State Rep. Maria Robinson’s phone started buzzing as soon as she woke up on Wednesday: It was her Asian and Asian American friends, checking in after the Atlanta-area shootings that left eight people, including six Asian women, dead on Tuesday night.
Robinson, a Korean American adoptee who serves in the Massachusetts state legislature, brought her phone into the kitchen. Her parents, both White, were eating cereal.
No one had heard about the shootings, she said. When Robinson, 33, explained what had happened, her family was concerned but somewhat “detached,” she said.
“They were like, ‘Oh my God, that’s awful news that is happening to someone else.’ As opposed to how I feel: This could happen to me anytime I walk outside the door.”
Asian Americans have faced escalating threats and harassment this year, as former president Donald Trump and other Republican legislators have linked the coronavirus to the Asian community. The shootings on Tuesday, which took place at three spas in the Atlanta region, are the latest in a string of attacks that have disproportionately targeted Asian women.
Asian American women reported 2.3 times as many hate incidents as Asian American men over the past year, according to a report released Tuesday by Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating hate against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
None of this is surprising, Asian American women say: For years, they’ve paid close attention to anti-Asian sentiment, sounding the alarm. But attacks against their communities are often downplayed by politicians and journalists, they say, and even members of their own families, who stereotype Asian Americans as the “model minority”: successful, wealthy, well-educated. It’s exhausting, Asian American women said, to convince the country that they can be targets, too.
“When we talk about Asian people in the world, my parents always bring up famous actors and doctors,” said Robinson. “Cristina Yang of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ looms large.”
Many people in the United States still don’t seem to understand that Asian Americans experience racism, said Melissa May Borja, an assistant professor of American culture at the University of Michigan, who specializes in Asian American history. After all the discrimination that Asians have experienced throughout U.S. history — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment camps that forced Japanese Americans to leave their homes during World War II — it’s “shocking” that so many Americans are still surprised by anti-Asian attacks, Borja said. She blames the “model minority” myth.
Asian Americans are stereotyped as ultra high-achieving, said Michelle Li, who is Taiwanese American and based in the Atlanta suburbs. White Americans, especially, tend to think of all Asians as upper-middle class, scoring high on standardized tests and crowding them out of Ivy League universities, Li said. When Asians appear in American television and movies — which happens relatively rarely — they are often cast as wealthy socialites.
“You watch ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ or ‘Bling Empire’ on Netflix — and it’s abhorrent to me,” said Li, 36, who works as a piano teacher and freelance writer. She was raised by a single mom who worked at a travel agency.
“That’s not my life at all. That’s not the life of so many Asians here,” she said, including the six women killed on Tuesday.
In reality, Borja said, there is a staggering income gap within the Asian American Pacific Islander community, an extremely broad term that cobbles many distinct ethnicities together. While some Asian Americans are wealthy, she said, many more live at the opposite end of the economic spectrum.
For years, April Demsko, 23, has talked to friends about the discrimination she has experienced as a Filipino American. At her high school, which she says was “97 percent White,” in a conservative suburb of Harrisburg, Pa., she was subjected to a steady stream of racist comments, she said.
“People would call me ‘Asian’ or ‘yellow’ like it was my name,” Demsko said. “We would drive past my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, and my friend would tell me that they steal people’s cats and cook them.”
If you’ve been paying attention, Tuesday’s attacks were “nothing new,” Demsko said.
Throughout the year, she said, she’s received messages from high school friends, saying how shocked they were by the latest incident of anti-Asian hate.
“And I’m like, ‘Were you even around me when I was younger?’ ”
The media is a big part of the problem, said Li. When she saw the news on Wednesday morning, she said, she started shaking.
The story she read quoted Cherokee County Sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker, who said the shooter was having a “bad day,” she said. “I just lost it. That’s incredibly bad framing.”
During a news conference on Wednesday, Baker said the shooter claims his violence was not racially motivated, citing his “sex addiction” and a desire to “eliminate” places of business that had been a “temptation.”
Major media outlets should not be elevating those statements, Li said.
“The machines are working to minimize Asian lives, and present this guy in the best light possible — as a ‘sex addict.’ ” The only people Li fully trusts to cover these issues, she said, are Asian and Asian American women.
Even if the people around them don’t fully recognize the racism they experience, many say, the mounting attacks are changing the way they live their lives. Borja, the professor, decided recently to keep her 12-year-old daughter at home, even though her school is open for in-person learning. Like other Asian American parents, she fears the racist comments her daughter might be subjected to at school.
With her daughter at home, Borja has been sharing images and videos of Asian American women, banding together to protect their communities. Borja plays an active role, conducting research for Stop AAPI Hate.
“I’m glad my daughter gets to see that,” Borja said. “She gets to see me be afraid — but she also gets to see me be brave.”