Dr. Mai Khanh Tran: Slaying Giants

Last Friday, I met up with Dr. Mai Khanh Tran, who’s running for the House of Representatives in California’s 39th Congressional District. Our meetup took place only a few hours after news outlets reported the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School outside of Houston.

Chatting in Rowland Heights.

Feminist Asian Dad (F.A.D.): That high school is less than 15 miles from my own.

Dr. Tran: I’m so heartbroken by what’s happening. With all the shootings that we’ve had, I actually thought about not taking my daughter to school today. It’s really sad; when my husband and I were looking for a preschool, we weren’t really thinking about how good the school or curriculum was, but about how safe it was. We wanted to know how many gates and how many barriers there would be on the outside. As a mother and a pediatrician, this breaks my heart so badly. And when is it going to end? I think it’s going to end only when we have people courageous enough to speak up against the NRA’s bullying.

I saw that you posted something online for First Lady Melania Trump this morning.

I wrote her a note saying, “As a mother, to really fight against bullying, you can help us protect all the children in this country and give them the same security that your family and your son have. Be true to your message by standing up to the NRA bullies. How can children be their best when they’re worried about being shot at, or their parents are worried about sending their kids to school?”

One of the girls at Santa Fe High School was interviewed on the news, and she said that she just expected it would one day happen at her school, kind of like it was inevitable.

What a sad statement for a high schooler to have to make.

Santa Fe High School
Again. This time: Santa Fe, Texas. How many more? (Photo: NBC)

What would you do in Congress to take on the NRA and pass legislation to make our schools and neighborhoods safer?

I’ve been a pediatrician for 25 years. During office visits, I talk about gun safety, just like I would talk about child-proofing a house. It’s part of the daily conversations we have with our patients and their families. When I’m in Congress, I will say that gun violence is a public health crisis and an epidemic. We need to approach it the same way as any other epidemic. If we have a measles outbreak, what do we do? We use scientific data, go to the source, and contain the problem. We need to have the same approach to gun violence, and that has not been done. I think when you put it in that language, you change the conversation and take away a lot of the rhetoric about rights. It’s not an attempt to take away the Second Amendment. This is a public health crisis; let’s treat it like that and use our public health resources scientifically.

The gun violence epidemic would seem to include a huge number of suicides, too.

Yes, along with domestic violence. We haven’t presented the gun violence issue in a way that people can understand that this is about their well being and health.

Would you favor an assault weapons ban?

Oh, absolutely. Ban assault weapons and bump stocks. Raise the age limit. Have comprehensive background checks, especially when it comes to mental health. In pediatrics, when we have child abuse cases, we have providers and teachers reporting. We need to have the same when it comes to guns. And we need red flag laws that are federal, not just state.

How does being a mom and a pediatrician inform not only your views on gun reform, but also on other issues?

I’m running for two five year olds. The first is my daughter, who is five and a half. I went through breast cancer twice, so I had to do eight rounds of IVF to have her. She’s the love of my life! I’m running because I want her to feel as American as everyone else. I want her to see a face like hers in a place of power.

Dr. Tran's Mommy Daughter Selfie

I came here as a nine-year-old refugee. The vision of America I had when I first came is so different from the one my daughter is seeing right now. I was part of an airlift of orphans and disabled children out of Vietnam.

As part of Operation Babylift before the fall of Saigon?

Yes, my parents had dropped my siblings and me off at an orphanage. The only thing I remember from that day is that my dad was wearing sunglasses. He’s a former judge, and he’s so proper that he didn’t usually wear sunglasses. I kept looking at him wondering why he was. Then as he was leaving, I saw tears coming down behind the sunglasses; he wore them to hide his tears. My parents didn’t think they would see us again.

After arriving in the U.S., we were carried off the plane by American soldiers. The soldier who carried me represented everything good about this country to me. It had been a long, horrible flight, and I was so scared and felt so lost. And this man came and carried me. That’s the kind of country I remember in my heart, one that’s welcoming and kind, caring for those in need. That’s not the America I know my daughter is seeing. So I’ve got to run for her. I’ve got to.

