Waking up to the news that six Asian women were among eight people killed in the Atlanta area on Tuesday was brutal. Cycling through the online outrage, condolences, and conjecture was sobering and exhausting. America is a stationary bike, repeating bad patterns, and going nowhere fast.
By mid-morning, the news was already full of reports that the shooting suspect had a “sex addiction,” which was apparently enough for local law enforcement to begin discounting that the mass killings could be “racially motivated.” During a press conference, Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office also said the shooter had had a “bad day” while discussing the attack. (BuzzFeed News later reported Baker had posted on Facebook a photo of a racist shirt blaming China for the pandemic.)
A gunman targeted three Asian businesses and killed mostly Asian women. Whether the killer will admit to a motive beyond trying to eliminate “temptation,” what is indisputable is that he cruelly harmed Asian women. The Asian American community is now forced to cradle that violence between us, on our own. No one feels safe; everyone is hurting. The killings are racist. Period.
This latest mass shooting comes at a time of rising anti-Asian sentiment in the US. Over the past year as COVID-19 spread, hate crimes against the minority group have also climbed steadily. According to Stop AAPI Hate, from March 2020 to the end of February 2021, there have been at least 3,795 reported hate crimes targeting Asian Americans. Last month, Asian elders were the targets of a string of attacks. These alarming trends are suspected to be tied to COVID-19 bigotry, fueled by former president Donald Trump’s constant remarks calling the disease the “kung flu” or “Chinese virus” and blaming China for the pandemic.
Additionally, the latest Stop AAPI Hate report found that women reported being the victim of a hate crime 2.3 times more often than men.
Someone who knew the shooter told the New York Times that he regularly visited spas for sex. The source said the shooter denied going to these businesses because of the workers’ race, but did so because it felt “safer than paying for sex elsewhere,” the report said. These denials of racial motivations from the shooter, his friend, and law enforcement are incredibly revealing. Asian women are so often two-dimensional fantasies, fantasies that have become so normalized that they’ve fueled sex-kitten anime tropes, specific dom/sub porn genres, and an entire sex work industry. Often, with this sexualization comes a very particular kind of dehumanization.
I have been privileged enough to exist as an Asian woman with some protection and have still felt relatively acute racial trauma. But Tuesday's attacks made me aware of how impactful the traumas have been and have made me question how protected I really am in this country. In the wake of the shooting, many Asian women across the internet have also been reflecting on the hypersexuality that gets projected onto us for simply existing. Fetishy stereotypes follow us everywhere — docile, demure, obedient — and include verbal harassment in racial epithets (“love you long time”) from men who have literally followed us in and out of bars. Being an Asian woman means moving through spaces with the constant anxiety that someone is about to make you their sex object or punchline.
Melissa Borja, an assistant professor in the Asian/Pacific Islander American studies program at the University of Michigan who’s led research on anti-Asian racism related to COVID-19 over the past year, told BuzzFeed News that while this shooter’s purported sex addiction does not carry an “inherent anti-Asian” sentiment, popular culture has facilitated a particular sexualization of Asian women.
“Asian American women are objects of desire, and this idea is reproduced in so many different ways, in so many different movies and musicals. It’s deeply rooted,” she said. Borja recounted a time when her husband was approached by a white man “who asked for advice for finding an Asian woman for a mating relationship.”
“It hinged on a view of Asian women as being less than human in ways that are really troubling to me,” she said. Borja also said that while there is an obsession to understand the motive of the killer in national tragedies like these, she wants us to center our concerns on the harm it’s caused.
“We know Asian American women are particularly affected by the past year and the anti-Asian racism that we see associated with the pandemic. The impact is really important, and it’s been really striking to me last night and today how sad they are, how angry they are,” she said. “Earlier today I just got off the phone with my 71-year-old mother who didn’t want to go on her afternoon walk because she felt afraid. That impact matters perhaps more than the intent of the killer.”
NYC-based writer Christine Liwag Dixon, whose recent tweet about the fetishization she’s experienced in her life went viral, told BuzzFeed News that she often struggles to put into words what those cumulative experiences were like.
