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A Korean American Adoptee In Dallas Uses Her Pain As Fuel For Activism

Dallas resident Stephanie Drenka stares intensely at her journal, where she's writing reading notes. Her gray cardigan sleeves are rolled up and there's a stack of about four books next to her. She's surrounded by the backdrop of a minimalist room, which she says keeps her calm during painful and hard days.
Keren Carrión
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KERA News
Korean American adoptee Stephanie Drenka, 35, jots down some reading notes while studying the history of racism against Asian Americans in the U.S. "I'm in a weird space where I studied this. Now, that people are listening, I don't want to waste that time," said Drenka.

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.

A woman holds an album where she's photographed with her family as a baby.
Keren Carrión
Stephanie Drenka, 35, identifies as a Korean American adoptee. She grew up in Southlake Texas and was raised by white parents, who are photographed in the album she is holding. Drenka says she likes to share this experience with others. "What adoptive parents must understand is that adoptees are struggling to fulfill our basic human need for belonging and may discount our ethnic identity and heritage for the sake of the family," Drenka wrote for Visible Magazine in 2019.

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.

Kevin Nadal, professor at the City University of New York talked about this with The History Channel.

“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.

The silhouette of a woman practicing yoga poses.
Keren Carrión
For Stephanie Drenka doing yoga is a restorative healing process. About once a month, she gathers with Dallas Women of Asian Descent, a group that started because of the rise of anti-Asian violence in the U.S. On a rainy day in May, Drenka poses in a sirsasana with stag legs.

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.

On a rainy day in Dallas, a stack of about 13 Asian American history books are photographed in front of a window.
Keren Carrión
Dallas resident Stephanie Drenka enjoys spending gloomy rainy days reading and researching. She posts snippets of chapters and quotes on her Instagram @stephaniedrenka to encourage others to join the conversation and learn about Asian American history.

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.

Stephanie Drenka kisses her dog Daisy.
Keren Carrión
"Daisy makes any gloomy day brighter," Dallas resident Stephanie Drenka wrote on an Instagram post. Drenka loves snuggling and cuddling with her 12-year-old Dachshund 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 amartinez@kera.org. You can follow Alejandra on Twitter @alereports.

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