This iconic image shows Vietnamese children looking out the windows of an Operation Babylift airplane. (Photo: AP)

The other five year old is a patient I saw the day after the election in 2016. That morning, I held my own daughter and wept; I didn’t want to get out of bed. But like a lot of parents, I had to. When I walked into my office, all my nurses were weeping. And then one of my first patients was this girl who had a brain tumor. Her mother works at a nail salon and doesn’t get health insurance from her employer. But she had just gotten insurance because of the Affordable Care Act, right before her daughter was diagnosed. I looked at this mom, and we just burst into tears. We cried like you wouldn’t believe. I said, “We’ve got to start fighting.” As a pediatrician, I see on the front lines every day the impact on families of not having health care.

I also cried the morning after the election.

I’ve never wept like that. It’s deep and makes no sound.

On Election Day, my 85-year-old mom, my daughter, and I got dressed up and took pictures because my mom was going to vote for her first female president. We thought my four year old would have, for her first time, a female president.

The election was brutal.

You announced your candidacy when it was still thought that any Democrat would have to take on Ed Royce.

People asked me, “Do you want to commit ‘political suicide’?”

He’s the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

One of the most powerful incumbents.

Then he surprised everyone and announced that he was done after 25 years in office. Now, you’re going up against 16 other candidates.

A lot of people ask me why I think I can do this. I’m a fighter! I came over here as part of the airlift and got fostered out to a family –

And after your parents made it here, y’all had to do some desperate things to make ends meet.

We were in rural Oregon, so we picked berries beside other migrant families.

Dr. Tran Harvard
With her proud dad at Harvard.

And you had other rather interesting jobs to pay the bills, all the way into college.

I was actually a security guard! And I cleaned the bathrooms in the athletes’ dorm at Harvard; they were the dirtiest places! The men there also threw away a lot of stuff. I remember picking up a lamp that they had thrown out, and fixing it, and putting it in my room. There was also a cassette player I got from there. Whatever they threw out, I would try to salvage and make the most of it. So I worked as a security guard and cleaned dorms; I also read for blind people.

That’s what we do when we’re given the opportunity. My story isn’t really anything different from what a lot of refugees and immigrants, like those in Little Saigon, have to go through. But I was grateful for the opportunity, and I worked hard. I’m a fighter.

I also fought cancer twice, and I fought for my daughter, going through those eight rounds of IVF. I don’t think most men would survive the pain of all the injections and other procedures!

No one has to convince me that women have a higher tolerance for pain than men do.

But I still get that question when I go out and knock on doors: “Why do you think you can get to Congress?”

I’ll bet that’s partly because folks aren’t used to seeing an Asian woman in Congress. They don’t know about Patsy Mink and other fierce women like her.

When people told me running would be “political suicide,” I said, “Maybe it will take a little lady to slay the giant.” It’s time that we change the narrative and bring a different perspective. You can do anything with the heart and steel in you; it’s not about being flashy or your size.

Here’s a visual: I can see Mother Teresa slaying a giant. That’s the message I want my daughter to have, and what I want the community to understand. We can get things done by compassion and strength.

Dr. Tran with Chloe
Actress and activist Chloe Bennet confesses her surprise that Dr. Tran worked as a security guard to pay the bills at Harvard, in this still from their recent interview for (RUN).

The president has made it clear that he sees not only undocumented folks as a problem for our country, but legal immigrants, too, because he wants to dramatically cut legal immigration. If you could, what would you say to him about the value of immigrants?

A lot! But I’d say, “I’ll be forever grateful for this country, for the people who gave me a secure place to live, and for all the opportunities. Stop vilifying us! Give immigrants a helpful hand, and you’ll have a nation that’s grateful to you.”

And DACA recipients, those who were brought here with no control of their own, should be given their documents. We’ve invested so much into them, and they don’t know life anywhere else. I wouldn’t know what to do if I had to go back to Vietnam right now, either!

For family reunification that so many of us have benefited from, let’s expedite the legal immigration process, the visa application process, and the asylum seeker process. And about separating families, I heard about that asylum seeker who was separated from her five year old, with the little girl going halfway across the country to stay in a detention center. I have to ask, “How is that humane?” Let’s have comprehensive immigration reform that’s truly humane.

The announcement that the Trump Administration will put in jail every parent who comes into the U.S. illegally, sending each kid away, makes me think of what you went through after the fall of Saigon. You didn’t know for months whether you’d see your parents, ever again. These kids don’t either.

It’s so traumatic to a child. Why do they have to do that? Why is that even part of the conversation, separating families?

Dr. Tran Filing
Three generations of Americans.

If I could switch gears a bit – you’ve talked before about your husband’s support.