“When something like that happens, even as a writer, it’s impossible to articulate yourself because you’re so overwhelmed and feeling so much,” she said. “This is nothing new. Asian women have been dealing with this for generations.”
For Liwag Dixon, the fetishization started in grade school. “Kids would say, ‘me love you love me long time,’ or ask me if my vagina was slanted sideways.” In high school, when the movie Memoirs of a Geisha came out, she said teenage boys were coming up to her asking, “Are you a geisha?”
Liwag Dixon’s mom is Filipino and her dad is a white American, so she saw things “up close” as a child, and intergenerationally. “People would always ask if my mother is a mail-order bride,” she said. “They see an Asian woman and they see a white man and they just assume that the Asian woman is a gold digger. The blame is almost always centered on the woman in the scenario, like, The woman is a gold digger. The woman is an opportunist. They’re not saying how these Western men are abusing their own power.”
Justine Galo, 46, tweeted that people have also sneered at her and her husband, who’s white. “Some people see me with my husband & joke around about the whole ‘mail order bride’ thing or ‘did you get your GI.’”
Galo told BuzzFeed News that after she heard about the attacks, years of feeling “resentment and disrespect” came up for her.
“I experienced [racism] throughout my life from an ex-boyfriend who used to date a very timid woman he met in Korea and was so angered that I wasn't as accommodating as she was,” she said. She shared that he had physically assaulted her, which made her feel “like some second-class form of Asian.”
Audrey Yap, a professor of feminist philosophy at the University of Victoria, was also compelled to respond to the thread. She told BuzzFeed News she's experienced gendered violence in her personal life.
“People sometimes seem to think that treating Asian women as exotic sex objects is somehow a compliment for us, when it's actually something that contributes to violence against us,” she said. Yap recommends reading an academic paper published in 2016 by Robin Zheng about the toxicities of “yellow fever,” a term used to describe the fetishization of Asian people.
Yap recognizes she benefits from being an Asian woman of a higher socioeconomic class — a privilege that the women victims of the attacks did not have. But she’s also reminded that being a model minority does not mean white America sees her whole humanity.
“I know that as Asian women go, I'm super privileged — I have a good job. I don't need to rely on precarious work,” said Yap. “But attacks like this definitely remind me that some people just see women like me through this racialized, stereotyped lens, and we might never really be full people to them.”
Liwag Dixon’s viral tweet has inspired droves of Twitter users to commiserate together, and connect the dots between the shooter targeting spas while blaming his “sex addiction” and racism against Asian women — what Atlanta area police and other news media have so far failed to do. Making that connection is crucial to acknowledging the invisible pain that sits in so many of our chests that was triggered this week.
Growing up, I learned to shrink myself because I internalized that as desirable. I later understood that I need to speak up and take up space because that’s how I’ll survive in this country. All of these conversations women are having about microaggressions have also reminded me that I’m not alone, and that small racist particles contribute to an invisible disease that killed six Asian women this week.
Liwag Dixon said these conversations are not ones she “wants” to have with fellow Asian American women, but they’re necessary right now.
“Seeing how many Asian women have experienced the same thing, there was a sense of solidarity, but it’s not the kind of solidarity I want to see … It’s not that kind of experience I want to be universal, and yet it is,” she said. “So often it is trauma that binds us together.”
In the aftermath of this tragedy, Borja hopes to recenter the narrative on Asian women as leaders exacting change to combat anti-Asian hate.
“It’s important we talk about Asian American women … as not just victims but people who are at the forefront of this work calling for change,” she said. “It was then Kamala Harris and House Rep. Grace Meng who introduced resolutions last year against anti-Asian hate. It is Asian American women’s groups who are calling for changes at the state level. Most of the people involved at Stop AAPI Hate are women. Women in general are leading the call for change at multiple levels. I think it’s really important to remember that Asian American women are not just victims, but those leading the charge for justice.”
These collective efforts, in the midst of a year of rising hate, are a necessary force of momentum that can hopefully start moving these cycle patterns forward.
Additional reporting by Lauren Strapagiel. ●
Correction: Melissa Borja's anecdote about a white man who asked about seeking an Asian woman for a "mating relationship" involved her husband. A previous version of this post said it happened to her son.