Johnson Pham

Johnson studied Linguistics as an undergraduate at the University of California, Riverside. On campus, they do advocacy work within queer and working class communities. Johnson believes in the strength of community work and working to cultivate a healing space that is cognizant and appreciative of people from all different backgrounds. Aside from being concerned with restorative justice, Johnson is a self-identifying nerd. They are heavily engaged with TV, film, celebrity culture and firmly identify as Rachel from the sitcom Friends.


Campus: University of California, Riverside, Riverside, CA

Fellowship Class Year: 2015

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Johnson is a 2nd year Linguistics undergraduate at the University of California, Riverside. On campus, they do advocacy work within queer and working class communities. Johnson believes in the strength of community work, and works to cultivate a healing space that is cognizant and appreciative of people from all different backgrounds. Aside from being concerned with restorative justice, Johnson is a self-identifying nerd. They are heavily engaged with TV, film, celebrity culture and firmly identify as Rachel from the sitcom Friends.

Johnson Pham's Blog Posts

What’s in a Word?

Dictionaries are not perfect. Like us, they are subject to bias. At most, they can provide a resource for cursory definitions of words, because they have such a brief nature. This makes a standard dictionary actually not that reliable when it comes to more nuanced topics, like anything to do with gender, race, or even pathology.  That being said, the most common response I get from people trying to silence me with regard to social issues is them pointing to a dictionary definition of words like racism, transphobia,, or appropriation. So much of my daily conversations, arguments, and exchanges are informed by this difference in definitions.  Their line of reasoning rests with an idea that the dictionary is the final arbiter of meaning. Not by any means. The dictionary is only as useful as we use it as a starting position, and it’s intellectually dishonest to assume that an entry of 2-3 lines is sufficient to describe each and every word.

The first English dictionary was compiled by Samuel Johnson, a man who wrote Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 . It contained over 42,000 words, and he wrote all of the entries himself over a period of seven years. For the purpose of demonstrating a lexicographer’s bias, Johnson only included words of which he was familiar, and in the process, spelled out his own human prejudices and inclinations. Samuel Johnson fleshed out words related to topics he knew, while leaving other topics (such as musical instruments) vague and ambiguous. Although his dictionary is considerably less of an authority for lexical resource than Websters’ Dictionary, the point is this: dictionaries don’t necessarily offer specialized knowledge, and the expectation for them to instantly create understanding is misleading.

From Johnson’s first iteration of the dictionary, we can learn much from the limitations of dictionaries, including that some words are actually super complicated, and carry their own respective hxstorical baggages. For instance, a Webster’s definition of racism places semantic weight “that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”, which is true, yes, but doesn’t do much to paint a wholistic picture of racism. In this rather clinical and carefully pieced entry, it’s easy for the leypersxn to detach themselves from the gravitas that the term contains. This definition leaves out the complicated historical intertwinings of white supremacy that inform what is racism hxstorically and today. It leaves out horrific examples of racist legislature, chattel slavery, and ethnic cleansings because the entry isn’t enough to sufficiently develop an understanding of the implications of racism. It fails to address at the end of the day, racism is a relationship of power, and has been welded as a method of control. It doesn’t address any of the other oppressive schemata that reinforce and uphold racism.  Here we can see a word is its own world — it should be a firmly held belief that some words require more information to truly understand their scope.

Words also carry persxnal definitions. I started calling myself queer freshmxn year of college because “gay” no longer worked. Not adequately, at least. In some ways, it felt like a lie when I repeated it to myself. In the place of “gay”, “queer” worked because the ambiguity (read, possibilities) of the word made up for the difference I felt in-between any other identifier. That’s the beauty of queerness — it alludes a neat definition. It’s polysemic. So much of daily life is colored in the ways we address and relate to each other. This makes the words we choose to define ourselves so important. It’s what I decided, at least.

