Christine Ahn on Media, Militarism, and Women of Color
Christine Ahn is one smart cookie.
As an analyst with the Korean Policy and Oakland institutes, Ahn is regularly called upon to inform the public conversation on human rights, militarism, globalization. Having edited the book on free trade (Shafted: Free Trade and America’s Working Poor), with a masters degree in public policy from Georgetown, and her experience growing up in a working class Korean family in California, Ahn’s insight has diverse roots.
But don’t let her hefty resume intimidate; Ahn’s humor and imagination abounds. Wait’ll you hear about an unusual outfit she made for an unusual Tuesday night in Oakland…
You’re an expert in human rights, poverty, hunger, trade, globalization, militarism and North Korea. Impressive list! How do you see your role? How did you come to embrace your life work?
The “expert” label is daunting, but as a former mentor reminded me before I went head-to-head with some other “expert”, in addition to the knowledge I accumulated over the years, I have a more intimate understanding of poverty and globalization than someone who just studied these issues in the library. My role, I believe, in the social justice movement is to draw linkages among these issues, build alliances, and go for systemic changes that go to the root causes of these social and economic problems.
As for how I came to embrace this as my life’s work, I guess it’s like the movie, ‘The Matrix.’ Once you swallow the blue pill, it’s hard to live your life any other way. My experience as an immigrant to the U.S. informs my understanding of how geopolitical relationships shape economies and influence the migration of people.
Growing up in a working class immigrant family further shaped my understanding of how race/ethnicity, class, gender, and citizenship influence political power, access to resources, and lived realities. It was growing up with little security, however, which motivated me to understand the causes of poverty and inequality and to pursue a path in social justice activism.
Once you have consciousness, it’s difficult to look away from injustices or to forget the struggles that came before us and those who sacrificed their lives to advance civil, human, and ecological rights.
As a policy analyst and a woman of color, do you ever feel that your expertise is typecast?
Absolutely. I think many women and women of color experience that in a society dominated by a white male paradigm. But it goes beyond race and gender—we’re a classist society, and one that’s deeply disconnected from our hearts.
I’m often typecast as an activist, and that comes with a certain de-legitimacy. I proudly wear that label, but sometimes it’s used to undermine my analysis as being emotionally or politically driven. I certainly hope that I’m outraged when I see that poor villagers in Pyongtaek, South Korea have their homes and farmland destroyed to accommodate the expansion of the U.S. military base. I wish more people connected their minds and hearts—this is what we need to have transformational change.
I have to ask: What news sources do you trust? Why?
For daily news I listen to Democracy Now! I also like NPR’s “On the Media” for a critical spin on headline news. I admit, I read the New York Times, but of course with a critical eye.
Tell me about the Women of Color Resource Center—and a certain antimilitarism fashion show back in 2005
The Women of Color Resource Center is a fantastic organization. I learned so much from the former executive director, Linda Burnham. In 2005, I was tasked to design a popular education curriculum on the relationship between gender and militarism. I spoke with some of the leading experts who advanced the linkage. Foremost on my list of people to call was Cynthia Enloe, who was incredibly warm and welcoming for someone in such high demand. (Disclosure: Enloe is on the advisory board of the Center for New Words)
We brainstormed how to discuss this in a publicly engaging way, and Cynthia asked me, “Did you see the cover of J.Crew?” She was referring to the camouflage that was omnipresent in the catalogue and everywhere in fashion at that time—which happened to be the beginning years of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. The idea of a fashion show was born.
In a nutshell, a handful of women came together, including the brilliant feminist organizer Gwyn Kirk, to devise the first ever anti-militarism fashion show. We designed three runways intermixed with dance and poetry. The first runway showed how much military attire had invaded our closets and become everyday clothing, from bomber jackets to cargo pants. We showed how everything had become camo, from baby onesies to cell phone covers.
The second runway showed the gendered elements of militarism. What we tried to show was how women have been complicit in militarization, either by playing the role of the patriotic mother and wife sending off their sons and husbands; by playing into the gendered role of the sexually pleasing performer, such as Marilyn Monroe performing for American troops; or as Rosie the Riveters working in the arms-building industry during WWII.
We used costumes as a way to educate the audience about how the first two-piece was named “bikini” by a Parisienne designer after the nuclear bombing tests off the coast of Bikini Atoll in the south Pacific. We also infused statistics about the number of Korean women who married U.S. soldiers, and the high rates of domestic violence and divorce.
