Karen Buenavista Hanna
A: Tell us a little bit about yourself
K: I’m a mother, sister, partner, a friend, community member, a professor, writer, researcher, and teacher. I have been working at Connecticut College as an Assistant Professor for the past three years but an educator for almost 20 years now. Out of college in 2003 I started a job as a New York City public school teacher and was one for six years. Then I left the public school system and taught at the Brooklyn public library teaching adult education for another couple of years. My students were youth who were disconnected from the school system in some way- either were fulfilling juvenile detention requirements or had dropped out of high school. I also taught adults who were getting their GEDs. After that I decided to pursue my PhD and lived in California for almost seven years doing that.
I always knew I wanted to work with people in my community in some way. Before I went to college, I wanted to be a medical doctor but later decided it was not for me. I realized you can help people in other ways. I am a different kind of doctor now.
I am the child of immigrants who like so many other immigrants have worked so hard for the best for their children. My mom is from Bacolod, Philippines and my dad is from Chiangmai, Thailand but ethnically Chinese. My brother and I were born here in the United States. I was born in New Jersey and have lived in New York City for most of my adult life.
My parents met in Philadelphia. My mom didn’t intend to stay forever but then she met my dad and fell in love. She first worked as a nurse as part of the Visiting Exchange Program and has taken on multiple additional jobs to supplement her nursing salary throughout my life. My dad worked for a printing company for a long time where he faced a lot of racial discrimination. It made it challenging for him to find work after he left that job even with a college degree, and he went through a number of other jobs through the years. He was also on disability for a number of years. The positive side of my dad being on disability was that he was able to be very present for my school events growing up. A lot has been written about how many immigrant women are the breadwinners in their families and that has to do with what scholars call “the feminization of migration” due to the industries that demand racialized gendered immigrant labor typically performed by women of color. I would love to see research on the racialized and gendered labor patterns in the 1980s and 90s that affected Asian immigrant men like my dad. A lot of my friends’ fathers seem to have had a similar experience to mine.
I felt relatively sheltered from “in your face” types of racism growing up. I grew up in a middle class suburban town in South Jersey, which was predominantly white. But the racism was still there in subtle ways. One of my earliest memories was around first grade. When I shared with a white friend that I had a crush on a boy in our class, she asked me, “But what would your children look like?”, presumably because this boy was white and I was not. A couple of years later, when I was injured on the playground, a white classmate told me her mom said I didn’t cry “because I was Asian.” I remember feeling confused and frustrated. But because of the pressure to fit in and be liked by my white peers, I kept most of these thoughts to myself.
I experienced what felt like more direct forms of racism, which converged with sexism and classism, when I entered my PhD program at 30 years old. A lot of my classmates were children of professors so were more well versed in academic language than I was. Meanwhile my brother and I were the first in our family to pursue PhDs so the language and system of academia were new to me. Being a woman of color in academia meant being exposed to a daily onslaught of racist sexist and classist assumptions underestimating our intelligence and belittling the research we do.
I soon learned that this constant societal undermining can lead quickly to illness. During my second year of graduate school in 2013, I was diagnosed with a chronic incurable autoimmune condition called rheumatoid arthritis or RA in which the body’s immune system attacks its own joints to the point of deformity and disability when untreated. It progressed very quickly through my body and only a few months after diagnosis I was walking with a cane. Studies show that women are more likely to have RA than men and that stress can trigger the onset of RA. I believe that it was the racialized, gendered, classed stress I experienced in academia that led to the onset of my RA. I was fighting inside and outside of my body.
Since that time, I have devised a complex care regimen to control my RA that also includes very strong biweekly injections I give myself. One of the biggest worries I had when I was first diagnosed and seeking treatment was that I was not going to be able to pick up and carry my own child. Now I can, but it takes a lot of planning to do so and the ongoing awareness that I may lose that ability at any time.
What I learned from having an invisible chronic disability has helped me to survive and thrive in this capitalist system. I have learned to listen to my body in ways I don’t know I would have if I hadn’t gotten sick. I’ve been an overachiever all my life and overworked myself to the bone. RA forced me to face a lot of unhealthy patterns. I now constantly think about rest otherwise I won’t be able to function the next day.
Another thing I learned is how important it is for people to have agency in their lives when they feel hopeless. I was completely against pharmaceutical drugs when I was first diagnosed but eventually came to agree to it. It had to be on my own terms. If I hadn’t finally decided to use these drugs I would not be able to walk right now, so I am grateful for them as much as I hate taking them.
I think about how unhealthy society is and how toxic stress, racism, and poverty leads to illness. In other words, this society is literally disabling. Stacy Milburn, a mixed race Korean American disabled wheelchair user and Disability Justice activist in the Bay area who passed away a couple of years ago, talks about the difference between impairments and disability in a way that I think is really brilliant. She said that “impairment is a physical or neurological manifestation. Meanwhile disability is what society creates as a barrier because of impairment.” In other words, the problem is not a person’s body-mind, but it is the structure of capitalist society that is disabling. Now that I have RA, I see the ways that society is structured for a universal abled body-mind. And as a mother with RA, my impairments are even more exacerbated and become barriers when I’m out in the world. For example, if I have a flare and can’t carry my baby’s stroller up the stairs in a subway station with no elevator, what am I going to do?
