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Jeneé Osterheldt | Commentary

They said it with a T-shirt: Angry Asian Girls. Then they took action

Jeneé Osterheldt in conversation with Angry Asian Girls
Editor: Caitlin Healy/Globe Staff, Video: Caitlin Healy and Anush Elbakyan/Globe Staff, Photo: Nathan Klima for the Boston Globe

It was more than a shirt. It was a call to disrupt a misguided mystique assigned to Asian women.

No more images of the docile, voiceless Asian woman with a smile. Fire the overachieving Asian stereotype. Hard stop on calling Asian women “cute” and “kawaii.”

In bold capital letters, the words “Angry Asian Girls” poured across the heart of the T-shirt over and over again like the repeated message on a plastic Thank You bag.

But this wasn’t something to throw away. The message served righteous rage.

Dahn Bi Lee-Hong and Katytarika Bartel helped create the tees as members of the Asian American Women’s Political Initiative fellowship program in 2016.

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Lee-Hong was a student at Simmons University. Bartel was at Emerson College.

The shirt was meant to raise funds and visibility for Asian-American women in politics. At least, that’s how it started.

Dahn Bi Lee-Hong, Katytarika Bartel, and Lucky Li of Angry Asian Girls.
Dahn Bi Lee-Hong, Katytarika Bartel, and Lucky Li of Angry Asian Girls.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

In one summer, the shirts raised $3,000. The mantra sparked a movement of its own. Instagram pictures led to an online celebration of women’s voices. It also invited conversation about anger and representation.

“What does it mean to disrupt a space and wear a shirt that says something like ‘Angry Asian Girls’?” says Lee-Hong, 24. “It quickly politicizes itself. Not everyone who bought a tee was ready to have those conversations.”

“What does it mean to disrupt a space and wear a shirt that says something like ‘Angry Asian Girls’?” Dahn Bi Lee-Hong says. “It quickly politicizes self. Not everyone who bought a tee was ready to have those conversations.”
“What does it mean to disrupt a space and wear a shirt that says something like ‘Angry Asian Girls’?” Dahn Bi Lee-Hong says. “It quickly politicizes self. Not everyone who bought a tee was ready to have those conversations.”Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

An Instagram page led to meet-ups, and meet-ups led to organizing. Founded by Lee-Hong and Bartel, Angry Asian Girls celebrated its third anniversary as a collective last month.

The mission is to empower Asian and Pacific Islander Americans and build a community that represents the nuances of APIA identity and APIA queer identity.

Representation is changing. There are more and more APIA people in Congress. In entertainment, the storytelling didn’t stop with “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” and “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.” It won’t stop with Sandra Oh’s Golden Globe win.

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From Disney movies to rom-coms to family sitcoms, there is more versatility in Asian roles. We have “Aladdin,” “Always Be My Maybe,” and “Kim’s Convenience.”

When the children’s show “Blue’s Clues & You” debuts on Nick Jr. this fall, it will star Filipino-American Broadway star Joshua Dela Cruz.

But how do we ensure growing roles in government and on screen doesn’t happen for only a moment, that it translates to our everyday lives?

Last year, a study by University of Massachusetts psychology professor Karen Suyemoto and University of California senior staff psychologist Shruti Mukkamala found most Asian-American women face racism as Asian-Americans and sexism as women.

Stereotypes like the deceitful Dragon Lady or the hypersexualized Geisha still plague them.

Out of the 107 participants in the study, only four never experienced discrimination.

Angry Asian Girls exists to combat the stereotypes. It does that by creating visibility on social media through images and hashtags. Through workshops with colleges and other activist organizations, the group helps with voting rights, wellness workshops, and more.

Last month, it hosted a Angry Asian Girls LGBTQIA party for people of color at the Museum of Fine Arts Late Nites event.

Every week, AAG hosts “office hours.” Except there is no office. The group invites anyone who’s interested to meet up for two hours at coffee shops and lounges around Boston. They hold poetry nights, paint nights, and roundtable discussions.

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“We didn’t want to just be another feminist fashion brand. The shirts are a catalyst for growth,” Katytarika Bartel says.
“We didn’t want to just be another feminist fashion brand. The shirts are a catalyst for growth,” Katytarika Bartel says.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

“We didn’t want to just be another feminist fashion brand. The shirts are a catalyst for growth,” says Bartel, 24. “Office hours started out of a desire to address questions we’ve been asked, have conversations people want to have, and a dedication to physical-space building. People are surprised when they see us.”