When I went and filed for my congressional race, I had my mom and daughter with me. I put up my hand and did the swearing in, and I shared that picture on International Women’s Day. But that night I looked at it and thought, “Where is my husband?” I felt really bad that the picture just had my mom, my daughter, and me! So I went back and found a picture of my husband at the Women’s March, carrying a banner that said, “Elect More Women.” I posted that online and wrote that the other picture wouldn’t even be possible without my husband, who not only marched, but he’s cleaned, and cooked, and looked after my five year old while I’ve been campaigning. It’s not just the moms and grandmothers who are getting our daughters to believe and find strength in themselves, but it’s all the strong and supportive men who are helping us to advance the message that boys and girls are all capable.

Being a feminist man is all about being an ally and boosting the signal for women.

I give my husband so much credit. And I want to make sure that my daughter understands that, too. It’s not that we meant to leave Daddy out of the picture, but his support is genuine. It’s hard to teach daughters to want partners like that. Our society still puts so much emphasis, like when I was growing up, on finding a partner with achievements, success, money, and power.

Dr. Tran Fourth of July
Celebrating the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” just like their shirts say.

I know you have to go, but I wanted to close by thanking you for running. I know you’re running in part for your daughter; I feel like you’re running for my daughters, too. Like you, I really want my girls to see faces like their own in office.

It’s also so clear to me that if the voters of this district want to send a message that they reject Trumpism, they’ll vote for you. Your life story is a repudiation of his policies and rhetoric – as a refugee and immigrant, as someone who works in health care and who’s had to fight insurance companies for your own treatment, as an award-winning small business owner, as a woman, as a person of color. Thank you for running!

Oh, thank you! That means a lot.

For more on Dr. Tran’s life, achievements, and what she’ll do as the California 39th’s representative, visit her campaign website at DocTran2018.com. You can also connect with her on social media via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And remember to vote on Tuesday, June 5!

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Pièce de Résistance


It’s one of the most powerful moments in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s brilliant play Fairly Traceable:

Erin, a young Native American environmental lawyer, explains to her also-Native ex-boyfriend why she must one day have children.

Earlier, she had argued in court that the oil industry should be liable for its role in the global warming that energized Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, storms that set records for their destruction and power in 2005. It’s an intensely personal matter for her. She’s a descendant of the Chitimacha Indians and a member of the small Pointe-au-Chien tribe, which experienced devastating losses when those storms smashed into coastal Louisiana.

Speaking with her ex Randy, Erin invokes the long history of American oppression against indigenous peoples:

Climate change isn’t the reason I can’t have kids. It’s the reason I have to have them. If I, as a Chitimacha woman, if I decide to not have kids, well, I’m just helping the United States government finish what it couldn’t quite complete a hundred years ago.

It hit me as an audience member, through my tears and sniffles, that for Erin, having and raising Pointe-au-Chien children would be an act of defiance. As I sat with my own thoughts the next day, it hit me that this scene very much speaks to my being a dad during the Trump administration. It tells me that raising children can be an act of resistance.

Jason Grasl and Kyla Garcia
Randy (Jason Grasl) and Erin (Kyla Garcia) at a happy point in their relationship. (Photo: Native Voices at the Autry)

Many of us who are deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s ascent to the most humanly powerful position in the world have spoken of resistance a lot since Election Day. We’ve especially used the term when discussing how we can respond to his administration’s numerous inhumane, racially scapegoating, financially self-serving, blatantly unchristian, and just plain bizarre actions, proposals, and statements.

We’ve also, naturally, created a hashtag, #resist, which has found a corollary, #persist, thanks to Mitch McConnell’s infamous quashing of Elizabeth Warren’s speech in the U.S. Senate. And some of us have even adopted the symbol of the Resistance, the good guys in the new series of Star Wars films.

Hayley Gilmore's Princess Leia Resistance
A poster created by artist Hayley Gilmore for the Washington, D.C. Women’s March. Visit her website.

Of course, when it comes to resisting, the stakes are much greater for real-life Natives than they are for me. As an ethnic Han Chinese, I am one of 1.3 billion of my people. The Pointe-au-Chien, on the other hand, number in the hundreds. Resisting societal and institutional injustice is for them a matter of survival, as it is for many Native tribes.

After all, the genocide of Native peoples never really ended. It is just less overt than it used to be.

