Sister Outsider: Widening the Scope of Female Liberation

Cover art by Alexandra Levasseur

I recently read Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde (1934-1992), a preeminent voice in feminist, LGBTQ+, and civil rights literature and poetry. Self-describing herself as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Lorde has devoted her life to tackling the obstacles we face in navigating intersectional identities (like being queer and/or BIPOC), and how this affects both our sense of self and our relationships with others. In Sister Outsider, Lorde’s compiled essays and speeches delve into the contradiction of community versus alienation, and how these things can coexist — “sister” for this sense of togetherness we find in identity and solidarity, “outsider” for the inevitable isolation that comes with this consciousness. I feel her elucidations on a good deal of these subjects can be applied to so many issues we tackle as Asians, and as women.

A running theme Lorde discussed in her essays on feminism and racism was the disharmony found within marginalized groups. She describes a fear of having to “share” or “give away” one’s freedoms as another gains equality, using the term horizontal hostility to define the “kitchen fights” that occur between Black men and women, between heterosexual and queer women, between white women and women of color. Horizontal, because these groups that experience discordance are ones under the same means of oppression and by the same oppressor. Although not explicitly defined, “vertical” oppression is one coming from above — white supremacy, the patriarchy, and the ideologies that keep BIPOC, queer folks, and women from excelling. This ignorance towards how white supremacy operates and weaponizes our identities to fuel horizontal hostility maintains the disunion between BIPOC, between women.

Asian women have struggled to find a place both during first and second-wave feminism, even in the present within mainstream white feminism. While white women were fighting for voting rights and economic independence from Seneca Falls in 1848 to the first attempt for a woman’s suffrage amendment in 1874, Asian women were still fighting to be even let into the United States, simply even to be recognized as women themselves.

The Page Act of 1875 prohibited the entry of any Chinese women into the country entirely, considering them “undesirable” — specifically Chinese women that were prostitutes and sex workers. Historian Sucheng Chan described the reasons Americans provided to sustain their hostility towards Chinese women — “they allegedly brought in especially virulent strains of venereal diseases, introduced opium addiction, and enticed White boys into a life of sin.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned all Chinese from immigrating.

Due to these significant disparities along the timeline for visibility and equality, white feminism has often disregarded the racial and ethnic barriers that intertwine with our identity as Asian women. Liberation for all women is not as simple as just voting rights or economic freedom. Race and sex intersect; the issues that we face for being female cannot be addressed wholly without including our experiences being Asian. Not only has feminism been heralded from a white perspective and led by white women since the beginning of the women’s rights movement, but many famous figures throughout the years have also blatantly disregarded the needs of queer and colored women within the movement and ostracized them.

Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique — a novel that fueled second-wave feminism in the 1960s, fired lesbian women and allies who worked at NOW (The National Organization for Women) that spoke up against her neglect towards the role of lesbian women in the feminist movement. Betty herself used the term “Lavender Menace” to describe this threat of queer visibility within second-wave feminism, and viewed the demands for inclusion as a setback to her goals for political change. Rita Mae Brown, editor of the NOW newsletter and fired by Friedan, worked to create a group of radical lesbian feminists, calling themselves the Lavender Menace, reclaiming the term Friedan had used against them, to protest at the Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970, demanding that liberation for lesbian women was just as important as that of the white, heterosexual woman.

White feminism has attempted to cater and enlighten Asian women through “feminist imperialism,” as said by Dr. Minoo Moallem, professor of Women & Gender studies, in which all third-world women “get constructed as a singular, non-Western other (2006).” White feminism mimics the same tactics that western civilization has throughout the centuries of colonization; instead of the potential for cultural and ideological exchange, it has become a matter of power and hence, subjugation.

Our stories as Asian women are not told within the political narrative of the mainstream women’s movement because white women do not experience injustice because of their race, only their sex. When Asian women are assaulted, harassed, and raped by white men because of the depictions Asian women receive in the media, white women will never fully understand how this is a product of not just our sexual and gender identity, but our race and our culture, too.

Asian American scholar Gary Okihiro states, “Europe’s feminization of Asia, its taking possession, working over, and penetration of Asia, was preceded and paralleled by Asian men’s subjugation of Asian women.” The products of colonization and westernization are seen in popular culture’s emasculation of Asian men, causing their desire to falsify this stereotype. This has created a rift in the solidarity between Asian men and women for liberation — another example of the horizontal hostility that Lorde describes between members of the same marginalized group. Asian mens’ apprehension towards being categorized within these feminine stereotypes can lead them to physically abuse/harass Asian women to prove their masculinity. Statistics on violence against AAPI women describe the top reasons for family violence as “the husband [wanting] power, domination, and control… and that he is frustrated/has anger.”

It is all rooted in white supremacy. Facing violence from members outside of our own racial groups as well as within, Asian women face physical/verbal/sexual abuse because of both the depictions of their gender intertwined with their racial identity — to white men, the fetishization of Asian women, and to Asian men, with their own feminization. White feminism continues to uphold this superiority when they fail to address the racial significance of these problems under the umbrella of women’s rights.

In Sharin N. Elkholy’s essay on Feminism and Race, she describes, “Women of color in the U.S., for example, not only define themselves in a struggle against white men and men of color, but also in resistance to white women.”

Instead of creating an inclusive, broad movement that addresses how white supremacy has created inequalities both on the basis of sex and race, white feminism continuously chooses not to. Fighting for liberation for “all women” besides the white heterosexual woman becomes an act of saviorism for white feminism, “rescuing” Asian women from their cultural and ethnic plight and forcing their assimilation into western civilization, doing this all under the guise of women’s rights and liberation — but in truth, white feminism still operates on the basis of the same systems that still oppress us, and is therefore counterproductive. It refuses to acknowledge and embrace the differences in cultural heritage, then chooses not to include these issues under a movement that should be fighting for the equality of all women.

There is no singular approach to liberation, nor should the experience of only white women be the only narrative to define it.

“As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change.” This is what Lorde states in her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” — that sustaining patriarchal thinking will never be able to dismantle toxic masculinity and the systems that continue to give a platform for the oppression of women. White feminism views BIPOC as an extra issue to tackle, separate from their own cause when Asian identity is (and always has been) intertwined into the female experience. When we refuse to see the intersectionality between being female, being queer, being BIPOC, we stray even further from unison.

In Lorde’s paper, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” she analyzes her own experience as a Black lesbian and how embracing her identity brings enlightenment to the way she lives and acts. She says:

“The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our oppression as women.”

The Asian woman is more than her stereotypes; more than the lotus blossom and the dragon woman that withholds her from creating a sense of self that defies the western, patriarchal view of her heritage. The Asian woman cannot be reduced to these falsehoods, or she will never find liberation for herself, separate from the white feminism that tries to squeeze and mold her into a digestible, watered-down version of her race. White feminism nor white supremacy can define any Asian woman or any BIPOC. The spectrum must be widened.

There are many hurdles that the women’s movement needs to overcome and those among the Asian community that hold us back from true equality. Female liberation requires feminism to broaden beyond the focus of the white woman, and recenter the voices of Asian women, and of Indigenous, Latinx, and Black, and queer women, too.

One of the most striking passages I read in Sister Outsider was one at the end of Lorde’s speech given at the Modern Language Association’s “Lesbian and Literature Panel,” titled “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” She speaks of the barriers that women place between themselves that prevent unity, that the racial or sexual identities that embrace such a wide and diverse compass within the female experience does not have to be a reason for division, but a prompt to listen and understand one another.

“For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.

The fact that we are here and I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”


Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde (1984)

Edited by Mahitha Mamilla

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