Sometimes that shock is because some Asian-Americans have never had a space where they can be their whole selves, no stereotypes added.

There’s also a misconception of AAG raging instead of sharing poems and creating. People forget that self-love and love of one another can be a revolutionary act in a society that does not love you. Other times, the astonishment comes from the unapologetic nature of the name alone: Angry Asian Girls.

“In Boston, a historically white city, one of the most segregated cities in United States, people expect you to compartmentalize,” Lee-Hong says. “To only bring part of yourself. I’m an Asian, queer artist, and organizer, and intersectional feminist, and they are like, ‘Umm?’ ”

More than a few white people have asked them, “What do you have to be angry about?”

Stereotypes. The patriarchy. The complicated myth of the model minority. A blanket identity for people who span dozens of countries. An exclusionary kind of mainstream Asian representation that leaves out biracial, adopted, queer, and darker-skinned APIA people.

“I am read as brown first,” says Bartel, who is a mixed-race white and Thai American and uses the pronouns she/they. “It’s not until I tell someone I’m Asian that those stereotypes are projected onto me.”

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Growing up in California and New York, she identified with the black and brown community.

And when the family moved to Connecticut and Bartel went to a mostly white high school, along came the interrogating stares. That same confusion came from relatives who didn’t understand why she “dressed like a boy.”

The AAWPI fellowship was an awakening.

“I felt this overwhelming welcome and sense of community,” Bartel says. “It was a journey of undoing and unlearning around being mixed race and Asian. What I love about AAG is now we have more mixed race folk involved in our organization.”

As their collective grows, more and more Asians feel welcome.

“A lot of people say they didn’t realize they needed this so badly until they found us,” Lucky Li says.
“A lot of people say they didn’t realize they needed this so badly until they found us,” Lucky Li says.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

For Lucky Li, the Angry Asian Girls community means gaining confidence. The 22-year-old joined the collective shortly after it started as director of programming.

“A lot of people say they didn’t realize they needed this so badly until they found us,” says Li, who uses the pronouns they/them. “I’m a Chinese-American immigrant from Guangzhou. I grew up in New Hampshire in a town called Deerfield. It’s 0.3 percent Asian. And when I was 8, that was probably just me and my mom.”

Dahn Bi Lee-Hong, Katytarika Bartel, and Lucky Li.
Dahn Bi Lee-Hong, Katytarika Bartel, and Lucky Li.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

It wasn’t until they came to Boston for school at Simmons that changed. Meeting other Asians and eventually joining AAG empowered them.

“I feel comfortable asserting my identity,” Li says. “My story is not unlike many of our stories but it is mine and it’s inspiring to know it’s worth being told.”

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Lee-Hong, who uses the pronouns they/them, didn’t have a problem with otherness.

Raised in Los Angeles in a huge Korean-American community with activists for parents, they had a strong sense of self.

Coming to Boston felt like a cinch.

“I thought, ‘I can go there and build up a community,’ ” Lee-Hong says. “I went in guns blazing. ready to run a coup. I thought I would be president of the Asian Student Association by the end of freshman year. I did it by senior year.”

But the community on campus wasn’t as imagined.

“I faced people at Simmons saying things like, ‘You have something to say? That’s weird.’ Or ‘You have really strong opinions.’ Even if I said something relatively neutral, it was perceived as so radical.”

Pro-tip: Asian-American women are people. They have voices.

Angry Asian Girls activism is about equity, respect, and basic human rights.

“As a queer-presenting person, my parents raised us without gender constraints,” Lee-Hong says. “I’ve had men ask me if I’m trans, if I’m bi, misgender me, and refer to me as sir. It’s about claiming space. Angry Asian Girls encourages people to tell their own stories. Who are you as a queer Asian person?”

Be that person. No boxes. In AAG, they want you to be whoever you are, wherever you are in your Asian identity — with love. Because anger in the face of injustice is love.

And when looking for your people, know the Angry Asian Girls are there. Smiles optional.

Katytarika Bartel, Lucky Li, and Dahn Bi Lee-Hong.
Katytarika Bartel, Lucky Li, and Dahn Bi Lee-Hong.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.