A Korean American Adoptee In Dallas Uses Her Pain As Fuel For Activism
Beauty standards for women of Asian descent have long been tied to racism and sexualization. Stephanie Drenka was adopted from Korea and has experienced this first hand. Now, it's her mission to create safe spaces for women to share their experiences.
Dallas resident Stephanie Drenka remembers being 13-years-old during the early stages of the internet when AOL chat rooms were the cool place teenagers would socialize.
“The big question was like, age, sex, location, picture,” Drenka, 35, a Korean American adoptee, recalls.
She owned a digital camera her grandfather bought her and started snapping away.
“I would send my picture to complete strangers. They would reply back saying, ‘Wow, you're so beautiful, you're Asian,’” she said.
At the time, Drenka thought nothing about a comment like this one. She remembers, “feeling flattered and feeling like someone is attracted to me and loved me for the first time.”
Later in life, as an adult, she realized this experience was a reality she had to live with and carry on her shoulders. The mere fact that she was Asian and a woman meant she was likely to experience sexist comments.
As far back as 1800, Asian American women have been exoticized and fetishized. The 1875 Page Act, passed seven years before the Chinese Exclusion Act, banned Asian women from coming to the U.S. because there were fears that Asian women would be a temptation to men and would engage in sex work.
“Chinese women were specifically accused of spreading sexually transmitted diseases. They were scapegoated," Nadal said. "That sexualized stereotype stuck.”
Nadal, who's also the vice president of the Filipino American National Historical Society, has studied the history of prejudice against Asian women in the U.S. His research focuses on how discrimination impacts the mental health of people of color.
“I had a lot of self esteem issues that I sort of brushed it off as just being a young woman, not realizing so much of it was also tied to the perceptions of Asian women that I had seen in the media,” said Drenka.
Asian American women have endured a long history of sexualized racism. Drenka studied this history at DePaul University in Chicago, where she earned an Asian American Studies and Women's Studies minor.
When Drenka saw the news two months ago that eight people were killed at three spas in the Atlanta area — six of them women of Asian descent — Drenka said all she learned at school kept coming back to her.
“Many people were so quick to defend the shooter for his sex addiction, and the portrayal of Asian women as sex workers and a temptation,” Drenka said. “Thinking about all of the disgusting things that adult men had said to me when I was younger, that made me feel like there was something dirty or wrong about me.”
The Atlanta shooting occurred amid a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes. According to Pew Research, about 4-in-10 U.S. adults say it has become more common for people to express racist views toward Asians since the pandemic began.
Law enforcement asserted the white 21-year-old gunman was motivated by a sex addiction, sparking conversations about how racism and sexism intersect with violence against Asian women.
In late March, Drenka held a virtual town hall called “Responding to Anti-Asian Violence” presented by Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation. She serves as the organization’s communications director.
At the event, many Asian American women stepped forward to share heart-breaking experiences of being dehumanized, hypersexualized and racially fetishized.
Drenka wanted to offer a safe space for women. She said part of the healing process is reckoning with the ways history contributed to the brutal murders. She feels it’s part of her job to keep conversations going.
“I'm in a weird space where I studied this. Now that people are listening, I don't want to waste that time because I know that I have information that can help,” she said.
Since the Atlanta spa shootings, Drenka has hosted three virtual events where she’s invited guests to break down Asian American history in Dallas. The video is available online.
She also participated in a number of panels at universities and colleges and constantly posts social media feeds with digestible tidbits where people can learn more.
“I keep telling myself like 'I'll rest when I feel like I've made enough impact,'” she said.
But Drenka reminds herself that you shouldn't have to earn res." So in her downtime, she practices piano, does yoga and cuddles with her dog Daisy.
Got a tip? Alejandra Martinez is a Report For America corps member and writes about the impact of COVID-19 on underserved communities for KERA News. Email Alejandra at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow Alejandra on Twitter @alereports.
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