Last summer, I had dinner with a guy friend who is notorious for his sexist manners. He ordered for the both of us, and even when I said that I didn’t want anymore water, he overrode my decision and told the waitress that “she’ll have more water.” By the end of the dinner, even the waitress ignored me and only came by when he flagged her down to get me a box for my food (even though I insisted that I was quite alright).
When I recounted this story to my two white female friends, they flared up and were quite enraged. They declared that he was a sexist pig and shared their similar encounters with him. I just nodded along to their stories, not quite understanding why I didn’t feel quite the same amount of rage towards his actions. When I continued to be friends with him, my female friends expressed sheer confusion. I thought you didn’t like him after the dinner thing. Didn’t you say he was sexist? Why are you still friends with him? Shrug.
Perhaps it’s because I’m not quite feminist enough, or maybe it’s because my tolerance for sexism is higher than my racist meter. Maybe. Then I began to notice that there were very clear differences in how we experienced sexism as white women versus women of color. I complained about a time when a man called me “Asian delight” or when a group of townies put their hands together, bowed their heads, and chanted “Ni hao.” My white women friends looked back at me with pity in their eyes. Wow, that’s so racist. I blinked. Actually that was my sexism story. Oh.
For me, my experiences of being a woman in this country have been plagued by yellow fever, exotification, “go-back-to-your-country,” “you-don’t-belong-here,” and a permanent stamp of foreignness. These are my triggers and the sexism that I fight as an Asian American woman. When my guy friend spoke for me during the dinner as a manner of chivalry and because he thought I was fragile and helpless, it didn’t trigger me because that’s not my usual experiences. If silencing happens, it’s usually because people will think that I’ll just shut up and take it (because of the universally submissive nature of Asian woman), rather than because I am a fragile white flower. Images of domesticity, fragility, and protection have always been intimately tied with white womanhood. Perhaps that’s why my white women friends were so triggered and why I wasn’t. Because even though I knew it was sexist, for once in my life, someone thought I of me as being worth something enough to protect. It just became very clear to me that experiences of sexism is diverse, multi-layered, and even at times contradictory. How do we fight sexism as “women” if the sexist experience that bind us together are not even universal? I guess then the question becomes, What alliances are necessary and relevant? Are they always amongst all women? What are the limitations of identity politics?