“Hey, is it racist if I ask you for a massage?”
A man asked me this while lying in my bed a few years ago. He was someone I cared for, and when you care for someone, their words come out as petals and you’re too focused on catching them with both hands to realize what’s actually being said. He asked with a laugh, thinking the “is it racist” disclaimer would soften the squeeze.
That’s what tiny acts of harm feel like. Little squeezes, a grip that tightens until one day you can’t take it anymore and you’re vomiting all the words you’ve swallowed out of fear of being irrational, being fragile, being wrong.
On Tuesday night, my news feed ruptured with an aching report of three shootings at Atlanta-area spas that left eight people — six of whom were Asian women — dead. A 21-year-old White man has been detained as the suspect in all three shootings and reports from a media briefing on Wednesday cited a possible “sex addiction.”
The news brought to mind the man from my past, and all the men who have seen my Asian face, my Asian body, as something to conquer. A tally to mark off their list. I thought about how there was violence laced in their language, how their jokes and offhand comments were a cyclical offspring of how Asian women are depicted in mass media.
I thought about the fan-fluttering scenes in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” how this visual language of subservient women has always fed into the unchecked growth of the White male ego. I thought about the origins of the “China Doll” stereotype, learned from sorting through scholar articles and independent blog posts because I couldn’t find any major media outlet that provided proper coverage. I thought about orientalism as a product of imperialism that framed Eastern cultures as exotic, machine-like and effeminate: the damaging effects of all our socially destructive work throughout history, including “Madama Butterfly” — an opera celebrated across America and Europe about a French naval officer who travels to Japan and finds a diminutive, delicate, docile wife. I thought about the psychological tools of Western patriarchy employed to reduce their own guilt while conquering and pillaging entire nations.
Violence isn’t always loud. It’s not always an overt physical act we can call immediate attention to. Violence and harm seep into our collective lexicon — our catch phrases, our lyrics, our headlines — and sometimes we don’t feel its impact until we’re given permission to. Seeing my Asian American siblings call attention to their pain helped me find language to feel my own feelings, to think my own thoughts.
Sometimes it’s spiralic and hectic, but the messiness of rage and the nonlinear nature of grief are necessary. I think about all the scenes in movies I’ve seen that illustrate Asian women as hyperfeminine and sexually docile, quite literally served as a breakfast buffet (like the scene in “Rush Hour 2,” when rows of slender East and Southeast Asian women in various forms of nightwear appear against a hot pink curtain, a cue for on-demand pleasure). I think about the women who were cast in these roles, the people who wrote them into the script, the people who didn’t understand the harmful tropes they were recycling.
These tropes are ubiquitous. But when a news event like this unfolds as jarring headlines, there’s a wild unpacking that ensues, and for valid reasons. The social media conversations to #StopAsianHate and #StopAAPIHate arose from a collective breaking point in Asian America. Asian American experiences, histories, pain and joy have been disproportionately invisible in our textbooks, and in mass media, keeping most of us from understanding our own struggles. And the calls to action from community organizers, scholars, and thought leaders are about more than one-dimensional visibility — we want, need, and are in dire need of change.
Now, we are experiencing an Asian American awakening — not that we were asleep. Our Asian American ancestors and elders have built this country’s largest railroad network, have been interned in camps by the federal government, and have marched alongside Black organizers to fight for many of the civil rights we have today. But many of us haven’t had access to our ancestral grief, our ancestral rage, our ancestral action.
Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American community organizer, philosopher and radical feminist, left us with many words of wisdom, among them being: “The only way to survive is by taking care of each other.”
We must connect to our roots and speak visibility into our layered existence. We must ensure that our activism is intersectional with Black liberation organizers and disability justice organizers. We must ensure that when we say Asian American, we aim to learn about the disparities in East Asian, Southeast Asian, South Asian and Pacific Islander communities. We must ensure that we’re listening to what is needed among our least protected, most historically harmed, including elders, sex workers, and small-business owners. We must shift resources into mutual aid networks, communal care funds and local initiatives. We must ensure that we learn about the historic exclusion in American laws around immigration, and how this feeds into today’s use of detention centers and deportation activity today. We must interrogate our language and remove the harm in our daily vocabulary — visual and verbal.
When I think about racial justice and gender equity, I think about responsibility — the agency we have to reshape our reality, to bring context to moments in our past to develop our future in a way that honors the ways we are all interconnected.
I wish I could go back to the man in my bed and tell him how his words were harming to me. I wish I could go back to my younger self and let her know that she’s a flower — not because she’s delicate and demure, but because she’s a living, breathing being worthy of care and nourishment. Maybe knowing now is enough for the future. Maybe knowing this now can help me identify, call attention to and change the violence in our language.
Maybe we can all speak with less harm and more love if we choose to.
Below are a curated list of resources to continue learning about, amplifying and supporting in whatever capacity you choose:
∙ Alexander Chee and Cathy Park Hong on how the pandemic has cracked open discrimination against Asian American communities.
∙ “Asian American Feminisms and Women of Color Politics,” a collection of essays edited by Lynn Fujiwara and Shireen Roshanravan.
∙ An interview by Krista Tippett of writer Ocean Vuong.
∙ Butterfly, an organization protecting Asian and migrant sex workers.
∙ Red Canary Song, a collective of grass roots Asian and migrant sex workers.
∙ AAPI Women Lead, an organization that aims to strengthen the progressive political and social platforms of Asian and Pacific Islander communities in America
∙ Attend a bystander intervention training with Hollaback, an organization aimed at ending harassment.
Jezz Chung (she/they) is a Brooklyn-based writer and facilitator working with creative communities to create cultural transformations. You can find them on social media @jezzchung.