The long-term nature of the suffering of Native peoples and other marginalized groups points to the value of raising kids to resist and persist as activists and allies. To succeed, the battle against injustice has to outlive us. So through our influence on the next generation, we can help to sustain movements that insist on treating all human beings with the dignity, respect, empathy, and love that Creator says they deserve.

This is a comfort to me. Like many folks engaged in social justice work, I have bouts of what I’ll call “activist’s guilt.” That’s the nagging sense that even after I’ve taken one, two, or more steps of action on a particular issue, I still haven’t done enough.

Sometimes, that’s true; I haven’t done enough. But other times, I have to recognize that I can only do my part, and I’ll have to count on others to do theirs, too. Repeatedly giving in to “activist’s guilt” leads to rapid burnout for many who engage in advocacy.

A recent example of my “activist’s guilt” centered on the women’s marches the day after Inauguration Day. Due to some family commitments, I wasn’t able to participate. I felt like I was doing something wrong by not going. A graphic that made the rounds on social media at the time captured my feelings:

Erin in Fairly Traceable reminds me that along with directly serving people who are facing oppression, and marching, organizing, and speaking out as an ally, my work as a parent can very much be an activist endeavor as well. Resisting and persisting happens as I educate my girls about discrimination, nurture their capacity for empathy, and help them determine ways to take action.

It seems like it’s paying off so far. My ten year old is passionate about many areas of social justice, and a couple of years ago, when her teacher asked her class members to name what they wanted to be when they grew up, she said an activist. (You bet your right and left pant legs that I was proud!) Later that year, when they were assigned to do first-person biographical reports on historical figures, my daughter departed from the standard list and decided on Maria Tallchief, America’s first world-famous ballerina, both because she loves dance and because Ms. Tallchief was a member of the Osage Nation.

When the time came for the California rite of passage known as the fourth grade missions project, she chose the mission that seemed to her the most liberal-minded toward Natives, San Luis Rey de Francia, while recognizing that the Spanish colonial project there was still tantamount to slavery. And a few weeks ago, when her fifth-grade class went to the school media room to watch Trump’s inauguration on TV, she asked to be exempted! (I did tell her afterward that I totally would have been okay if she had gone to see it, given the educational value of the occasion.)

My seven year old is passionate about environmental issues. At home, she monitors the rest of our family’s water usage because California is in the midst of a drought; she has drawn and posted reminders in both of our apartment’s bathrooms. If we’re driving around after dark, she points out neighborhoods and establishments that are causing excessive light pollution. When I referred to climate change recently in her hearing, she offered, “I hate climate change.” And a few weeks ago, when she saw #noDAPL painted on a car in our neighborhood, she exclaimed, “The Dakota pipeline!”

Trying to raise my daughters to be activists and allies makes my child-rearing an attempted act of resistance. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t also take other steps of action, but it does mean that how I parent is just as important as the rest of my advocacy work.

Cast 2
Randy (Jason Grasl) and Erin (Kyla Garcia), both on the right, at an awkward point in their relationship. Randy’s parents Mark (John Nielsen) and Carol (Jennifer Bobiwash) are calling at a rather inopportune time. The Meteorologist (Shyla Marlin, whose primary role in Fairly Traceable is that of Erin’s mother Suzanne) and Randy’s teenage sister Annie (Kinsale Hueston) bear witness to the moment. (Photo: Native Voices at the Autry)

I trust that Fairly Traceable will speak to you in a profound way, just as it did to me. The phrase “fairly traceable” is actually legal terminology from the pen of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. It appears in his 1992 majority opinion for Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife.

But if you feel skittish about seeing a play that explores legal doctrine, let me assure you that this work isn’t dry or overly intellectual at all. Ms. Nagle has an uncanny ability, as both a playwright and law firm partner, to take issues of law and present them in ways that are not just educational, but entertaining and compelling. Her masterful play Sliver of a Full Moon does the same thing with the legislative process. In Sliver, she’s able to present the work of congressional coalition-building for the Violence Against Women Act as the pressure-packed, high-stakes drama that it really was for Native tribes.

Three days after seeing Fairly Traceable – and I’d love to see it again – I still feel like there’s more I need to process. That’s probably because the play taps into so many themes with deep human resonance. Heritage and ancestry, race and culture, romance and loss, family and faith, oppression and struggle, science and law, and life and death all intersect meaningfully during the two-hour performance, which includes a brief intermission. Experiencing Fairly Traceable was like going on a powerful journey during which I laughed a lot, cried some, and left hopeful.

