Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this piece do not reflect the official stance of Kappa Phi Lambda Sorority, Incorporated and solely represent the personal views, opinions, and frustrations of the author.
Some people may read this as airing dirty laundry but this is me breaking silence because when there is injustice, keeping silence is more shameful than breaking silence. Asian and non-Asian alike, my sisters and I need to be reminded that our letters were created to help us stand out and stand together.
This past Thursday was the 22nd anniversary of the founding of Kappa Phi Lambda Sorority, Incorporated. On March 9, 1995 at Binghamton University, seven strong women of various Asian backgrounds officially formed the sorority in response to the lack of Asian representation on their campus. Kappa today is active in 27 schools with a membership of 3,189 sisters and counting, and an average GPA of 3.3 among our actives.
But no one asks about our founding history, why we wear red, white, and heather grey, or what our minimum active GPA is. Nah, it’s always about hazing. So, LET ME TELL YOU about the HAZING it took to earn these letters…
Pulling us out of our beds
taking our shit
separating us from our families and friends
Being forced to swallow
domination over minority interests
in higher education.
Giving us this
that gets whipped out
they want to remind us
we’re their favorite
their one and only
That was the hazing that sparked the birth of Asian-interest fraternities and sororities in the United States. When student communities made no room for Asian students, they created their own:
Rho Psi, the first Asian fraternity, was formed in 1916 at Cornell University because Asian male students were barred from the white clubs and organizations. Originally a student club formed to centralize support and community, they rose to adopt the Greek letter system because an Asian organization was yet to be seen in the higher education community.
Sigma Phi Omega, the first Asian interest sorority, was founded at the University of Southern California in 1949. Their founding purpose was to unite Japanese American students amongst the anti-Japanese sentiment that followed World War II.
Creating these organizations in a white-dominated space wasn’t to mimic whiteness, an insult that unfortunately has more merit nowadays than not. Our letters celebrate our cultural differences, our Asian and American identities, and that we don’t give a fuck about exclusion acts.
Erasure goes a long way. Within a generation, our origins of social justice and building community got lost in translation. We went through the AZN Pride era of the 90s and 2000s, past Lucy Liu co-starring in a franchise that paid her a fraction of her white co-stars, past chopsticks in your hair as a fashion trend, and the expansion of Panda Express. Flash forward past the murder of Pvt. Danny Chen, past the Asia themed yellowface parties, and past the crowds of our black and brown brothers and sisters that walked on without us as they issued national stances on affirmative action, immigration, and LGBTQ+ inclusivity.
Flash forward to the night of January 20, 2017. Trump was sworn in the same day I turned 27. Only four sisters were able to attend the sign making party. We had enough cake and wine for the 15-20 girls we expected to come, but things came up. We still had a good time, coming up with both cheesy and serious slogans, booing at the news updates, and refilling wine glasses. It was like just any other sisterhood event we’ve always had– except this time we reviewed a march route, double checked safety plans, and wondered if sisters would show. We had made this Facebook event in November and were worried that we made too many signs or that sisters wouldn’t want to be recognized. Was putting this together a good idea?
I thought so. And so did the ten sisters that marched with us in D.C. that day. And so did sisters who we ran into during the march, and sisters who stood up and marched in cities all across the country, and sisters who posted messages of solidarity from around the world. On January 21, 2017 we rolled up together, loud and proud, ready to protect each other and ready to defend our right to be there. I am so thankful for my sisters that came and brought their elders, their children, and their unapologetic selves. I am so thankful I wasn’t alone.
Confession: I was ready for people to question what a group of mostly Asian sorority girls were doing there, to tell us we were bandwagoners or just doing this for service hours.
The reality was a little better: We had a sign with a Malala Youstafzai quote that people asked to take photos with and complimented us on. One person admitted they didn’t know who Yuri Kochiyama was. We had another moment of education by explaining what “intersectional feminism” is, and we burned a lot of calories trying to shuffle through the crowds and hold up our signs. We had a “Not Your Model Minority” sign that was applauded in person and on social media, though I wished we made it to the NAPAWF (National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum) warm up table for their red beanies with the same slogan. We ran into members of GABRIELA NY and DC as well as other members of BAYAN. I was proud to educate my sisters on these organizations. All in all, it was a good day.
And then we posted our photos.
And then Angry Asian Man re-posted one of our photos.
And then the responses rolled in.
Sisters were amazed we had a group.
Sisters were proud to see our exposure.
Sisters shared their own photos of their march.
Sisters disapproved of us being there.
Sisters questioned us wearing letters.
Sisters didn’t want to be “political” but…
I knew we had sisters that ranged the political and socioeconomic spectrum, and I knew it was hopeful to think they all would cast aside the differences to agree that women deserve rights. But there is no shame in speaking your truth! Let’s do that, together! We are sisters, we should be having these talks together! We’re 22 years old! Now is the time!
Others agreed with me. This is the type of content we, as a sorority, need to speak on especially as a women’s organization. We put it out there to moderate a discussion, to share opinions and reasons, spark a real conversation and bring social awareness back to our members.
And that’s the root of my current feelings of shame. It was not because of the one or two voices of dissent, because I think it’s healthy to debate and disagree and still hold respect for each other. It was a shame that we didn’t challenge ourselves further to make that space. Somewhere down the line, Asian orgs leaned more towards the rat race mentality of earning these letters as a resume point or social lubricant, neglecting our organization’s historical purpose of keeping Asian student voices loud and proud in our communities.
There are only so many times I can eat cold Chinese takeout food served on fancy paper plates at a $5 fundraiser banquet and wonder if we even see how wrong that is, how this is how they wanted us to be the whole time: complacent and ashamed.
What’s worse is, we weren’t always like that. We have a chapter that runs an annual women’s empowerment conference called Become StrongHer, now in it’s 5th year. 2017 marks the 8th annual Out of the Darkness masquerade ball, which has raised awareness and funds for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, because we, in the Asian American women’s community, are not without our losses of sisters that suffered alone with depression and suicide. In 2015, we lost a sister to an unjust death caused by domestic violence, and as a sisterhood we mourned and fundraised and stood together. And this past Thursday, across the nation and around the world, we remembered this sisterhood that brought us together.
Those snapshots are not what first comes up when you Google search Kappa Phi Lambda, but it should. And when we search ourselves, search what we want to be known as — as sorority girls, as women, as women of color, as Asian women — we should look at who we see with pride, with walang hiya.
Jamy Drapeza is a social worker focused on ending incarceration and promoting social justice through advocating for community based programming. She is also the Director of the Alumnae Association of Kappa Phi Lambda Sorority, Incorporated and an active member of GABRIELA NY.