Impromptu: Tamsin Kimoto
Tamsin Kimoto (she/they) started in April 2020 as assistant professor of philosophy and women, gender, and sexuality studies.
By Molly Englund
How did you become interested in academia?
I did my undergrad education at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. I was taking a number of philosophy classes, and they were ones that kept me thinking and going. We were talking about the philosophy of race and feminist philosophy, questions about sex and love and all of these things that were really exciting to me as a 19 year old and still are really exciting to me.
That’s one of the things that I really love about philosophy—the answers are important but figuring out the questions is also incredibly important. I’m still thinking through a lot of the questions that I had as an undergrad: How does race work? How does gender work? How do they interact with one another? The questions that pulled me in are still the ones that I come back to.
What was your dissertation about?
My dissertation was an attempt to think about this nascent field in philosophy, trans philosophy, which is really new, at most 10 years old. A lot of the big ideas were figuring out what it even means to be trans and to have experiences that are marked as trans also marked by race. It was a particular interest because there aren’t very many trans people in philosophy. There’s only two or three of us. We’re also people of color, so intersections of gender and race are important to me.
I was also thinking about what it means for philosophy, in terms of this field emerging in the way that it has, which has been met with a lot of controversy and pushback from more established figures in the field.
One of the things that I discussed was the expectation of passing, the fact that passing becomes this demand we internalize, and the reasons why we might do that. I explored the dynamics of interpersonal and structural violence and tried to add more texture than you get from looking at the statistical data.
You’ve talked in your work about pushing back against the sexual prudishness of contemporary feminism; can you say more about that?
What I have been concerned about with feminist philosophy, and feminist theory more broadly, is the way in which sex work has been exploited throughout the conversations we’re having about feminism, and how the sex worker has become, and has historically been, this figure of exclusion, and how flat our analyses of things like objectification have become as a result of that.
This traces back to well before the ’70s but was especially prevalent in the ’70s, the height of the radical feminist movement in the U.S. with people like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon.
There’s a way in which sex negativity has been normalized in a lot of academic feminism, but it also has leaked over into activist spaces, too. I do a lot of community organizing work, where it’s still considered acceptable to exclude sex workers. There’s a real political need to engage with sex work more.
You gave a lecture that referred to hygienic feminism—what is that?
I’ve been trying to link together all these various feminist projects. And they are feminist projects—I’m not in favor of purifying feminism from its problematic tendencies and histories. We have all these feminist projects that have linked up with problematic state policies of social hygiene, of eliminating or controlling segments of the population deemed unacceptable or abnormal.
I’m thinking about the history of Planned Parenthood and the involvement of the eugenics movement within the U.S. I’m thinking about the phenomenon of white feminism generally. I’m thinking about sex work-exclusionary feminisms and trans-exclusionary feminisms, what sometimes gets called “carceral feminisms,” feminist projects that link up with the state’s ability to police and manage populations in that way. Hygienic feminism is my attempt to name all of those things and this commitment to a program of social hygiene that often circulates around purifying the figure of woman, rigorously defending whatever we think a good woman or a proper woman is and then enacting that in various ways.
You’ve also talked about alternative spaces for Asian Americans. What could those look like?
Part of what I’m thinking about is the model minority trope as a false picture of what Asian Americans look like, but it’s also one that especially East Asians and certain South Asian populations have linked into.
It is a problem. In the wake of the shootings in Atlanta, sex work was implicated—even if we’re not saying the women who were murdered were sex workers, sex work is implicated. If we look at our histories we see incredibly gendered and sexualized ways of controlling and managing Asian American populations.
When I’m thinking about alternative spaces, I’m thinking about projects that don’t link back up with carceral institutions like policing and prisons, which have been pushed by mainstream Asian American organizations—that we need to hate-crime legislate our way out of this. It divides us from other communities of color in terms of the kinds of policies, of political changes, that we might advocate for.
I’m thinking about things like getting involved in anti-prison and anti-police activism, robust community safety programs, mutual aid efforts, political education. A colleague of mine, Erique Zhang, said that one of the things we have to reckon with is that as Asian Americans, we often are not taught our histories. We don’t know our histories, so we keep having the same conversations. We’re not learning that it was actually our alliances, for example the Black Power movement in the ’60s and ’70s, that were key to the formation of what it means to be Asian American today. We’re not learning that aligning with the state has not helped us and has only hurt us.
