Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Contextualizing Anti-Asian Violence in Atlanta
It was a usual Tuesday evening. I got off from work, opened a can of beer, and was browsing the Netflix Korean drama list so I could relax into my evening routine in my living room in Duluth, Georgia. But then, something unusual happened with my phone’s notifications. At 8:01 p.m., I received a news alert from the Korean ethnic media about mass shootings at several Atlanta spas, not far from where I live—the first alert said four people were killed. At 8:19 p.m., another news alert said that those four people who died were Asian women. At 8:33 p.m., the alerts notified me that two of the women were Korean, and at 9:16 p.m., the news reported that four of the eight victims from the shootings were Korean women.
My phone continued ringing into the night, with text messages exchanged between my girlfriends and me. We shared the news articles about the shooting and the victims. Shooting incidents are not uncommon in America, but the fact that this tragedy happened so close to home, and to our neighbors, was deeply shocking and profoundly saddened us. And then we got scared—and angry. When we had nothing to share but our anxiety and despair, we concluded our conversation by saying, “stay safe.” But even that got me thinking: What did these women do that was “unsafe” to put themselves in danger? Can we really keep ourselves safe from hate crimes by staying at home, or simply being cautious of the threat? What is this danger that we are facing anyway?
On March 16, eight people were killed in shootings at three separate Asian American-owned spas near Atlanta. The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, claimed that he was not motivated by racial hatred, but rather by his “sexual addiction.” Based on the fact that the suspect drove miles to three Asian American-owned spas and most of the victims were Asian American women, it’s impossible to hide racism in this scene of the crime. Instead, we need to adequately address that this shooting is a racially motivated crime, specifically rooted in sexualized racism against Asian American women. We must also address American history’s role in creating vulnerable subjects, and encouraging (or at least dismissing) violence against them.
During the pandemic, violent attacks, and harassment toward Asian Americans have spiked. In 2020, hate crimes targeting Asian people rose by 150%, while such crimes decreased overall by 7%, according to a report released this month by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. I have personally witnessed how xenophobic rhetoric around the coronavirus, and controversial comments about immigrants by our ex-president, have fueled anti-Asian discrimination and inflamed hatred in this country.
This portrayal of Asian American women is not our history—it is what the history of White supremacy and systematic racism wishes to insert.
During times of crisis, more vulnerable populations have historically become scapegoats. We Asian Americans have been targeted by the yellow peril, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese Americans, the post-9/11 surveillance and violence directed at Muslim and South Asian communities, ongoing ICE raids in our Southeast Asian communities and Asian-owned businesses, the detention and deportation of our community members, and now, rising anti-Asian attacks during COVID-19. This is how our community’s history is crafted under the United States’ long history of White supremacy and systemic racism.
On March 16, we lost eight individuals who were our beloved families, friends, and neighbors. Working as a Korean community organizer at Asian American Advocacy Fund, one of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) organizations in Georgia, I received several media requests in the wake of the shootings. In one interview, I was asked about Asian American women’s hypersexualization and sexual fetishization, as though we are to blame for the actions of a violent White man who claimed he had an “addiction” that required him to “eliminate” the “temptation” of our existence. The United States’ long history of bigotry against Asian American women has made us more vulnerable to gender-based violence and sexualized racism. Media and pop culture frequently depict Asian American women as submissive and obedient, a manifestation of Oriental beauty—dehumanized sexual objects whose bodies are fetishized for White male pleasure. But this is not our history. This portrayal of Asian American women is again what the history of White supremacy and systematic racism wishes to insert.
Take, for instance, Asian American women’s participation in the beauty industry. Asian American women are not involved in the beauty industry to fulfill the sexual fetishization of White men. In 2017, I conducted ethnographic research on the first-generation Korean American women in Duluth, to examine how their sociocultural experiences before and within immigration have contributed to their understanding of women’s subjectivity. These first-generation Korean American women I interviewed were working in service and beauty industries owned by local Asian Americans. By immigrating, these women increased their socioeconomic statuses by becoming working-class immigrants in the U.S., which offered them new opportunities to enter the workforce and provide substantial economic contributions to their families. None of the subjects of my research voiced a desire to enter that industry to fulfill a racialized, fetishized stereotype.
