily targeted and resonated with a demographic that our non-Asian opponent could not have done.

In contrast, mainstream media covering American politics created a discourse that encouraged an indirect form of xenophobia. The Asian American identity, or any other ethnic or racial identity, seems to be a negative aspect for candidates running for office. Two days after the election, the Washington Post ran the headline: “Foreign-Born Candidates Lose to Republicans in Virginia But Are Optimistic About the Future.”[14] From a public relations point of view, I recognized the major newspaper suggested that Nguyen and the Latino and Pakistani candidates, who were also men, were neither Virginians nor U.S. citizens by including the words “foreign-born.”[15] Furthermore, the headline insinuated that the candidates’ immigration status attributed to their losses. A Caucasian male in the political space would unlikely have had the above assumptions made about him, because it is already assumed that a Caucasian male would be a citizen by birth.

The term “foreign-born” subtly portrays that individuals of different nationalities do not belong in mainstream politics. If the Washington Post truly wanted to be politically correct and reinforce the status quo, the headline should have read “Foreign-Born Democrats with Citizenship Lose to U.S.-Born Republicans in Virginia.” This alternative headline would have deflected the legitimacy question of the foreign-born label already embedded into American history with the U.S. Census.[16] Such discourses exclude minority men and women from mainstream politics because they have ethnic or racial identities. An emergence of diverse campaign staff that accurately represents America’s changing demographics can prevent media discourses that indirectly alienate people of color and encourage xenophobia.

No one should be alienated in mainstream politics based on race or gender, or both. The example above illustrates the stereotype that certain populations are not American citizens, and therefore they are not qualified to serve in politics. Women of color experience a similar exclusion when it comes to serving in a leadership capacity in mainstream politics. When more women of different ethnic backgrounds are involved in shaping political campaign strategies, members of the community would not ask female campaign staffers if they are the spouse of the candidates. Ethnically diverse campaign operatives would not be limited to conducting outreach to cultural groups they most identify with. Campaigns would not worry about whether one person of color among a group of all Caucasian individuals is enough to demonstrate diversity. Furthermore, the citizenship of an individual would not be a determining factor in his or her ability to be a public servant in mainstream America.

The personal is political[17]—and there is nothing more personal than to experience exclusion because of my gender, ethnicity, and presence in American politics. Now is the time to create a new generation of political operators. In August 2013, Former U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton reinforced my call to action. She could not have said it better when she called upon election reform by stating: “Anyone who says that racial discrimination is not a problem in American elections must not be paying attention.”[18] I thank Clinton for calling attention to racial discrimination in American politics, reminding mainstream political operatives and leaders to incorporate practices that effectively and progressively change how elections are shaped. What I look like is not an excuse for mainstream politics to define my identity with patronizing stereotypes that place me into silos, averting my abilities to lead a political campaign. I am a Vietnamese American woman shaping mainstream politics—and mainstream politics can never take that away from me.

Tonia Bui is a current Fellow for the Virginia Asian American Leadership Fund. She previously served as the Communications Director for the Nguyen for Delegate Campaign (VA-67). Bui has made her hallmark advocating for underrepresented communities, including Asian Americans, through media relations, strategic communications, and constituent outreach. She previously served as an outreach coordinator at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; member outreach assistant to Vice Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Representative Xavier Becerra (CA-34); and legislative intern for former California Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (CA-12). She also led the Asian American voter outreach efforts for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign (WA-08) in 2008. Bui received her master in public policy from American University and bachelor of arts in mass communications and gender and women’s studies from the University of California, Berkeley.


[1] U.S. Census Bureau. “Asians Fastest-Growing Race or Ethnic Group in 2012, Census Bureau Reports.” U.S. Department of Commerce, 13 June 2013.

[2] U.S. Census Bureau. “State and County Quick Facts: USA.” U.S. Department of Commerce, 7 January 2014.

[3] Center for American Women and Politics. Women in Elective Office 2014. Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, December 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Running Start Web site. “About Us.”

[7] She Should Run Web site. “She Should Run in Action.”

[8] VoteRunLead Web site. “Go Run.”

[9] Center for American Women and Politics. “Education and Training, Rising Stars.” Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University.

[10] EMILY’s List Web site. “The Winning Edge: EMILY’s List Training Program and Job Bank.”

[11] Lippmann, Walter. Public Opinion. Free Press Paperbacks, 1977, 53-62.

[12] New Organizing Institute. “Who Are the Campaigners in America?” 13 December 2013.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Constable, Pamela. “Foreign-Born Candidates Lose to Republicans in Virginia But Are Optimistic About Future.” Washington Post, 7 November 2013.

[15] Grieco, Elizabeth M. et al. “The Foreign Born Population in the United States: 2010.” U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce, May 2012.

[16] Gibson, Campbell J., and Emily Lennon. U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division. “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-1990.” U.S. Census Bureau, 21 May 2013.

[17]Hanisch, Carol. “The Personal Is Political.” Carol Hanisch, 2009.

[18] Rucker, Philip. “Clinton Defends Voting Rights Act, Says States Revive ‘Old Demons of Discrimination.’” Washington Post, 12 August 2013.