“Sister, Can You Lend An Ear” by Julia Oh

Sister, Can You Lend an Ear?
By Julia Oh
©2002 Julia Oh

Sisters know what I’m talking about. The demeaning terms and images that are associated with Asian women: “Suzie Wong. Geisha girl. Me so horny. Damsel in distress. China Doll. Bound feet. Fucky-sucky.” We live in a society where Asian women are forced to battle the the burdens of both sexism and racism, where social hierarchy positions white above Asian, man above woman. For that, there is nothing that makes me prouder than a strong sister. There is a growing collective consciousness among Asian women. Over the past few years, an increasing number of Asian women have taken the initiative to speak out against oppression. Asian women were at the forefront of protests to The Bloodhound Gang’s racist lyrics in the song “Yellow Fever”, as they were at the forefront of protests against Abercrombie & Fitch’s racist caricature T-shirts. Numerous Asian female empowerment sites have sprung up all over the internet, including one of my favorites, an in-your-face webpage that parodies Asian female porn sites designed for white male jerk-off fantasies.

However inspiring it is to know that more of my Asian sisters are decrying and defying the submissive, passive and sexually accommodating stereotype, there is a growing uneasiness among many Asian Americans, particularly among Asian men, that politically active Asian women are harboring unprogressive attitudes. Through my own observations and experiences with other activist Asian women, and through various correspondences with Asian men, I have found that a disproportionate number of activist Asian women are exceedingly hostile towards Asian men. Some would even go so far as to side with a white male before giving an Asian man a fair chance, while others have the tendency to overlook or excuse white males for chauvinistic behavior while holding Asian men to a higher standard. Although some are more extreme than others, the hostility seems to manifest itself in these general forms: these women’s propensity to date white or black men, a general aversion towards Asian culture on the back of the notion that Asian culture is endemically patriarchal, and a strong allegiance to white feminist theory.

I recently heard an Asian male say that activist Asian women who date or marry white men are not helping the cause. Many Asian females involved in interracial relationships will argue that who they date is a personal matter, and that it does not take away from their contribution to the community. I disagree. As I see it, the issue is merely a matter of practicing what you preach. Like most Asian women, my preference to date Asian men comes as second nature- because I click best with Asian men, because I find them attractive, and because I find the most in common with them. However, my reasons are also political. Since I am fighting the system that supports white male hegemony, it would be hypocritical for me to then turn around and date a white man. Since I am fighting a system that characterizes Asian men as being undesirable and weak, it would undermine my own credibility if I were to choose a white male over an Asian male.

Whenever Asian men criticize Asian women for dating white males, the knee-jerk reaction that I hear used by Asian women is that “Asian men do not own Asian women”. The implication that Asian men are upset to see Asian women with white men because they feel that Asian women are their property is not only offensive, but short-sighted. Offensive, because if it were as simplistic and as primitive a matter men feeling that they “own” women, then how does that explain my own (and other Asian women’s) resentment towards Asian women who are with white (or non-Asian) men? Short-sighted, because in America, where whites have power and privilege over Asians, it is impossible for an Asian man to “own” a woman in the way that a white man can “own” a woman. Let us not forget that not only do white males have a history of being possessive of white women, as manifested through passage of anti-miscegenation laws, but that there is a history of white men owning black women as their maids, field workers and sex slaves, and that there is a history of Asian women being raped as a part of Standard Operating Procedure or being used to serve the sexual needs of soldiers during every war that America has waged in the Pacific. By and large, when Asian Americans criticize AF-WM pairings, it is not a matter of being possessive and controlling. It is because the AF-WM phenomenon supports an oppressive system that places white men above Asian men. If we lived in a perfect world where no one group had power over another, no one would have the right to criticize another’s dating choice.

The unfortunate yet undeniable fact is that we live in a patriarchal world. We live in a world where men make the call to launch explosives on neighboring lands when conflicts are not resolved by negotiation. We live in a world where men run politics, control the flow of money and resources, and where men are justified to use women for sexual gratification through coercion, force or through money. It is critical to recognize that patriarchy sees no color. We must stop looking at Asian culture through the white prism that brands patriarchy and chauvinism as traits endemic to Asian culture. While Asian men still bear the flak for foot binding, a cruel practice that has now been outlawed, white males never had to bear the flak for inhumane forms of female body sculpting and punishment, such as corsettes, chastity belts and vanity masks. Furthermore, modern day processes and instruments, such as stiletto heels, silicon and gel breast implants, and liposuction jeopardize thousands of women’s health and lives across the world to this day, yet white men are never held in any way culpable. Asian male authors are criticized as being patriarchal when writing works whose theme centers on the relationship between a father and a son. Yet, the vast majority of white male authors’ works revolve on male-centered themes, and this goes by without a peep. It was not long ago that women in America were not allowed to vote, nor was it long ago that it was frowned upon for women in America to work outside the home. America has never seen a female President or Vice President. Domestic violence and marital infidelity in America run the highest out of any other industrialized nation. On the other hand, women in China have always been able to own property and businesses, women in China keep their last names even after marriage, many Southeast Asian nations have seen women Presidents, both China and Japan have had women emperors, and women in modern day Japan have complete control over financial matters in their households.

