Art, Identity, & Sexuality: The Stories of Yellow Jackets Collective
Welcome to the first article on the ongoing series, "This is Asia-America," where we’ll dive into the stories of unique Asian-American individuals living across the States and/or the Asian continent.
I realized very early on in my travels that I wouldn’t be able to truly comprehend a holistic view of Asian culture and identity without sitting down with the folks who’ve descended from Asian cultures and hear their unique experiences on living between two worlds.
Yellow Jackets Collective naturally was a first choice for me to interview. I first saw this group back in 2017 at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts Brown Paper Zine & Small Press Art Fair. I immediately felt a strong kinship towards their passion in connecting with marginalized communities, especially within the art world.
On a warm evening night in Brooklyn, I had the honor to sit down with the four members of Yellow Jackets Collective, Parissah, Michelle, Esther and Grace, to hear firsthand their experiences as self-described, “queer Yellow American femmes” living in America.
Can everyone introduce themselves, so we can get to know you all better individually?
Parissah: In writing, I take a lot of personal pleasure in my racial, ethnic, and sexual identity to be kind of inscrutable. So when I write artist bios or talk to strangers I identify as a queer child of immigrants living in America or Turtle Island. When I’m talking to other folks I want them to see me as Asian-American with an Iranian mother and Taiwanese father and also a queer women/person of color living on Turtle Island. But I mostly identify as brown, honestly.
Esther: I do use "Asian-American" quite a lot. Also "queer person of color." Pronouns "she" or "they." I use “she” for convenience so I don’t have to deal with people at work, but I don’t completely identify with it. So I’m easing into "they." And "yellow." I think I use that more freely when I’m in communities that I know and people that we work with often. Also, I’m from the East Coast.
Michelle: I’m the “mom” in the collective. I use she/they/them pronouns as well. "Queer." "Yellow." "Diasporic." I say “bitter melon” a lot since [its association with] Chinese food and I really identify as a really bitter person [laughs]. As a collective, we all identify as Asian-American only when we’re doing accountability work, since that ties us to a history of anti-blackness that’s important [to acknowledge] and situating ourselves with assimilation projects, but mostly as a collective we identify as yellow. I personally identify that way too.
Grace: I’m Grace. Like what Michelle was saying, for easiness I’ll use "Asian-American." But sometimes it’s good to assert who you are – so with a lot of folks I’ll say I’m “diasporic Korean” and use that sort of academic language with them and force them to know what that means. I think "first-generation American" is also very specific, because that’s not only just Asian, but also first-gen and there’s something within first-gen [that’s different in comparison to] second and third. Having met a lot of second-gen people recently, I’m like, 'Woah, you guys are completely different. Even though you’re Asian.' I think I’m starting to identify more as fluid. That’s not really my sexuality, it’s more so my gender. I would like for everyone to see all pronouns in me. That’s my goal.
I know you’ve done a few projects on intersectionality in the past, anything coming up?
Grace: We just met with this Southeastern DJ, Ushamami. We’re planning on making some kind of Pan-Asian queer party. We want to play with live music elements and working around the idea “What Can Asia-America Sound Like?” as a party theme.
Michelle: I think we’re so lucky, since all the work we’ve done has been really collaborative. But we want to figure out what we’re doing, who we are, and what we’re trying to bring even when people aren’t tapping us. One of the questions I want to ask in our upcoming podcast we’re doing is: “What does Asia-America sound like?” because I feel like a lot of people talk about things like diversity – and I don’t really care about that. I want to understand how we can communicate and collaborate in a way that produces new music. Because what a lot of people have said to me is, ‘Well there are many different types of Asian-Americans, but there isn’t one sound.’
But when you see how black folks in this country learned to make music and collaborate and create specific sounds across the decades – and there are many different kinds of black people in this country too – they’ve done an incredible job of movement building and music. Asian-Americans have got to stop relying on this idea on “Well, what is “Pan-Asia”?
Parissah: I think it’s interesting because we don’t know actually how to talk about intersectionality even though the first people we collaborated with was a black and Asian collective. I think it’s really interesting because a lot of these specific pockets of Asian-Americans, especially in urban spaces are almost separatist movements like Chinatown. Due to waves of migration and legitimate reasons for people moving around the world, there are these isolated pockets in places that are really diverse. And then because of the way white supremacy works, East Asians are placed next to black folks a lot and often pitted against each other, like the thing that just happened in Flatbush.
And then, it’s really hard to be proud of an Asian-American identity without addressing a lot of history of violence. So it’s also just learning how to see ourselves, since all of us here have been so traumatized by our East-Asianness, by our families, and by the way other people have interacted with our bodies. And understanding our queerness. At least for me, it was much easier talking to you guys about being queer than it was about being Asian-American and the fact that I have a Taiwanese dad.
We were talking about Remix Culture [earlier] and they are doing a lot of projects.They’ve done immigration, climate change and queer activism. They’re more comfortable calling themselves a DJ around the past year – because they don’t see what they’re doing as something new, they always think of it as reassembling and re-accumulating knowledge, which is the same way we work. We want people who are activated by meeting us. People who are activated by wanting a set of four hands to come and hold East-Asians accountable or hold lighter-skinned queer folks accountable; which I think is the most intersectional work we can do.
Reflecting back to what Parissah said, that it was easier for you to discuss being a queer person than an Asian-American woman. Do you feel like you were more aware of your sexuality before your cultural/racial identity? Or was it the reverse?
Esther: That question made me think about being three years old and being really gay [laughs]. But that was an access point into my core, because before I was even able to form any concepts or ideas of my identity I just knew that I was gay. And I know that it’s different for a lot of queer people, especially queer people in our community. But I think for all of us here, it was an easier language for us to speak with our bodies and our presentation and just the energy we give off.