While I became chronically ill in graduate school, I ended up coming out as queer as well. Not everybody in my life knows how I identify since I have a cis, straight, male partner. It’s an identity that isn’t obvious to people who don’t know me well.
A. What does it mean to be queer to you?
K. For me being queer is about being sexually attracted to people of different genders while also having a political consciousness that includes thinking about and striving for alternative societal arrangements that challenge the gender binary and patriarchal conventions. It means challenging what is considered normal to some but oppressive to others, like following a hetero-normative script of the nuclear family, which is a remnant of colonialism. There is queerness in building communities of care where children have a lot of people in their lives who care for them instead of just their parents. I also think a lot about how I raise Tino so that I’m not forcing them into a gendered box.
A: When did you realize you were queer?
K: I started thinking about it around 10 years ago. For most of my life I just assumed I was straight because I was taught there was no other way. Various things made me reconsider my sexuality. After that I started identifying as questioning and later identifying as queer. There has been a reclaiming of the term bisexual, so sometimes I say that or even Bi+, which honors the legacy of the term bisexual while also recognizing there are more than just two genders. Bisexual implies there’s only two.
A: What ethnicity do you identify with?
K: I’m Filipino, Thai, Chinese American. Because of my research I know a lot more about Filipino history and culture though. Growing up I had a lot of Filipino friends but didn’t know very many Thai people. My dad is ethnically Chinese but he was born and raised in Thailand.
A: What do you think about the term people of color?
K: I’m okay with it. I get the intention behind the term. The labels don’t matter as much as the anti-racist work that’s being done. You can critique a term, but what work are you doing to transform societal structures and anti Blackness in your communities? That to me is more important than the term itself, but I’m also compassionate to folks who use language to empower themselves rather than bring down folks who want to use that language.
There’s a term Filipinx coined by queer, transgender, and nonconforming folks in the Filipino diaspora. There are cis and straight people critiquing the X who don’t realize the history of the term originating from people who are marginalized within Filipino communities. I think it’s important to respect people’s self-determination in choosing and changing language in a society which has historically erased and undermined them.
It reminds me of the origins of the term Asian American as a radical term of self-determination. It was created in the 60’s by activists from different Asian backgrounds, who were student organizers, fighting for Ethnic Studies and Third World Studies in California. They recognized racial discrimination uniting people of Asian decent because white people couldn’t distinguish the difference between people from different Asian countries. They were inspired by third world liberation movements happening at that time such as Cuba that were fighting against US colonial occupation, inspired by the Vietnamese people fighting against the US military during the Vietnam War. The term has become diluted from its political and radical origins. The term Asian American started as a term of empowerment replacing the term Oriental which was placed upon us.
In 1968, the Asian model minority came about at the same time as the Black Panther movement. Asians have been painted as this homogenous, well to do stereotype. In fact Asians have one of the highest poverty rates in New York City.
A: Do you consider yourself an atypical Asian?
K: What is a typical Asian? Yes, I’m atypical from the stereotype. But a stereotype is a caricature and it’s not real. So aren’t all Asians atypical? I think people who seem very stereotypical, but if we got to know them really well I bet you would probably find many distinguishing factors that make them different from that stereotype, from that homogenous idea of what an Asian is.
A: What message do you want to impart to people about Asians?
K: I would love people to know that Asians have a fierce and vibrant radical history. We’ve been a part of multi racial activist struggles. We have fought for our rights and the rights of others. Like other immigrants, Filipinos for generations have shown we are really strong and creative people who can make a lot out of a little.
There’s a stereotype of Filipinos as being resilient, as being the life of the party, cooking amazing food, and being generous in spirit. We love to laugh and we are joyful.
Talking about resiliency without talking about the hardship that our communities and our families have endured would be reinforcing the model minority stereotype. And it would be rendering invisible the unnatural circumstances that have led so many of us to migrate and led to the exploitation of so many Filipinos. It also naturalizes climate change. To say that the Philippines is resilient every time we have a typhoon without talking about the root causes of its destruction ignores the fact that these typhoons wouldn’t be destroying the country if there weren’t industries of deforestation clearing out the land and trees that would otherwise be deflecting the impact of these storms. Many of our positive characteristics are survival tactics we have learned and use to deal with centuries of colonial occupation and some of them have been exploited to continue these same colonial dynamics.
For example, there is a stereotype that Filipinos are happy people, hardworking and very family oriented. How does that stereotype promote the industry of Filipino caregiving that is underpaying Filipino nannies? We know of a nanny who was employed and took care of a family and after 30 years. When the family no longer needed her, she wasn’t given any compensation and was sent back to the Philippines.
A: What are your hopes and dreams?
K: I feel like my life’s project has shifted since I became a mom. I hope my child Tino will be a good person who does good work for himself and others. My research is around recovering stories of people who are fighting and creating forms of resistance and radical potential in different ways. One of those ways is by being a parent. As a parent I now truly understand the radical potential of parenting, which can’t be totally policed or controlled. In our private moments together, I hope that I am imparting wisdom and igniting a fighting spark in Tino to make the world a better place.