Autry Final
Seeing Fairly Traceable was also an opportunity for me to finally meet some folks in person that previously I’d only known via phone, email, and/or social media! L to R: Jason Grasl, Some Guy, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Jennifer Bobiwash, and Chris Jorie. (Photo: Joan Marie Hurwit)

The play is clearly a labor of love for Native America, the environment, the state of Louisiana, and humanity as a whole. Ms. Nagle, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, was a student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans when Katrina hit, much like the lead characters Randy, played by Jason Grasl (Blackfeet), and Erin, played by Kyla Garcia (Taíno). Jennifer Bobiwash (Ojibway), Kinsale Hueston (Navajo-Diné), Chris Jorie, Shyla Marlin (Choctaw), and John Nielsen complete the outstanding cast, each of whom hits all the right notes with his or her character.

I rarely say that something is must-see, but Fairly Traceable is! It’s playing in Los Angeles at the Autry Museum’s Wells Fargo Theater through March 26. It’s recommended for ages 13 and up. See specific times and get tickets here.

What are you waiting for?

Fear Not - Parenting Is Resistance

For my previous posts about being an ally for my Native brothers and sisters, visit my old blog, Raising Asian American Daughters:

“#ChangeTheMascot, #NotYourMascot: Why Asian Americans Should Care”

“#NotYourTigerLily, Even for Young Kids. ESPECIALLY Because It’s Young Kids.”

“My First Indian Taco (and What It Means to Me)”

“Pope Francis’ Huge Mistake”


Published in print!

Hi friends!

I’m excited to share that I’ve been published in print for the first time! I’ve guest blogged for Christians for Biblical Equality before, but this time, they’ve honored me by inviting, then printing, an article of mine in their quarterly Mutuality Magazine. You can read my piece, “Defending My Daughters Against Rape Culture,” in the March 2017 issue on fatherhood, both on paper and online.

Special thanks to my editor Tim Krueger, a new dad himself!

My Endorsement as a Feminist Dad and an Asian Dad

My Endorsement

Which candidate do I think deserves to call this plane their own?

I’m with her.

Correction: #ImWithHer.

That’s one of the more popular hashtags propagated by the Hillary Clinton campaign during this seemingly interminable election cycle. But I’m not just saying it randomly here, I really mean it: #ImWithHer.

Yes, I – who once despised the Clintons years ago – have become a strong supporter of Secretary Clinton and will happily vote for her, either during early voting or on November 8. It will not at all be a “lesser of two evils” vote for me; I will do it enthusiastically.

I’m not going to attempt to give all the reasons here, and I’m not going to cite much evidence for my reasons, either. That’s not to say that such evidence doesn’t exist; I believe it does. But this is not that kind of piece. This is a simple bit of commentary on WordPress, not Meet the Press.

I’ll just explain my support this way: I’m voting for Secretary Clinton in large part because I am both a feminist dad and an Asian dad.

#ImWithHer Because I’m a Feminist Dad

The boys’ club. Not for long.

In the excellent documentary Miss Representation, my friend Dr. Caroline Heldman, a professor at Occidental College in the Los Angeles area, says:

Little boys and little girls when they’re seven years old – an equal number want to be president of the United States when they grow up. But then you ask the same question when they’re 15, and you see this massive gap emerging.

I believe that one of the reasons this is true is that girls, as they grow up, never see a female president of the United States, whether in the news or in history books. I clearly remember, on the walls of my childhood classrooms, posters showing all the past presidents. And of course, every single one was a white male. Even posters updated for the present time only show male presidents.

From 1 to 44, all dudes.

This is just one more subtle message to girls that says women can’t excel in leadership like men can – not just in politics, but in life, all across the board. It’s not an intentional message on the part of the poster makers. After all, they’re just showing the reality that every POTUS has been a man. But research demonstrates that people are more likely to believe they can do something when they see someone like them doing it. As the saying goes, representation matters.

I am not okay with my daughters ever feeling like men and boys can do things better than women and girls can. I take every chance I get to tell my girls when a glass ceiling has been shattered. It’s not a random thing that one of their Beanie Baby-style bears, one that has the NASA logo on it, was given the name Sally Ride.

A herstory maker, the late Dr. Sally Ride.