Grace: I think of me coming into my body and understanding the things it could do, pleasure-wise, in like 8th grade. And didn’t do anything until like, late high school. But when it comes to gender, I knew very early on that in terms of gender and race that I was a Korean girl. And Korean women and girls were supposed to act a certain way – that was always very clear to me as an identity. When I was younger at least. So….before sexuality there was gender, that was the first step.
Michelle: I identified as asexual for a while, because I didn’t know what to call it. Later I identified more as sexually dormant, like demi-sexual. Having this feeling that I was this non-presence or non-body a lot while living in the South, because everything was black and white. And also not being attracted to the people I was told to be attracted to and that was confusing for me.
I think I knew very early on what I was racially, because I felt like such a non-presence, like a ghost. I remember this book that Celeste Ng wrote called, Everything I Never Told You and there was this one part – this Asian-American girl talks about how she grew up in the Midwest. She was talking about how she was sitting in class and they were watching movie when this horrible, racist “Oriental” character pops up and everyone laughed and looked at her. She realized in that moment she didn’t look like everyone else. But it took everyone else telling her to realize because she had grown up in a white space, and identified with her environment.
I think for me too, I think someone had to tell me, when I was like four years old for me to realize. I remember having to be told that I wasn’t white and then realizing, 'Oh, then what am I?' Because I knew I wasn’t black and there wasn’t an Asian community where I was either. But sexuality, that came very late for me.
Parissah: So at a young age I knew I was Iranian and Chinese because of specific cultural practices. I just knew there was a set of things that were supposed to belong to me and that my parents weren’t born here. And the fact my body looks so much different than my parents’ bodies, because I’m darker than both of them. So my early understanding of race were people being really confused of why my dad was picking me up from school. And that was really confusing to me, not seeing my familial connection and that [skin tone] being one of the early markers of me being racialized. But I didn’t have the chance to talk about it, and hearing, 'This is what Iranian people do.' and 'This is what Taiwanese people do.'
And then, queerness came to me in high school even before I desired anyone else or felt desirable. So I thought, 'OK, you must be queer if you don’t want a boyfriend.' Queerness was my community in high school, we would go to Pride together and these sober dances - it was synonymous with being ‘uncool.’ And so in that way I was able to develop language around that since a lot of more people were able to share that experience.
I also went to a prep school, all the Asian-Americans at that time had a really specific version of what type of “Asian” they were – they went to Chinese school, they had tiger moms, and they were expected to be the best at everything, and the ones who were half-white were sexually desirable. And I didn’t fall into either category. I didn’t connect well with all the Middle-Easterners there since they were extremely rich and really invested in “whiteness.” So I didn’t have a racial community, I only had a queer community. I didn’t have a racial community until I joined Yellow Jackets.
Grace: For me, there’s this trait that the gay male community talks about a lot, especially the white gay community, called “gay perfectionism.” The idea is that you’re gay and grow up knowing that you are, so you have to be perfect in everything – or else people are going to know. And when that happens your whole world will crumble. So for me, I was the student body president, I was the tennis team captain, I was everything because I just felt like I needed to be - not in the [stereotypical] Asian-American way, but because I was queer.
Queer is something so political and Western here in America and in New York. For me I’ve realized queer is spiritual. It’s a spiritual identity for me. I want to push my queerness into a more spiritual language than just identity and sexuality.
Parissah: I totally understand that – that’s a similar way that I felt. Knowing you had to be better – and not knowing the words for what that “thing” was. Realizing there was something that made you not automatically fall into the track you’re “supposed” to be on - so you’ve got to be better than everyone else. I was captain of the field hockey team –
Grace: That’s gayer than tennis.
Last question for you all – as a person of color who is trying to be a good ally towards others within the Asian diaspora, what tips do you have for us to become better allies?
Grace: I feel like we’re always trying to do work on bringing in other Asian folks into accountability ideas and conversations, rather than the other way around.
Parissah: At this moment in time I don’t feel like it’s Asian-Americans who need allies, it’s needing everyone to get together and build a future that’s not dependent on whiteness or straightness. For me, the most valuable times are when we allow ourselves to have really honest spaces. Building a better future is being able to hear other people’s experiences.
Michelle: In the handful of interviews that I’ve done, I always bring up the quote that Parissah says, so I’m going to do it again. She says, “I don’t want people to necessarily understand me, I want them to believe me.” It’s one thing to understand someone, and it’s another thing to hear that someone is afraid for their community and has real experiences and anxieties on how it’s like to live in their body. And to hear that in their voice and just believe them. To believe people when they tell you that things have been hard on them, that they feel pain.
James Baldwin’s birthday just passed, and a quote that I think about all the time is the one from Fire Next Time, where he says, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” He then says, “I use the word "love" here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace - not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
And I think about that a lot. If you want to change your own politics you have to think about who you love in a day-to-day level. Even in your personal life, when people ask you to change your behavior, do you listen to them? Do you slow down and take a minute to think, “I’ve hurt this person that I care about, what am I doing wrong? What can I do better?”
Parissah: For me, I’ve realized I need to create this balance on building new intimacies with people, creating bonds where I genuinely care about a person and love beyond immediate happiness. Comfort and care in a way that reminds a person that you have an investment in their future where we’re growing in a healthy way. And trying to extend that to strangers as much as I can. When we all started Michelle used to talk about feminized labor, and that’s a language we are working on now, but historically “feminized labor” is slower and has to do with care. It has to do with feeding, and holding people after they’ve been hurt or hurt by someone else. We go and we talk to the public a lot, and I don’t always feel good about it, but I always feel good when we feed people. So that’s been the thing that’s been across the board, trying to build intimacy and trust with people and holding them as close as you can.