That being said, depending on the day if you ask me about my queerness, I can provide you with a hundred different answers and definitions. But what makes one definition more accurate than another? The quality that queerness brings is this: it describes and encapsulates a type of dynamic you can’t place neatly in one definition. This is what I mean though. People don’t fit neatly in predetermined definitions, or at least, not in the way you would expect. This is because queerness is supposed to mess with your expectation of how to live in the world. It escapes definition. Other folks have different perceptions on queerness. Like some folks hate it, citing a time where “queer” was more a pejorative than empowering. But,  I choose to side with queerness on the dimension that it spells an endless set of possibilities. In the same frame, Jose Esteban Munoz describes queerness as perpetually existing in the future, or utopian in nature. Jack Halberstam describes queerness and queer time as elusive, a “[turning] away from the narrative coherence of [straighthood]”. These are definitions I hold onto when it comes to mind how I approach myself, my body, and my queerness.

I can’t think of many things stronger than the desire to live out life exactly the way you want. To be called what you want to be called. To have a word that holds more than just sound and letters, but also a level of meaning that contains its own universe. You won’t be able to find that out in a dictionary. But feel free to ask me persxnally for a better understanding.

No to ALEC: California Fights Back

No to ALEC: California Fights Back

By Johnson Pham, 2015 Fellow

Last Wednesday, I joined thousands of folks as we gathered together to rally against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) during their annual meeting in San Diego. This was a massive protest to resist this right-wing organization, and they were met with many faces including workers, community organizers, faith-based leaders, and an assortment of other progressives.

ALEC is a national, corporate-funded organization that marries the interests of conservative legislators and corporate lobbyists. ALEC has been instrumental in drafting harmful legislation in many states, ranging from the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida, to legislation weakening environmental sustainability measures, to bills challenging women’s access reproductive health services. Notorious allies of ALEC include figures like Scott Walker and the Koch brothers.

ALEC pays for legislators to go on extravagant trips, where they collaboratively write legislation to be introduced word-for-word in their home states. ALEC’s event at the Hilton in San Diego was one of these opulent vacations afforded to legislators, and their presence in California was naturally met by resistance from progressive groups, who have clear stakes in resisting flagrant conservatism.

I went to this rally with the United Domestic Workers (UDW) Local 3930, a worker union that represents home-care providers in California. Homecare providers are one of the targets of ALEC, which has written bills targeting worker unions and pushing lower wages and benefits. We arrived at the Embarcadero Marina Park in San Diego close to noon and were met by hundreds of other progressives who greeted everyone with an embrace. It was truly a staggering experience to see such unconditional love and community expressed across the board.

The speak-out portion of the rally was studded with champions from the labor movement, including the legendary Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement and now sits on the board of PFAW. Dolores has been one of my heroes since I learned who she was, and I had the opportunity to meet her in living flesh at the rally. She spoke with conviction and presence and talked about our individual ability to bring others into the movement. She implored us to never give up this good fight, and communicated her love for this community and for the movement.

The rally was a short walk from the park toBlog the hotel, where folks continued to give their testimonies about why they are in this fight, and the challenges we face. This continued until 5PM, until hotel security brought in a squadron of police officers in response to rumors of a civil disobedience action occurring soon in the hotel lobby. I left the rally on my bus with the union, and we were unified in our sweat, laughter, and fulfillment from the day.

As a new YP4 fellow, I shared a lot about my love for the labor movement during our regional retreat, and this experience has only further cemented this deep-set appreciation. As someone who comes from a working-class background, there I’m deeply committed to making sure that families do not have to struggle to feed themselves or their children. Seeing for myself how resilient working families are in the face of billionaires and their lobbyists gives me incredible hope for this movement.

Corporate-backed institutions like ALEC are antithetical to the values my parents passed to me when I grew up, like having respect and compassion for everyone, and supporting the people who need it the most. I learned from this action that this collective movement is larger than what I could have ever believed. That this movement consist of leaders who came before me, my elders, and will continue on past what I will be able to do in this line of work. It is indisputable that ALEC got the point that they are not welcome or liked in California, and even now, organizers behind the protest are getting ready for a follow-up action in the coming weeks.

The fight continues.