But perhaps the most fun for me was designing a costume about the national budget. The outfit was called the “Military Budget.” The top half was a camouflaged chic jacket. The bottom half was a skirt that resembled a pie chart with slices of red, blue, green, purple, etc. These colored slices represented the other half of the national budget that went towards healthcare, education, transportation, energy, etc. But tucked between the colored slices was more camouflage to show how within the so-called civilian budgets was more allocation for military spending— such as the Department of Energy financing nuclear weapons research, or the Department of Transportation financing the Department of Homeland Security.
But there was more. Underneath the camouflage jacket, was a “tank” top that had the corporate U.S. flag, which I’m sure you’ve seen Instead of stars symbolizing states, there are corporate logos, such as Lockheed Martin, to represent where the bulk of military spending goes—to contractors who profit handsomely from war.
As you can tell, these issues warrant in-depth discussion and analysis, but the fashion show—held on a Tuesday in Oakland—brought in 450 people of all different backgrounds. It was an excellent way to convey that militarism has invaded our lives.
In an interview about the book you edited (Shafted: Free Trade and America’s Working Poor), you questioned: “When do we ever hear directly from working people—particularly low-wage working people like farmers, seamstresses, fisherman, migrant farm workers—what their lives are like?” How does that query affect your own work as a writer and an activist?
I try my best to bring in the perspectives of working people, of people who don’t have a voice in this unequal society. I wish I could do more.
So much of your writing has focused on free trade. What is the gender factor in these policies—how are people differently influenced by free trade? And how does that relate to who makes these policies in the first place?
I think your question answers itself. Who is making these decisions in the first place? And isn’t this getting old?
In all seriousness, the impacts of “free” trade and globalization has a serious gender and race dimension. If we look at NAFTA for example, millions of farmers are displaced by the dumping of U.S. subsidized corn. The result is the migration of millions to work in maquiladoras or to risk their lives crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The result is the displacement of families, communities, economies, and like most scenarios—women are expected to take on the additional role of finding resources for the family to survive while maintaining traditional female-household roles.
But there’s a more insidious aspect to globalization, which is the search for cheaper labor and lower regulations. In the case of U.S . corporations heading south and overseas, it’s documented that corporations institute preferential hiring of women because they tend to be less empowered from centuries of patriarchy.
Globalization doesn’t just mean factories in the U.S. moving abroad; it also means that there’s likely to be economic migration. That’s what we see in the U.S.—more Mexican and Latin American women have endangered their lives to come to this country for economic survival. Not only are many of them doing the low-wage work that most white Americans won’t do, but women of color and immigrant women are now doing the housework that male partners should share equally.
This is not progress in advancing women’s rights or feminism. And the worst thing is that this isn’t incidental. It’s the outcome of actual policies made by the very rich.
You once wrote: “Every single woman in the United States, whether she is aware of it or not, is impacted by the war in Iraq.” For the American woman who isn’t a politician or journalist, and doesn’t know a single person in the military, how do you describe the affect of the war?
All the issues that affect every one of us—education, health care, roads—is affected by the war. Every dollar spent on the military is money that’s not going to fund these essentials that make up a good society.
Not to digress, but what I don’t understand is why people who give over one-third of their income to the government don’t expect more—especially more accountability over how public dollars are spent. As I mentioned before, there are subtle ways that militarism poisons our expectations of our society and the role of our government. Not only are we spending billions of taxpayer dollars to produce arms, drop bombs to kill Iraqi civilians, and to send America’s low-income children abroad to kill, but by virtue of this behavior, we’re inciting other governments to behave in the same way to protect themselves from a U.S. military invasion.
And once America’s soldiers return home, many of them, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, perpetuate this violence onto their families and communities. We saw that earlier this month when the New York Times released an article on the rising rates of violent crimes committed by returning veterans who have been so damaged. This is the effect of the war on all of us.
In this presidential election year, what are your thoughts? How can women, especially women of color, work towards a truly participatory democracy?
It’s fantastic that issues of race and gender are discussed, but we need real discussion about class and the dominance of corporate interests, which Kucinich and Edwards are bringing into the debate.
As for women of color, I think the political process is too far removed for those who struggle to find living wage jobs and keep food on the table. I was glad to see the Nevada courts allowed caucuses to be held in the casinos so that service workers—most of them people of color—can vote.
We need more resources poured into political education, training young women of color in public speaking, media, community organizing—all tools that empower women of color to be involved in the political process and in decision-making circles.