I want my girls to grow up in classrooms that display not only male presidents, but female presidents, too. (Yes, I use the plural intentionally.) I want them to know that there’s no job they can’t do because boys and men are supposedly better than they are. I want them to have the confidence that they’re not limited to anything by their gender.

That’s my feminist father reason for supporting Hillary Clinton.

That’s not to say, though, that I’m voting for her just because she’s a woman. She does have a résumé that’s second to none among recent candidates for the presidency. The fact that she is a woman is definitely part of why #ImWithHer, but not the only reason. She’s also immensely qualified.

As a male feminist, and as a father of daughters, #ImWithHer!

#ImWithHer Because I’m an Asian Dad

As American a landscape as there is.

I’m also supporting Hillary Clinton because I’m an Asian dad. My family’s recent trip to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim provided an illustration for this. While we were there, my seven-year-old daughter sang a line that presumably she learned at school:

What’s more American than corn flakes, the Fourth of July, and Uncle Sam?

That sounded pleasant to my ears, especially given that we were looking out over that most American of landscapes in northern Arizona. But what she said next quickly shattered the moment.
“I’m not full American because I’m not white; I’m Chinese.”

My heart sank. I knew this moment would come at some point in her life. It does for so many of us Americans of color, and it is painful. But I didn’t expect it to come so early for her.

“Did someone say that to you?” I asked.

“No,” she said, her eyes beginning to fill with tears.

I proceeded to explain the difference between nationality and ethnicity, and that while she was ethnically Chinese, she was just as American as anyone else.

“I already know that, Daddy,” she sniffled.

I put my arm around her and wondered, if no one said it to her, how did she get that idea at such a young age? I could only imagine that it came from books and media she’d seen, where the vast majority of American heroes, heroines, and average Joes and Janes are white.

But that still didn’t make sense! My wife and I have flooded our home with books that have ethnically diverse characters, especially Asian ones. And we go to some lengths every year to celebrate Independence Day in a bicultural way, inspired by author Janet S. Wong’s and illustrator Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s terrific kids’ book, Apple Pie 4th of July. For four years running now, we’ve celebrated the Fourth by eating Chinese food, watching fireworks, and enjoying apple pie.

One example of Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s beautiful artwork in Apple Pie 4th of July.

But I’ve concluded that all of our efforts are not enough:

  • All our diverse books
  • Our annual celebration of the Fourth of July
  • The appreciation we’ve often expressed for being Americans
  • The daily Pledge of Allegiance the girls recite at school
  • My periodic attempts to channel Lee Greenwood by singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” (known more popularly as “I’m Proud to Be an American”)
  • The stories we’ve told them about the time I sang the National Anthem at a minor league baseball game in Texas

All of it is still not enough for my wife and I to inoculate our girls from the subtle yet powerful social message that to be fully American, you have to be white.

Why do I enthusiastically support Hillary Clinton for president? Because I want a president who doesn’t make my girls feel any less of an American because they’re Asian. I want one that sets an optimistic tone for our society with regard to race and ethnicity. I want my girls to have a president who will remind them and all Americans that no matter the color of their skin, they are greatly valued in the American family and are just as much Americans as everyone else.

That’s why #ImWithHer.

And I believe Secretary Clinton has done, and will continue to do, a strong job in that regard.

So #ImWithHer. And I can’t wait to take my girls to the voting booth with me as I cast my seventh general election ballot for president, my first for a woman.

Time to help make history!

Or, as many have tweeted this year, #herstory!

This Is What a Feminist Dad Looks Like

I’m a feminist. But I haven’t always been.

Through much of my life I’ve been, I think, a pretty nice guy – thoughtful, sensitive to others, empathetic. But a feminist I was not. Like just about every other man who grows up in a male-dominated culture, I was blind to so much of my male privilege.

Actually, I have probably experienced that privilege in greater abundance than the average American man. That’s because I’ve been the beneficiary of at least three kinds  – American, Asian, and Christian male privileges. For most of my life, I didn’t consider the flip side of such advantages – namely, that favoritism toward males in those spheres hurts girls and women. So while I got ahead, I failed to support women around me as they dealt with the social injustices they faced by virtue of their gender.

Privileged as an American Male

As is the case for most American men, while growing up I didn’t realize how good I had it. I never had to deal, as girls do, with a daily bombardment of messages from people and ads that value my appearance over my abilities. When I hit puberty, I didn’t experience a sudden onset of catcalls, whistles, uncomfortably long stares, or lewd comments about my body.

