The Politics of API Women Sisterhood Building

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I am all too familiar with the sense of competition that can arise among Asian women. One of my favorite Filipina studies/feminist theorists, Dr. Allyson Goce Tintiangco-Cubales, describes this competition between Asian women (Filipinas specifically within her writing) as the “Mall of Downness,” a belief that Asian women have an inherent sense of competition against one another due to the fact that we have not established a structure of sisterhood that brings us together.

Photo of hands all in

Photo from back when I was active in my sorority. Hands are from those in my pledge class.

An example that continues to arise for me come from my coworker. To keep her anonymity, I’ll call this person Abby.

The social justice organization I work for is rapidly expanding and thriving, not only with new issue areas to work on, but also with a growing staff. Just recently, a new Asian woman came on board who I’ve admired from afar. She’s not new to the community, having been an activist and an advocate for quite a few years now. We have many things in common: we’re both Asian, we are both passionate about feminism and women’s rights, we have similar hobbies, we both come across as intense when it comes to our passion for social justice, and we’re both relatively well-connected, either within the community and/or outside of it. You would think based on all of those factors, that we’d be best friends. Unfortunately, there has been some tension from the beginning, or so it seems.

The way I start my relationships and friendships with people is with an ultimate sense of trust. This might sound dangerous or naive, but to me, I interpret it as genuinely loving people. I am open, honest, and vulnerable right from the beginning; therefore, if you betray my trust, then you aren’t worthy of continuing a trusting and long-lasting friendship. I set high standards for a reason. I have very few close friends because I nurture those relationships to the fullest extent.

Need a shoulder to cry on? I’ll be right over.
Walk to the ends of the earth with you? Let me just get my good sneakers on.
Take a bullet for you? In a heartbeat.

Needless to say, it’s apparent that I love and care for my friends with every fiber of my being. But every once in a while, there will be people that cross into my life that would like to be friends, but that I can’t get a clear reading on, which to me already is a warning sign.

During a work event at a Chinese restaurant, I made a beeline for the food, especially the roast pig, because 1) I hadn’t eaten dinner at that point so I was grumpy and needed food in my system immediately and 2) I LOVE ROAST PIG.

While in line, Abby was commenting on the food. 

Abby: It looks amazing, doesn’t it!?
Me: Yes! I’ve been looking forward to this meal all day. I love Chinese food, and especially love the Chinese version of roast pig.

As she was piling food onto her plate, she said,

Abby: I have to be careful not to eat too much though. I haven’t gone to the gym today!
Me: Oh. Well, it won’t hurt you too much to eat this. You look great! Besides, life is short. Might as well spend it eating good food.

She looked at me and then down at my plate.

Abby: You have a lot of food on your plate. Are you going to eat all of that?
Me: UH YES. I’m hungry. And the food here is good.

Once we sat down and ate for a while, I got up to get a second helping of vegetables and pig.

Abby: You’re getting up again! Luann, you’re not worried that you’re going to eat too much?
Me: No… like I said, I’m hungry.
Abby: Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to the gym after this. Don’t want to put on weight!

At first, I didn’t know what to think of her comments. Was this just her way of teasing me? Maybe this was a way for her to establish a friendship where we constantly critique each other’s bodies and choices of whether we should eat or not. Having had an eating disorder when I was in high school that still leaves me struggling to accept my body, I generally try not to be around people who always have something negative to say about my body/choices. It was a difficult journey to get to the place I am at now, therefore I will not allow anyone to cause me to second guess my body.

So I brushed it off. But, it didn’t end there.

Most mornings I bring a fruit and veggie smoothie to work with me. It’s a healthy way to start the day, and so easy to make. I brought the drink in with me one morning and Abby came up and asked me what was in it.