Likewise, the six Asian American women killed in Atlanta were not hypersexualized objects responsible for the suspect’s “sexual temptation.” They were hard-working women who worked to provide the best for their families.
I am heartbroken and angry for losing the precious lives of our neighbors. But we cannot just stay heartbroken by this tragedy.
As our society is finally having a racial reckoning, from Black Lives Matter to Stop Asian Hate, I have become more aware of racism and sexism around me. Unlike many other Asian Americans who shared their frustration with the racism implicit in being asked “where are you from?” I did not have a problem with this question. Growing up as an immigrant kid, I defined myself as a foreigner to this country. It was pretty obvious to me that I was from Korea. However, I soon realized that I was going through the process of becoming a minority, transforming from Korean into Korean American.
As an Asian American, I expect levels of discrimination and inequality here, and I bear with them. Because I am labeled as a minority, I feel like there exist boundaries I shouldn’t cross to the side of the majority. I’ve heard about cultural integration, where different cultures and customs become part of American culture, but it’s a mere myth. My experience suggests that White Americans do not believe in Americans of color. They want to make sure we don’t cross their boundaries by questioning our origins, stigmatizing us as “others,” and confining us to a “model minority.” Remaining at the bottom of this country’s racial hierarchy, I have gradually internalized inferiority and repressed my voice. Living as an Asian American woman, I experience endless sexual harassment. Regardless of how I express my sexuality, I am still considered a “small and tight Asian woman who can bring the best joy for men”—and yes, this is literally what a man whispered to me inside a crowded train in New York City.
Our calls to action are simple: protect our communities, and promise our future generations that they will be valued as important.
Until now, I ignored the ignorant. But from now on, I won’t. I cannot be silenced any longer when I see my brothers discriminated against when claiming themselves Americans, and when I know my sisters are harassed by sexual fetishization that strips them of humanity. Together, we must end the history of White supremacy, systemic racism, and misogyny. We must revise the history with our stories and voices. I am heartbroken and angry for losing the precious lives of our neighbors. But we cannot just stay heartbroken by this tragedy. We need to act to restore justice, and empower AAPI communities and other communities of color, to access the equal opportunities and treatment we deserve as Americans who call this land “home.”
First, let’s center the victims of this attack and their families—including with financial and community support. We need to make sure their lives are honored with dignity and respect. Second, we need to recognize that the rise in anti-Asian attacks hurts many Asian American businesses in our community. We need to support our local AAPI businesses to make sure our community is not isolated, but keeps thriving. Most importantly, get involved with AAPI organizations in your community and nationwide. These organizations are committed to making safe communities where we all belong and thrive. Numerous organizations are leading racial dialogue, community-building to address the root causes of violence and hate, and offering responsive crisis intervention resources, including in-language support for mental health, legal, employment, and immigration services. In Georgia, Asian American Advocacy Fund is working at the state and local level to advocate for policies that ensure the needs of immigrants and communities of color are reflected in policy. And to mourn the tragedy in our community, we have created a community-centered series offering healing, solace, and building solidarity. Our calls to action are simple: protect our communities, and promise our future generations that they will be valued as important.
Su Choe is a 1.5-generation Korean-American from Atlanta, Georgia. She earned a M.A. in Anthropology and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology at Georgia State University, where her research focuses on social changes, cross-generation and community studies, Asian Americans, and Asian diasporas. In 2020, she published a chapter in a book titled The 1.5 Generation Korean Diaspora: A Comparative Understanding of Identity, Culture, and Transnationalism. At Asian American Advocacy Fund, Choe is a Korean community organizer, addressing immigrant issues that directly impact the everyday lives of immigrant communities in Georgia and helping to bring awareness to the communities about potential points of advocacy. She speaks English and Korean.