Talking race, representation, & Asian Superbloggers with Minh-Ha T. Pham

I've been a fan of Minh-Ha T. Pham's co-authored blog Threadbared for a while so I was excited to hear about her new book Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet. Minh-Ha has explored the rise of the 'Asian Superblogger,' a group she defines as elite bloggers who themselves identify as Asian or as part of an Asian ethnic group: 'Identity categories are political and social,' Minh-Ha explains. 'But the bloggers I write about all have described themselves at one time or another on their blogs as Asian or Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, etc.'

Writing within the context of an industry known for its entrenched racism, Minh-Ha argues that bloggers like Susanna Lau (Susie Bubble) have not only forced the fashion industry to accept blogging as a legitimate way to report fashion but also have challenged the racial-homogeneity of the industry.

 

Was there a particular fashion image, an outfit, a blog post, or perhaps a flash of anger that sparked 'Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet' into existence?

Minh-Ha T. Pham  

Minh-Ha T. Pham
 

No, not really. The book emerged as a curiosity about what impact, if any, the Internet has had on the kinds of work, the opportunities for work, and the working conditions of Asian fashion workers. I see the book as updating the conversation about race, gender, and fashion labour from the industrial manufacturing context to the digital informational context.

Also, I wanted to change the cultural perceptions of what an "Asian fashion worker" is. So much of the scholarly and media attention on Asian fashion workers represents them as poor, voiceless victims. And of course in many ways, Asian fashion workers in the garment industry are victimized because of their race, gender, and class.

Widespread cultural perceptions in the West about Asian women's submissiveness and general willingness to endure bad working conditions for little to no pay play a significant role in shaping the deplorable conditions in which they work.

But Asian fashion workers have always also defined their own identities and created alternative working conditions even within the very limited sets of available options they have. (Garment workers who organize unions and openly or covertly protest their working conditions exemplify this.)

Elite Asian fashion bloggers have far more power to represent themselves and to define how/when/if they work. So I was curious how--in this very different context of fashion labor--race, gender, and class are shaping what "Asian fashion work" means.     

 

Personal style bloggers like Susie Bubble and Bryanboy are at the very top of their profession and are hugely popular with the fashion public, so why do they face hostility from parts of the fashion establishment, like journalist Susie Menkes?

This is a key issue in the book. The short answer is that the western fashion industry is still a very white industry. While there are a small handful of non-white bloggers, models, and designers who are quite successful, they occupy a very fraught position as racial minorities in a white industry. They're accepted as a novelty, as the flavor of the week.

As I argue in my book, the resentment that Asian elite bloggers uniquely face comes from, on one hand, being some of the most visible non-white faces and names in fashion and, on the other hand, from out-lasting and out-growing their expected roles as novelties of fashion's digital turn. They're proving to be not just temporary visitors or tourists in the western fashion system but here to stay and possibly change fashion and fashion journalism's racially-homogenous business as usual.

 

How important is representation in fashion? Do Asian Superbloggers have any power when it comes to elevating the status of other 'Asian fashion workers' that you talk about, for example factory workers?

Representation is important but in limited ways. A big reason that bloggers' representational practices are limited is because they're not just expressive but strategic.

Their textual, visual, and sartorial representations are what I call practices of "taste work". Their self-representations are doing work to negotiate the racialized terrain of western fashion in order to be visible in specific ways. To be distinctive but not "different".

This is a tough line to hold and sometimes it involves distancing oneself from racial categories, expectations, and solidarities with those who reflect or might remind others (or ourselves) of stereotypes we're trying to get away from. The bloggers I studied never mention garment workers in Asia or elsewhere. Non-Asian bloggers don't either for that matter.

Any expectation we may that they'd stand up for other, less powerful Asian fashion workers, is just that - our expectation. They're not obligated to and Asian bloggers in particular may have good reasons not to bear those kinds of representational burdens. 

 

 

Dissent against the working practices of fashion corporations seems to be as absent from fashion blogs as it is from the wider fashion media. How much of a challenge is the profession as a whole to the fashion status quo?

I actually see a lot of fashion bloggers explicitly and implicitly challenging "the fashion status quo". Self-proclaimed fat fashion bloggers, modest fashion bloggers, and budget- and eco-conscious fashion bloggers are challenging mainstream fashion's beauty standards, consumerist ethos, and definitions of style.

They're not generally as well known to the western fashion industry as the elite bloggers I focus on precisely because they're not interested in being recognized by it. And their readers are also often located outside of the west or mainstream and outside of western fashion's sphere of influence.

I'd argue, though, that the bloggers I write about are challenging many of western fashion's business practices and assumptions. The enormous popularity of Susie Bubble and BryanBoy's blogs forced the mainstream industry to take blogging seriously whether they liked it or not.

And the success of their blogs show that Asian people (some who are from the West and others who aren't) can be style leaders and trendsetters to western fashion audiences. But again, elite bloggers aren't going to tear down the industry they're trying to be a part of.

The kinds of blog posts they create and their online presence in general are carefully constructed to tow that line I mentioned earlier - to represent themselves as authentic bloggers who are racially different from the fashion mainstream but whose race also doesn't make any difference.

 

 

Transparency: I received a complimentary copy of Minh-Ha's book from Duke University Press.