Patsy inkbecame the first Asian American woman and first woman of color to be elected to the US House of Representatives.
Her daughter Gwendolyn Mink was just 12 years old at the time, and today works as a feminist scholar writing about law, politics and gender. She may have been in middle school when her mom went to Capitol Hill, but Mink remembers how powerful the moment was for her family. “Right off the bat it wasn’t as if, ‘Oh I’m the only woman of color.’ It was ‘Oh, I’m the only one in a potentially hostile, institutional environment.'”
As a scholar whose academic work focused on American Politics, Mink sees the recent violence as the latest example of the long and complicated history of Asian Americans in the United States. After thousands immigrated from China to help build the transcontinental railroad, white Americans were so hostile that Congress passed the Chinese Immigration act in 1882 to halt immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. “You had political mobilizations of both political parties in California to exterminate or expel all Asians in California, which is where the largest population was,” says Mink.
During World War II, the US government forced Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants into internment camps after Pearl Harbor was bombed. There was violence against Korean-American businesses during the LA riots, and South Asian-Americans faced hate and violence after the 9/11 attacks.
“You don’t see the violence because nobody sees us. But when we are rendered visible, which is usually because somebody hates something associated with Asia, not AAPI people, the violence explodes.”
GWENDOLYN MINK: You don't see the violence because nobody sees us. But when we are rendered visible, which is usually because somebody hates something associated with Asia, not AAPI people, the violence explodes.
BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: Hey, everyone. Welcome to "Unmuted." I'm your host, Brittany Jones-Cooper. And in this episode, I'm joined by Gwendolyn Mink. The feminist policy scholar works to continue the groundbreaking legacy of her mother, Congresswoman Patsy Mink.
PATSY MINK: I suppose the purpose of my bill is really to free the human spirit, to make it possible for everyone to achieve according to their talents and wishes.
BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: She was the first woman of color and the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress. At what age did you really start to recognize the significance of that?
GWENDOLYN MINK: I recognized it, and my parents certainly discussed it right off the bat. It wasn't at, oh, I'm the first woman of color. It was, oh, I'm the only one in a potentially hostile institutional environment. And not only was she the only one in terms of being a woman of color, she was only one out of, I think 10 or 11 total women in the House of Representatives at a very welcoming kind of political climate to take on humongous jobs of fighting for more women to come in from behind you, more people of color to come in from the door you just opened.
BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: You mentioned that discrimination piece. And I'm curious, historically in America, how deep does this practice of discrimination and violence against the AAPI community go?
GWENDOLYN MINK: It goes back to the very first Chinese-Americans who, I think, were the first group to be recruited as workers in the United States. You had political mobilizations of whole political parties in California to exterminate or expel all Asians in California, which was where the largest population was. It's embedded. It's there. What is somewhat heartening is that people are sufficiently empowered that they are talking about it. But they're not talking about something new. We're talking about something that we've all experienced for a very long time.
BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: So there is this movement to stop Asian hate. In your work, is there anything you're doing to help push those conversations to kind of help this change?
GWENDOLYN MINK: I have just finished a political biography of my mother. I think that the story that we tell should contribute not only to bringing visibility to Asian-American history in the United States, but also AAPI activism. She had the same goal from when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and I embraced all of those things.
We all need to be able to withstand defeat and continue to struggle, which is kind of the story of my mother's life in politics. It's thrilling for me to see that her life, which was so well lived, is appreciated. Now we have several AAPI, especially women, in the House of Representatives. Their living, breathing contribution can inspire not only the next generation, but strengthen our numbers and support each other.
BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: Well, I appreciate you joining us today, and thank you for continuing to share your mother's legacy. I think that's so important as well.
GWENDOLYN MINK: Thank you for inviting me.