Gender, Social Justice, Interviews

Diane Wong on gentrification in Chinatown, profit over people, and being labeled “too radical for academia”

What is the point of knowledge if it doesn't make a difference in the world?

Diane Wong is an ethnographer, scholar, and activist who is currently working on a dissertation studying the gentrification of American Chinatowns. She sat down with The Tempest to talk about gentrification, being a woman of color in academia, and the connection between scholarship and activism.

The Tempest: Can you start off by giving a bit of a summary of how you would define gentrification to someone who might not understand it?

Diane Wong: The word gentrification it most often is synonymous with displacement. In the broader sense of things, it’s what happens when we place profit over people. The effects are manifested in different ways: rent increases, forced evictions, landlord harassment, closure of neighborhood shops, changes in demographics and erasure of culture.

Too frequently the media and politicians portray gentrification as an inevitable process, but there is nothing natural about the physical uprooting of families that have called a place home for generations. 

The dissertation you’ve been working on is about gentrification in Chinatowns. How would you briefly summarize what you’re studying?

Most [current studies] have focused on the causes of gentrification and on the role of middle-class gentrifiers, which ignores what happens to pre-existing residents and communities. We don’t know much about the residents who are displaced and even less about those who are fighting to stay in their homes. This is what motivates my current work. My dissertation looks at neighborhood resistance against gentrification in three different Chinatowns across the country.

I am especially interested in looking at how Chinese immigrants with limited resources and access to formal political institutions mobilize in the context of displacement. 

What first drew you to study ethnography of American Chinatowns? 

 [I was drawn to] the importance of inter-generational storytelling. In many ways, this project has been a personal one and has allowed me to learn more about my own connections to displacement. I think that most [immigrants and immigrant families] know what it is like to lose a home and then be uprooted over and over again.

This summer I am working with the W.O.W Project on a Chinatown Oral History Collection to make some of these stories on cultural resilience and collective memory more accessible to Chinatown residents in New York and beyond. Thinking about how research can be a vehicle for transformative change, we are working with a team of young Chinese American transcribers to ensure that resources and knowledge stay within the community.

I saw in an interview that you mentioned your proudest accomplishment was “making it this far as a woman of color in academia.” What are some of the biggest barriers you’ve encountered as a woman of color in academia? 

Besides from institutional barriers, one the biggest barriers is communicating my work to my immigrant family. Growing up, politics was never something that my family discussed over the dinner table. Learning about my mother’s migration history and of her growing up under the Cultural Revolution and then navigating life here as an immigrant woman, I understand why politics was never a priority for her. But this is precisely what moves me to be a scholar of politics, to better understand and contextualize my mother’s experiences as well as the experiences of other immigrants in this country.

There is a lot more work to be done when it comes to connecting our academic work to what is happening on the ground and to more intimate spaces like our homes. It is crucial to be mindful that our work is articulated and practiced in ways that are accessible and relevant to everyone. I have made an intentional effort to include my mother in the work that I do, like taking her on some of the interviews I conduct or to student workshops I speak at.

I’m also curious if you have any advice for other women of color who are interesting in pursuing careers in academia. 

I think the most helpful piece of advice I have is to trust your work. There are so many obstacles set in place to make women of color scholars question the value of our work. It is so crucial to remember to be patient with your own process of growth. Be kind to yourself and proactive about self-care. In an environment where your worth is connected to your levels of productivity, it is important to figure out what your non-negotiables are.

My last piece of advice is to build a community in and outside of academia that can affirm and help keep things in perspective. Being a woman of color in academia is exhausting but I learned to fall back on community harder and in ways I never dared to before. As someone who is labeled too radical for academia, it has been a struggle for me to believe in my work and the questions I have about the world. But the constant support I received from the community has made me trust my work in ways that academia has never taught me to.

You also worked as the Social Media Wizard for 18 Million Rising, an online social justice organization focusing on Asian American issues. I’m curious about the connection between your academic work and your activist work. What if any, do you think is the connection between academia and grassroots activism? 

I see my academic work as stemming from a place of revolutionary praxis and deep love for the community. We [at 18 Million Rising] did a lot of organizing work related to civic engagement, media representation, Islamophobia, migrant justice, Asian anti-blackness, police violence and accountability.

I see my academic work and organizing work as being interconnected. For me being able to bridge theory to praxis is how I would contextualize my work, because at the end of the day what is the point of knowledge if it doesn’t make a difference in the world?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.