Interview by Rehana Paul
1. What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment – personal or professional?
I’d say my biggest accomplishment was having completed my PhD in 2017. I entered grad school in 2008 with a two year-old to take care of; then we had our second child in 2011. Looking back, I’m deeply proud of how I balanced parenting and relationships in the midst of intense coursework, researching, and writing.
2. Describe what you do!
I see myself as an educator, scholar, and community organizer. At Cal State LA, I enjoy teaching classes on race, ethnicity, cultural studies, and critical theory. My students are amazing and I learn as much from them as they do from me. Teaching is something I see myself doing for my whole life because I find it deeply meaningful. As a scholar, my research is situated in the emerging field of Transpacific Studies, which bridges Asian and Asian American Studies in an academic landscape that has historically segregated these disciplines. When I’m in research mode, it doesn’t feel like “work”; it is exciting to make discoveries that can inspire building a more just world, that can change the ways we think and live and create. Lastly, in my work with AAJIL as a community organizer, I bring my passion for education and research from the ivory tower to everyday people, convinced that what they learn about histories of racialization, empire, and white supremacy will change how they live their lives.
3. What is the Asian American Justice + Innovation Lab?
The Asian American Justice + Innovation Lab is what I call a community racial justice incubator. It grew out of a need I have observed in the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) world, where the majority of racial equity trainings tend to revolve around a Black/White binary. While that Black/White binary construct and the virulent anti-blackness it produces is critically important to interrogate, resist, and dismantle, a blind spot of many racial equity programs is how they perpetuate the problem by leaving out the histories and experiences of other racialized groups. What they miss is how all racializations are co-constitutive and interlocking within white-dominant logics and structures. I have found that the majority of people I meet have no idea what to do with Asian American racial identity. Many of my students at Cal State LA, most of whom are Latinx, express surprise when they learn that Asian Americans are people of color. Several students have told me that, before taking my class, they had thought Asian Americans were “basically white.” This is a systemic problem, not only in educational institutions that erase API histories by what they leave out of textbooks and course requirements, but also in society at large, where the toxic myth of “the model minority” is perpetuated in mass media, politics, and organizations.
Many Asian Americans themselves have internalized this myth. I started AAJIL in order to offer a different kind of racial justice education to anyone interested, without their having to pay university tuition to access it. AAJIL’s community racial justice trainings employ a decolonial framework that emphasizes the interlocking racializations of white supremacy with an intentional integration of Asian American histories and experiences. Radiating from that core work is the practice of mutual care through community-building, opportunities for collaboration and innovation, and hopefully the long-range potential for participants to impact their spheres of influence in racially just ways.
4. What are your thoughts on present-day Asian activism?
Asian/American activism can illuminate how racial injustices are linked to the global histories and current realities of imperialism. It can create awareness around how white supremacist ideology works in collusion with international warfare, forced migration, and neo-colonial geopolitics. Whiteness works to segregate minorities and pit them against one another; it’s the classic power move of divide-and-conquer. Asian and Asian American activists need to resist this, and to recognize how we have been triangulated as a racial wedge within the construct of a global Black/White racial hierarchy. This means that we can’t just fight for “our” rights and representations as people of Asian descent, which unfortunately sometimes manifests itself by throwing other POC groups under the bus. This is exactly what white supremacy wants! It is imperative to do movement work in solidarity with other racialized groups, and to fight for the liberation of all people as our collective horizon. Real transformative justice for ourselves can’t be achieved without also fighting anti-Blackness, dismantling the structural effects of slavery, decolonizing with indigenous values, and critiquing American empire.
5. What are your top three favorite books?
This is such a hard question for me to answer. I have too many favorites! So let’s go with books that I’ve obsessed over in the past year—”Emergent Strategy” by Adrienne Maree Brown, “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee, and “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire.
6. What’s next for you, in 2020?
More of the same! Teaching at Cal State LA, more movement and community building with AAJIL, more researching and writing for my book manuscript. An exciting project I’ve been working on launching in 2020 is a symposium called
Emerging Research for Racial Justice. The vision of this annual event is to provide scholars with community engagement, support, and grounded dialogue for their ongoing research. For the local community, it will provide exposure to exciting emerging research across a diversity of fields that intersect with racial justice issues. This program aims to increase the impact of research beyond academia’s narrow publishing model and to create pathways for increased awareness, relevance, and application through community-engaged scholarship. The event will be free and open to the public, so if any of you are in the Los Angeles area, follow AAJIL on social media for updates!
7. What inspires you?
Witnessing courageous acts of love inspires me. And that’s what all my work boils down to: living out a radical Love that sees all life as interconnected.
8. What is your go-to coffee order?
Strong black coffee with a splash of cream. I’m trying to eat more plant-based now though, so I’ve been trying vegan creamers at home!
9. What, in your opinion, is the biggest problem facing Asian women today?
Not understanding how the way we’ve been racialized-gendered specifically as Asian women has shaped our life experiences, and how it can continue to limit our opportunities and our choices. It doesn’t have to be that way though!
Dr. Sandra So Hee Chi Kim is the founder of Asian American Justice + Innovation Lab (AAJIL) and an adjunct professor of race and ethnic studies at Cal State LA. Her research explores the intersections of race, global coloniality, migration, and culture. She is currently working on a book manuscript entitled The Kinship of Empires: Transpacific Coloniality and Korean Historical Trauma.