The alternative spaces are the ones that already exist in many ways. It’s in linking up with other communities of color and other efforts to challenge the state and its institutions to think expansively about how we might better live outside of capitalist frameworks and frameworks of domination.
There are a lot of Asian American-specific groups that are doing this work. The Asian American Feminist Collective in New York has been hosting some important conversations and presentations around the kinds of issues we’re seeing now.
What have you found in your research of medical narratives and trans identity?
There is a set of procedures called facial feminization surgery, or FFS. The goal is to alter the soft and hard tissue of a person’s face to give them a more standardly feminine appearance. This is something trans women often are sold on or pursue themselves.
One of the things that’s interesting to me, as one who’s studied the history of race, is that physical anthropology is key to how categories of race formed. Things like bone structure measurements were part of how a lot of 16th- and 17th-centuries discourses on race functioned. Race is rarely talked about in the medical literature on FFS and the online conversations I see among trans women. My project is tracking how the concept of beauty aesthetically has functioned in the development of racial categories and how that plays out in FFS, where aesthetic beauty is the goal. How is race being thought about in plastic surgery consultations? How is beauty being figured? Because the way beauty has classically been defined in the U.S. is that whiteness exists at the center and the rest of us radiate outward in terms of our degrees of beauty.
Part of the project is also to think about Asian American trans studies, which hardly ever gets talked about. One of the people who developed these racial categories, a man named Johann Blumenbach, did it by measuring human skulls from his private collection, the largest in Europe. He was very proud. He created this system with whiteness as the golden mean of beauty, and then Blackness and Asianness at the extreme end, both seen as not beautiful but in different ways. I’m interested in tracking that part of it, how you get from a discourse of the yellow race as one of the ugliest races into something like yellow fever.
Do those beauty standards hurt cisgender people as well as transgender people? It makes me think how misogyny hurts men, too.
Certainly. Insofar as standards of beauty privilege whiteness, they impact people of color regardless of whether we’re cis or trans. For example, all the ways in which the media likes to talk about Serena Williams’ body.
Or, sometimes TERFs [trans-exclusionary radicals feminists] on the internet will do things like pull up pictures of people to explain why they’re obviously men disguised as women. Some internet TERF pulled up pictures of three Chinese cis women runners and was like, “These are obviously men,” because they didn’t fit her understanding of what a woman should look like, even a cis woman, because her understanding is a white understanding. These standards are bad for everyone.
Standards of beauty are incredibly fickle too. I think about the ways the aesthetics of Asian bodies have shifted over time. There’s a trend that some of my students alerted me to, a makeup trend on TikTok that’s called the fox eye trend, which is an evolution of the cat eye trend except that it specifically aims to make your eyes look like they’re the kinds of eyes that East Asians typically have.
I’m very fascinated by the way in which beauty circulates. There are so many ways in which we can think about this, too, in terms of how fashion trends often rely on pulling from non-European cultures as well.
How would you like to see your research or your field evolve in the future?
I always have new ideas. One thing I would like to develop further in my research is a focus on Asian American studies. I would love to have more chances to think through that more as it evolves.
Philosophy has a huge problem in terms of its demographics. It’s overwhelmingly white, it’s overwhelmingly dominated by men. I would love to see that change. I would love to see the kinds of questions we ask and how we think about pursuing them change. It’s not enough to just bring in a diverse body of people answering the same sets of questions, using the same sets and methods.
I see a lot of energy for that among younger generations of people, more than I’ve seen in the people that came before us. I don’t know if it’s going to go that way. It’s so hard to tell. Philosophy is ultimately a very conservative discipline.
That seems counterintuitive but obviously it’s true.
People always expect because we are the “big idea” people that we’re necessarily always going to be pushing the boundaries of how things are thought about. But unfortunately, the field doesn’t live up to that. It’s funny working on race, gender, and sexuality stuff in philosophy and then also having a foot outside of philosophy, because philosophy sometimes feels like it’s a decade behind where other fields are in terms of thinking about these things. On the other hand, philosophy also tends to think about them with a lot more detail than other fields do. We get stuck on the one question and just keep endlessly cutting back at it. There are pros and cons.