Yesterday morning, I awoke to frantic texts from relatives and friends back home in Georgia who were terrified by an act of senseless violence in a year fraught with hate crimes.
On Tuesday night, a gunman murdered eight people at three Asian spas across Atlanta, sending shockwaves through the Asian American community. Six of the victims were Asian and seven were women.
In April of last year, an assailant threw a vat of acid onto an Asian woman’s face in Brooklyn, causing chemical burns on her face and body. Then came the attacks on innumerable Asian elders, many of them immigrants who came to this country hoping to find a place where their children and grandchildren could prosper. Instead, they were greeted by racial hostility and xenophobia that has persisted from before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to this day.
3,800 hate crimes against the Asian community were reported last year alone, with 68% of them directed towards women. The legacy of hate against Asian Americans and especially Asian women can no longer be ignored. The blend of misogyny and racism has fostered a culture where Asian women are exoticized, fetishized and subjected to harassment and assault at a disproportionate degree. According to a report published by the Asian Pacific Institute of Gender-Based Violence, 23% of Asian/Pacific Islander women have been subjected to contact sexual violence. Therefore, the act of terrorism in Atlanta must serve as momentum for change.
Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, I was exposed to anti-Asian sentiments at a young age. One night in 2009, my mother and I were driving through Norcross, GA. A black Toyota Tacoma emerged from the darkness, running perpendicular to our vehicle. The nose of our car grazed it, creating a chalky scratch across the long side of the truck. My mother stopped just in time. There was no collision, no screaming. Just the whites of her eyes getting bigger as the red-faced white man in the Toyota began to curse.
Then, he said the words. Words so foreign they were never uttered on the playground of my elementary school, even in the most aggravated of childish battles. “Chinese c-nt.” I watched my mother’s cheeks flush with embarrassment. She rolled her window down all the way.
“You are a mean person!” she yelled back. “You can’t talk to me that way!” Her English came out tinged with a Shanghainese accent.
Back then, I was baffled by her lack of defiance. I was too young to understand that she refrained from cursing back so that she wouldn’t set a bad example for me. As I grew up, my friends and I experienced racism as Asian women in derogatory catcalls and offhand remarks. I learned not to fight back, to consume the model minority myth and believe that financial success and meritocracy would pave the way for equality. Through the hate crimes enacted against my peers growing up, I was able to dispel a common belief about the status of Asians in America. Many believe that COVID-19 and Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric stoked current hate against Asian communities. This is true: phrases like “kung flu” and “Chinese virus” scapegoat Asian citizens and blame them for the pandemic. These sentiments are not new. They always existed, albeit dormant. Trump and his constituents only gave racists an excuse to be upfront about it.
The suspect for the Atlanta murders claims that his killings were motivated by a “sexual addiction” rather than racial hate. However, the experiences of Asian women across the country show that this situation is not that simple. How can we extricate centuries of fetishization from an act where the perpetrator deliberately targeted Asian businesses and Asian sex workers? Our desires do not exist in a void. Although he may deny his motive, his actions were informed by a country that systemically views Asian women through the same imperialist mindset employed during the occupation of Vietnam decades ago.
Sex workers are confined to this perspective even more. Even back in 1875, legislation like the Page Law restricted the migration of Asian women who were thought to have been brought to America for immoral purposes. The dehumanization of Asian sex workers by authorities is present in the management of Tuesday’s killings. When questioned about the shooter’s motive, Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said the gunman was just having “a bad day.” This dismissive term furthers the narrative of privilege. One white man’s bad day should never be used to justify such a flagrant atrocity.
This gunman’s “bad day” shed carnage over my hometown, a place where my family learned to shield itself from micro and macro-aggressions from people who needed an outlet for their anger. His “bad day” was not a bad day, but rather the taking of eight innocent lives, six of which shared my skin color. Six Asian women were pigeonholed by a fetish, by a white man who viewed them only as extensions of his lust. We must acknowledge this as what it is: a hate crime.
Delaina Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Julie Park, Hyun-jeong Park and the countless other Asian lives lost to senseless, racist violence, deserve to be remembered through change.
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Email Ashley Wu at [email protected]