In empowering themselves as women, I have noticed that many Asian women have taken cues from white feminists. However, there is a fundamental flaw for Asian women to follow the exact doctrines of white feminists. One must realize that white women have the luxury to fight sexism because they do not have to deal with racial oppression- white women can afford to antagonize white men, because at the end of the day, it is still white men who are in control. On the other hand, for Asian women, sexism and racism are invariably tied together. “Me so horny” is not used to degrade white women, nor is it used to degrade Asian men. It is impossible for Asian women to separate oppression into the Asian-side and the female-side, and must therefore always keep a racial consciousness when engaging in a battle of the sexes.

I have heard several progressivist Asian women say they have a problem being described by Asian men as “our women”, because it connotates ownership. This mentality has roots in white feminist theory. I have probed many Asian men on their usage of the term “our”, and their explanation is that “our” is used as a term to express kinship, and not ownership. “Our” is used to refer to “our” sisters, “our” mothers, “our” daughters. This is similar to the way that people of color will refer to one another as “brother” and “sister” to express kinship, rather than to explain the literal sibling relationship that is applied by whites when using the terms sister and brother.

White feminists often talk of empowering themselves by absolving male privilege. This is another dogma that feminist Asians seem to have picked up out of context. Empowerment comes in many different forms. And with the empowerment of one group comes the inevitable, yet perhaps necessary, disempowerment of another. America will never be a truly equal society for people of color unless white people concede to give up their white privileges, just as women will never be social equals to men unless men acquiesce their male privileges. However, whereas white males have only privileges to give up, Asian men have privileges to gain- and that is why it is so important for Asian feminists/activists to follow a different course from white women.

Just as racism and sexism are invariably tied together for Asian women, race plays a very large role in the sexual hierarchy of Asian men vis-‡-vis the larger society. Asian men are not nearly afforded the same male privileges as white men, simply because of the effects of media emasculation of the Asian male. In fact, in many ways, Asian men are on the same or even lower footing as white women. Asian men less for every dollar that a white man earns, in the same way that white women earn less for every dollar a white man earns. The single largest beneficiaries under Affirmative Action policies in employment are white women. After all, it is white men who do the hiring, and are more likely to undertake a woman who appears less “threatening” than an Asian man.

Another important factor for activist Asian women to consider when battling patriarchy is that whereas white women have the privilege of fighting for a solo cause, racism keeps Asian men and Asian women together. The emasculated demonized Asian man is but the flip side to the same racist coin that portrays Asian women as helpless exotic sexually adroit lotus blossoms. Suzie Wong is Charlie Chan’s counterpart, as The Dragon Lady is Fu Man Chu’s counterpart. Starting with the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, the Pacific stage of WW2, to the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the images that were imported to America were those of the brutal, cold-hearted ruthless Asian men. Hand-in-hand came the images of Asian prostitutes, the helpless destitute women, mail order brides. It is impossible for Asian women to break away from binding stereotypes, without Asian men also breaking away from dehumanizing stereotypes, and it is thereby most imperative for Asian women and men to work together to battle oppression.

All of this is by no means a call to excuse chauvinism and misogyny within the Asian community. Nor is it an indictment on all Asian women. It is not even a call for Asian women to suppress their angst for the benefit of unity, for the facade of solidarity can and will easily crumble. It would be foolish to deny that sexism exists in the Asian American community, or to deny that there are Asian men who degrade, abuse and exploit Asian women. To my sisters who have been victims of misogyny and/or abuse by the hands and minds of Asian men, I hear you. There are indeed issues that we need to confront our brothers with. I only wish for my fellow Asian sisters to rid their biased notions against Asian men, to realize that they are not our enemy. I only wish for my fellow Asian sisters to realize that we are in this fight together, and I ask that more sisters extend both a literal and a metaphorical hand to our Asian brothers.

Article reposted from: http://www.bigwowo.com/2010/05/sister-can-you-lend-an-ear-by-julia-oh/

[The original article has now been long lost on net…… but it’s legacy now lives on in the multiple asian american forums online that have rekindled the conversation.]