In college, I didn’t need to be sure that I walked home from the library with a group of people (for fear of being sexually assaulted) or that I would need to carry pepper spray (also for fear of being sexually assaulted). I didn’t feel at all compelled to sign up for a self-defense class (for fear of being … you guessed it), and I never once called campus transportation services at night to drive me back to my dorm (because … you know).

Was there ever a time I almost called security because I was stuck alone in a classroom with a creepy guy loitering outside? Nope. Did I ever have to file a police report because a man publicly exposed his genitals to me? Not at all.

Since I entered the workforce, I’ve never had to worry about getting paid less than the opposite sex for doing the same work, nor have I had to fear that a supervisor would use his authority over me as a license for flirtation or harassment.

In my dating years, I never once imagined a date might drug my drink when I wasn’t looking. I never asked a friend to make sure I got home okay from a night out. And I never looked around a room at a group of my male friends and thought, “If one out of every four of us will be sexually assaulted in our lifetime, I wonder which one of us it will be?”

These are all things that American girls and women experience. Some have to deal with more of it, some less. But all of these kinds of things happen commonly to them.

(Similar things do happen to boys and men, and I don’t want to minimize at all what male victims have gone through. Their suffering is equally horrific to that of female victims. Yet in the general population, these kinds of events happen to men with much less statistical frequency. So we still have the term “male privilege,” though using it does not deny the trauma male survivors experience.)

And I, like most American males, have not had to face any of those things. Oh, how greatly advantaged I have been, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Favored as an Asian Male

I’ve also had privileges as an Asian male. Growing up, I could largely express myself in ways that fit my personality. I didn’t face constant pressure from family and friends, as Asian girls and women commonly do, to fit an arbitrary cultural mold for my gender – not too loud and opinionated, not too assertive and ambitious, not too wide or tall, and not waiting too long to get married.

I also knew Asian male privilege within my family. As the firstborn boy among all my cousins on both sides of my family, I felt like I had a special place. But on my dad’s side of the family, I knew I had a special place. It wasn’t that my paternal grandparents gave me more 压祟钱 (yā suì qián, the money that comes in a red envelope) than my cousins, but the relative degree of attention and affection my grandpa showered on me was unmistakable.

Sadly, I never once advocated for fairness for my girl cousins. I just thought that’s the way it was.

Oh, what privilege I have had as an Asian male. And I haven’t told the half of it.

Advantaged as a Christian Male

There’s a third layer to the male privilege I have known – evangelical Christian male privilege. This is about much more than Christianity’s centuries-old internal debate over whether women can preach or be priests, pastors, or elders. (For the record, I strongly say they can; to be geeky, I believe a consistent, grammatical-historical hermeneutic leads to an egalitarian interpretation of the Bible. Like I said, geeeeeky.)

The Christian male privilege of which I speak is subtle yet pervasive. It’s the way that American evangelicals often teach boys and men to dream of doing big things for God and to have a huge impact for good in the world. Christian girls and women, from what I’ve witnessed in nearly 40 years of church life, don’t receive half as much encouragement to do the same. They are often steered instead toward leadership in smaller, more localized endeavors, usually within a church’s own programs.

I am not saying that helping one’s fellow human beings on a local scale is any less important than doing it on a larger scale. Both are equally important. But it’s been my experience that evangelical Christian boys and men are urged to have a sense of adventure about their spiritual pursuits and acts of service, while girls and women are often encouraged toward seemingly safer spiritual activities.

This can start at a young age, as I recently saw at one church’s week-long summer program for kids. The week’s theme used a lot of medieval, Arthurian motifs and imagery to illustrate a spiritual quest. Yet all the knights in the onstage skits were played by men. Even the music band, in its entirety, was male as well. Outside, kids could stick their faces through holes in a big wooden cutout illustrating a knight on a horse and a princess standing nearby. It all seemed to suggest, perhaps unwittingly so, that it’s more natural for boys than girls to aspire to great spiritual undertakings.

I was raised in that very same evangelical subculture. Also part of that subculture: almost all of the Christian leaders I knew were men. Further, nearly all the tales I heard of historic Christian deeds, like the abolition of slavery in Great Britain, were about men. It was easy for me, then, to explore Christian spirituality with wildness of heart while dreaming of changing the lives of thousands – to be the next Billy Graham or Martin Luther King, Jr., as it were. Numerous Christian women I have known have not experienced that kind of support.

