sister, sister

why asian american sororities are important today

by kenny gong & sunny kim

Let’s just imagine for a second that we’re Asian American, freshmen girls at UC Berkeley. Trying to navigate a brand-new campus with so many damn people all around, we run into the many Sproul-ites trying to lure us with free food. Eventually, another Asian American girl approaches us and hands us a flyer from an Asian American sorority on campus. Having never felt the need to fully explore or analyze our racial identity, it comes as a shock that we feel so intrigued by an all-ethnic, pan-Asian organization. After rushing and pledging, we’re eventually initiated into the “Asian American interest” sorority, where we begin to find sisterhood and community.

Sure, this exercise is clearly far from a comprehensive representation of the experience of Berkeley’s student population, which varies greatly in age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status; however, its specificity indeed encompasses a significant demographic of the university. Currently, 42% of undergraduate students at UC Berkeley self-identify as Asian American.

The history of the exclusion of Asian Americans from the Greek system has led to the rise of all-Asian American organizations. During the last three decades, an influx of Asian American interest sororities occurred in college towns around the country, anywhere there were communities of Asian American students. Now, though, we have begun to see more representation of Asian Americans in formerly white-exclusive sororities, while there are also many disparate Asian American student groups on campus.

We, the authors, were wondering if there still are justifications for why Asian American interest sororities should still exist. We spoke with Emily Chang and Tina Lo, two members of Sigma Omicron Pi, and we were able to see that today’s racial politics are still too nuanced to disregard the significance of an all-Asian American sorority.

Going back to that 42%, it is true that there is some Asian American representation in traditionally white sororities. However, it is also true that the Panhellenic sororities are still predominantly white. So for Asian Americans in these sororities, there may be an obvious transition from feeling like you are part of a majority in a classroom, to finding yourself a racial minority once you enter your sorority house. According to Chang, “Asian American women can find a sense of belonging and community within Asian Greek organizations that they might not necessarily find in Panhellenic sororities.”

Asian Americans are often more likely to find common points of interest and relate to issues that are specific to Asian American community with other Asian Americans. An “Asian American interest sorority” like Sigma Omicron Pi creates a space for such dialogue to occur. For instance, Asian American women might enjoy discussing a new Korean drama they recently watched. Or, considering how HPV disproportionately affects Asian American communities, an Asian American sorority might consider hosting an HPV campaign event to raise awareness about getting tested.

Also, although Asian Americans form a significant portion of the student population at the Berkeley campus, the fact is that this percentage is not representative of the country’s racial breakdown. After entering the “real world” where Asians are clearly a minority, Asian American women may have to come to the realization that the Berkeley bubble is now popped. With a national population percentage of 10%, Asian Americans are still marginalized and seen without the disaggregated lens that is so heavily emphasized at Berkeley.

The qualifications of a bond, specifically the bonds of sisterhood attributed to sororities, are frequently tied to the existence of commonalities and shared interests or desires. Indeed, considering the history of oppression faced by the Asian American community, it makes sense that there would be a strong desire for a collaborative effort to negate the racism and xenophobia of the early twentieth century.

But does an Asian American interest sorority offer more than a sisterhood by helping its members shape their ethnic or racial identity? Or is it simply a sorority modeled after a Panhellenic sorority that happens to have an Asian American majority? Tina Lo of Sigma Omicron Pi said, “Sisterhood can help form ethnic identity simply because people close to you can influence you, especially those you respect and admire. If you see other confident, strong, and successful Asian women, you will strive to be the same.”

We agree that sisterhood is an important aspect of Asian American interest sororities, but we also believe more can be done to serve the “Asian American interest.” Both Chang and Lo said that currently, more emphasis is put on sisterhood than on cultural and historical exploration; we believe the latter should be emphasized as well.

Marginalization of Asians may not be as obvious as in the past, especially on the Berkeley campus, but the ongoing underrepresentation of Asian American women both in the Panhellenic sororities as well as in various professional sectors is enough reason for Asian American interest sororities to exist—they create a space where Asian American women can openly discuss and share thoughts on race. And through this process, Asian American interest sororities can offer not only a sisterhood but also an opportunity for their sisters to explore their identity, culture, and history.