Abby: That drink looks really good! What’s in it?
Me: It’s filled with strawberries, blueberries, a banana, and spinach. It’s pretty good.
Abby: Have you been drinking those for a long time? I know how much of a foodie you are! You probably just started, huh? Trying to lose some weight?
Me: No actually, I’ve been drinking these for a year now, ever since I got my blender. And I’m not trying to lose weight, just like to eat and drink healthy when I can.
Abby: Oh I thought you were on some kind of diet.
Me: No… I’m not. I like my body the way it is.
Abby: Oh good for you.

The conversations since these two accounts have become competitive and slightly confusing in nature. With comments from her like, “Oh you know how to do this? I don’t know how, maybe you’re just smarter than me.” Comments that would typically force me to comfort her by saying things like, “Nooo you’re smart! You’re great! You look amazing! You’re cute!” which to me, isn’t coming from a place of genuine support; instead, this comes from a place of having to stroke her ego. “I’m sorry that I’m smart/pretty/funny/well-rounded. You are much more of these than I ever will be; there, we’re friends now, right?”

At this point, I don’t know exactly what the underlying messages are, if there are any. I just know that these kinds of conversations do not set the tone for a healthy friendship. I like competition within reason. Like, if I’m actually playing a game, or if I’m competing with someone for the same job and we’re both equally qualified. But this situation or whatever it is, is not a game, nor are we even doing the same job. All it is doing is making me feel uncomfortable, awkward, and at times, self-conscious about my body and intelligence because of my constant apologizing for it.

Whether it is one big competition, attention, or to stroke one’s ego, these are some of the downfalls that keep a sisterhood from existing for API women. Focusing on each other’s attributes as a source for jealousy and envy distracts us from sisterhood building and from looking at the issues that are in dire need of attention, such as, but not limited to: eating disorders, acceptance of our bodies, mental health, and so forth. We could be focusing our energies on important issues that are affecting API women greatly, but instead we spend an abundant amount of time and energy on threatening and attacking each other.

There’s a reason why I chose to write specifically about API sisterhood building rather than sisterhood building for all women. Of course, as API women, we are not a monolithic group, so it should be acknowledged that our ethnic and cultural backgrounds will set us apart. But in terms of understanding the complexity of being an Asian Pacific American woman, there are similar experiences.

There is a shared experience around identity conflicts, and what it means to be a woman. A common narrative exists.

And that’s the important and most crucial component to recognize in trying to build sisterhood among API women: We do share a common narrative. I understand what it means to have aspired in the past to be a white woman, bleaching my hair blonde, chasing after white boys. I understand what it means to be told by my mom and aunties that I have to stay skinny and petite in order to land a husband that will take care of me. I understand what it means to be hit on for my “exotic” features rather than for me just being me. I understand what it means to have to hold my pain and anguish to avoid shaming my family or in my culture, generating “chiss-miss” (gossip). I understand what it means to constantly be told that my responsibility to the family and culture is to sacrifice my dreams and ambitions of a career to uphold the sanctity of motherhood — that my only path should be motherhood.

I understand all of this because I have lived it and continue to live with it. I think we all have at one point or another to a degree. And we can decide whether we want to devote our energies towards empowering one another to end the cycle of internalized oppression and female relational aggression. Or we can do nothing and continue to critique, judge, and ultimately, hate each other, keeping the abuse and toxic relationships intact.

I believe we are better than that. We can create a sisterhood among API women. We can establish solidarity. And we are capable of doing all of this while holding the complexity of our experiences, backgrounds, and politics. We can fight patriarchy, cultural stigmas, and injustices, while still loving each other for the imperfect, flawed women that we are. That is a sisterhood I hope we can build and that I’d like to be part of.

This piece was cross-posted from my blog, Brown Girl: (De)Colonized

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Luann

Feminist, Pinay, coffee lover, boba aficionado and pop culture enthusiast. Current graduate student in Peace and Conflict Studies. Dwelling in the rainy city of Portland, Oregon but always California dreaming. You can also read more of her articles at browngirldecolonized.com
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