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Patti Duncan Highlights Experiences of Women in Color in Scholarship, Teaching

Patti Duncan, Ph.D., has devoted most of her academic life seeking answers to questions surrounding the identities and realities of Asian-American women. As an associate professor of women’s studies at Portland State University, Patti is at the forefront of scholarship into the experiences of Asians and Asian-American women in the United States and all over the world.

Her mother and father met in South Korea – he was a U.S. serviceman and she lived with her family. Before their first daughter was born, the couple moved to the States. Anti-American sentiment in Korea during that time made life difficult for children of mixed race to live in Korean society.

In the States, Patti transcended her working class background to secure a scholarship for a highly respected prep school in Colorado. She attended the highly selective Vassar College in New York, then pursued her doctoral studies at Emory University. She joined the PSU faculty in 2000, specializing in Asian American women's studies, women of color feminist theories, and intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality, and national belonging.

In her own words, Patti talks about the focus of her research and scholarship.

In the past, most of my research has been about Asian-Pacific Islander-American women’s writing and feminist movements. The book that I wrote – “Tell This Silence: Asian American Women Writers and the Politics of Speech” – was published in 2004. That was the culmination of several years of research that I had done for my doctoral degree.

I was trying to look at how Asian Pacific Islander women were resisting historical exclusions, often through literary devices and political strategies. We’re not always recognized within mainstream dominant society. A lot of the focus of my work through my graduate studies focused on Asian American women and the Asian American feminist movement. I also focused on women of color coalitions and women of color organizing in the U.S.

When I was hired at PSU in 2000, I was charged with building women of color studies in the Women’s Studies Department. In addition I was also doing a lot of writing and research about women of color students and their experience in higher education. In general, women of color experience the university in very different ways than mainstream white students. My goal is to understand what kinds of strategies that we in the profession could use to effectively mentor students of color.

As a woman of color student myself, I knew that there are lots of challenges that often get overlooked. Lower retention rate for women of color students was something that really worried me. During my first year at PSU, there were a number of women of color students that dropped out of school – for lots of different reasons. So, it became really important to me to find out what those reasons are, and try to identify ways they can be supported more in university. That has been a big part of my work.

Three years ago, I switched gears a little bit, and started doing more research on women outside of the U.S. I began focusing on Asian and Asian-Pacific women, and looking at transnational and global women’s movements, and forms of resistance to oppression. I began investigating the effects of war and U.S. militarism on women and communities in Asia.

In 2004, I was able to get a research leave for the full fall term, and went to Korea. I was granted a courtesy visiting appointment at a women’s studies institute. I was able to work with students and do research with grassroots organizations. I also did some work in Vietnam and in Cambodia. The goal was to bring together a critique of U.S. militarism and U.S. military bases occupation, with a feminist analysis.

I’m trying to develop analysis of the deep negative impact of U.S. bases on women’s bodies and women’s lives. I wanted to look at the issues – not just in terms of sexual violence, sexual assault and murder – but also the way that so many women have been pushed into militarized prostitution around the camp towns. I looked at the ways in which children of local women who have sexual relations with U.S. servicemen are deeply stigmatized, treated badly and discriminated against. I decided that I wanted to investigate and bring together my own analysis of these harmful legacies of war and militarism. My goal is look at the ways in which women experience violence because of these forces.

There are links between militarism and globalization. Wherever there’s a military base, there’s the expectation that women will provide sexual services. You see this with the U.S. military anywhere in the world, and especially in Asia: in South Korea, the Philippines, Okinawa, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia (with the United Nations peacekeeping mission).

Wherever U.S. soldiers are stationed, there’s the idea that there have to be women providing sexual services. There’s increased poverty, because of the effects of war, and many women have very few options for economic survival. There are displaced people, due to war and violence. War also results in deaths of male soldiers. Many local women who are widowed or impoverished often turn to prostitution. There are also historical cases of women actually being forced into prostitution, for example, the comfort women history in Korea.

I had done some research and writing on transnational women’s movements, but I was really interested in going to Korea, partly because of my own identity and my own history. It was affected in part by the relationship between my parents, who met during a time when South Korea was still very heavily occupied by the U.S. military. My father was a U.S. soldier, stationed in Seoul when he met my Mom. They ended up getting married and moving to the U.S.

In some ways, that experience was probably very difficult for my mother. She has always been treated like a second-class citizen, not only because of U.S. racism and sexism, but also because of the stigma associated with her marriage to a U.S. soldier. Regardless of whether she was ever in the sex industry, there was always this idea that many Asian women from militarized societies who subsequently marry U.S. soldiers must have been sex industry workers.

She also endured discrimination from Korean-Americans, which is a common experience for Asian women who have married U.S. soldiers. I’ve also seen it among Vietnamese-American communities. Women who marry U.S. soldiers always get called really derogatory names. It doesn’t matter how they met or the circumstances of their relationship; there is always this assumption that they were sex workers.

When I began looking at the camp towns in South Korea, I discovered that the primary contact that U.S. soldiers have is with women in the sex industry. I wanted to investigate the effects of those encounters, and how they lead to certain stereotypes about Asian women and Asian-American women. You have men who are young, impressionable and are – in many ways – being used and exploited by the U.S. government. In many cases, these young men have never had contact with people of color.

When their first contact is with someone who they have extreme power over – in a very unequal, militarized gender setting and where their actions have no consequences – I think it leads to certain ideas about how they can treat people of color in general. I believe these issues are becoming more and more important given our political climate and context.

Spring 2007

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"In general, women of color experience the university in very different ways than mainstream white students. My goal is to understand what kinds of strategies that we in the profession could use to effectively mentor students of color."

"I had done some research and writing on transnational women’s movements, but I was really interested in going to Korea, partly because of my own identity and my own history."

In addition to teaching and research, Patti also is making a difference in the local community. She is a member of the APA Compass collective that puts on a monthly hour-long radio show on Asian Pacific Islander American issues on KBOO.

Her contributions to the efforts of the Cambodian-American Community of Oregon were recognized in December 2006 with the group’s President’s Award. She was instrumental in the production of the film “Bombhunters,” directed and produced by her husband Skye Fitzgerald.

Read more on Patti Duncan and her experiences as a woman of color in the summer edition of CoI.


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