But male Christian privilege didn’t end for me as a youth. In seminary, which is a Christian grad school for training ministers and scholars, probably 75 percent of my classmates and basically all of my professors were men. In contrast to a number of seminary women I’ve known, I didn’t feel out of place, nor did I endure suspicions that I was there to find a Christian spouse. I didn’t have to deal with uninvited comments like “I don’t know why you’re not married yet.” I didn’t have anyone question me about why I wasn’t content with the roles God had designed for my gender, and at no time did I experience fellow students walking out of preaching class as I began to give my sermon.

Oh, how I have benefited from evangelical Christian male privilege. And as with American and Asian male privileges, I’ve just scratched the surface in describing the degree to which women are disadvantaged in these contexts.

In college, I felt bad for the women I knew when they took precautions against being assaulted. But I didn’t think much about it beyond that. And I never thought that I should join with other people to address the many ways American society, Asian culture, and evangelical subculture create hardships for girls and women.

Parenting Girls Changed Everything

That all changed when I became a father to daughters. Parenting girls rocked my world. Over and over again, it hit me that just because they were girls, my daughters (now ages seven and nearly ten) would not be insulated from all the things I was.

It bothered me deeply. I realized it was no longer sufficient for me as their dad to just prepare them for the harsh realities of growing up female. It spurred me to action, and for several years now I’ve given much of my time and energy to advocating and working for girls’ and women’s rights.

And I’m not done, not by a long shot. I am absolutely committed to continuing to do whatever I can, in conjunction with others, to see that girls and women are valued and respected as much as boys and men are. In no way should any girl or woman ever be made to feel that she’s a second-class citizen – in anything.

That’s why I call myself a feminist!

Feminism’s Meaning

But what is feminism, after all? A lot of people define it differently. Some folks even envision feminists as a bunch of angry women who go around chanting about their hatred of men! In reality, not a single feminist woman I know is against men or thinks all men are pigs or insensitive clods. The stereotype is nothing like reality.

So what is feminism? Taylor Swift offered a pretty good nutshell definition when she told The Guardian in August 2014, “Saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities.”

Dictionaries basically agree with her. They generally define feminism as the belief that girls and boys, and women and men, are equal in their intrinsic value and that they should have equal rights politically, economically, and socially. I would go further and say that a feminist doesn’t just believe that women and men are equal, but she or he also takes action to help make equality a reality in the lives of girls and women. So yes, I’m most definitely a feminist.

I must say, though, that I deserve no praise for this. It’s sad, actually, that it took becoming a parent of daughters before I woke up to my male privilege and to the injustices that girls and women endure in this world. I should have cared about these things just because girls and women are human beings and deserve to be treated with all dignity and respect! Yet I am glad I am more attuned to these issues now. It’s better than continuing to live in my obliviousness.

I am deeply grateful for all the wonderful folks who’ve helped me on this journey. They include feminist women and men, activists and academics, people I’ve known for years and people I’ve only known on Twitter, and folks from numerous ethnic and religious backgrounds. I look forward to continuing to learn from them.

And there is most definitely still much for me to learn. I know there are other ways in which I’m still blind to my privilege, and I need to be open to critiques about that. To be a helpful ally to women, I need to keep listening to them and their stories, asking what kind of support I can offer as a man – both for them as individuals and for their cause as a whole.

There is a t-shirt meme that proclaims, “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like.” Here it is, modeled by one of the more prominent male feminists I’ve connected with in recent years, Don McPherson. He’s an educator and activist, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and a former winner of the Davey O’Brien Award during his days as a quarterback at Syracuse University. He wears it with pride:

In that vein, though I don’t have one of those shirts, I’m proud to declare – this is what a feminist dad looks like!

Thank you so much for spending these moments with me! Please come back often 😊

Author’s note:Welcome to FeministAsianDad.com, and thanks for reading this first post! If you were a reader of my Raising Asian American Daughters blog for AsianceMagazine.com, thank you so much for joining me over here!

It’s my goal to share regularly on this site thoughtful and (hopefully) insightful commentary on parenting, gender, feminism, race, and culture. To keep things easier for myself, I won’t be enabling comments, but feel free to get in touch with me over social media. Use the icons on this page, and please note, I respond fastest on Twitter.

I look forward to sharing with you these adventures in activist parenting!