There have been many difficult conversations in the past week, after shootings at three Atlanta-area spas killed eight people, including six Asian women — and the White man charged in the shootings blamed his actions on a “sexual addiction,” according to authorities.
Many Asian American studies scholars say some of the conversations playing out among officials and in the media have missed the mark. On Wednesday, a police spokesman said the shooter had “a bad day,” failing to take into account the voices of the women killed, the scholars say.
“This is a really traumatic week for all my friends who are Asian and Asian American women,” says Mai-Linh Hong, an assistant professor of literature, languages and culture at the University of California at Merced.
This type of collective grief is why it’s all the more crucial for everyone to better understand and have productive conversations about what happened in Atlanta, scholars say. Here’s how to get those conversations going.
There’s a long history of the United States othering and excluding Asian and Asian American people. Here’s a place to start educating yourself about some of this history.
Nadia Kim, a professor of sociology at Loyola Marymount University, points to several examples, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the 1875 Page Act, which barred Asian people from immigrating for “immoral purposes” and targeted Chinese women in particular. Kim says the law came from a stereotype of Asian American women being “prostitutes.”
According to Kim, this stereotype is very much rooted in the role of the United States as a colonizer in Asian countries — notably Vietnam — which has contributed to the narrative of Asian women as wartime wives or sex workers. The flip side of that narrative, Kim adds, are Asian women being heavily sexualized as “Dragon Ladies,” a depiction of Asian women who emasculate men or are “a threat to White America” as a result of their “sexual power.”
“They’re helpless, they’re voiceless, they need a savior,” Hong says of such media portrayals, which work to dehumanize all Asian and Asian American women. In the case of the Atlanta shootings, Hong says, it’s important to actively work against these assumptions: remembering that the victims were “accomplished and smart, they have dreams. They’re not helpless people who need to be rescued.”
The victims of the shootings have been identified as Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Delaina Yaun, 33; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Paul Andre Michels, 54. You can learn more about their lives here.
In addition to historical violence and racism, the scholars say that they saw an attack like this coming, given the uptick in anti-Asian violence since the start of the pandemic. They say it was particularly damaging that former president Donald Trump used racist monikers to refer to the coronavirus, further perpetuating stereotypes and hate. A report released Tuesday by Stop AAPI Hate found that Asian American women reported 2.3 times as many hate incidents as Asian American men over the past year.
Understanding the concept of intersectional feminism is also a crucial aspect of this conversation, scholars say. Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term and described the concept as a “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” This means not seeing gender-, race- and class-based discrimination as separate entities, but instead as inequities that influence and impact one another.
“The challenges that someone might face as a White woman in a particular environment are going to be very different from the challenges that are faced by a Black woman or an Asian American woman or an Asian woman who isn’t a U.S. citizen,” Hong says. “Each of these people has different vectors of their identity and when they come together, we have very specific, very particular stereotypes and different forms of oppression that apply to those communities.”
Christine Bacareza Balance, an associate professor of performing and media arts as well as the director of the Asian American studies program at Cornell University, adds that these shootings particularly highlight how class plays a factor — something that both Crenshaw’s work and scholar Mari Matsuda’s writings emphasize.
“Another way I think about these conversations in Atlanta is thinking about working-class women, and the types of vulnerabilities and what kind of precarity they’re under,” Balance says.
The shootings have also ignited discussion around policing. Scholars note that some Asian American communities have difficult relationships with the police.
Kim calls Baker’s words a reflection of current policing. “Ultimately, the police force reflects a dominant force,” she says. It’s why, she argues, the alleged shooter, who is a White man, is still alive, and why his words about sex addiction were shared by police without nuance.
Balance adds that Baker’s words also contributed to the dehumanization of the victims, whose perspectives weren’t taken into account. “By just having that little snippet, it really amplified that feeling when a White American man is having a bad day, he can go out and shoot people. We’re not considering what a bad day looks like for the women that died,” she says.
On Thursday, an official said that Baker is no longer a spokesman on the spa shootings case.
Lee Ann S. Wang, an assistant professor in the Asian American studies department at the University of California at Los Angeles, adds that the discussion of policing also needs to take into account the model minority myth, which is the idea that Asian Americans are culturally the “best fit” minority group. This, she says, has a relationship to anti-Blackness and a history of pitting Black and Asian communities against each other.
When it comes to policing, Wang says it’s important to understand how policing plays into anti-Blackness and the policing of Black bodies, as Asian American communities think about what community safety and accountability looks like to them.
Although the three spas where the shootings occurred — Gold Spa, Aromatherapy Spa and Young’s Asian Massage — were described online and by police as sites where sex work and possible sexual exploitation occurred, police have given no indication that any of the victims were involved in sex work.
Randy Park, the son of shooting victim Hyun Jung Grant, told the Daily Beast that he learned his mother worked at a spa only after looking at reports of the shootings online. Wang says it’s important to respect the wishes of family members who might not want to share everything about the victims.
But larger anti-sex worker sentiment, which is also tied to the hypersexualization of Asian women, is important to discuss, the scholars say.
“Massage parlors that are viewed with suspicion by the communities around them. These are some of the pitfalls that come up with conversations if people don’t have the framework,” Hong says. She also adds sex workers have a history of organizing and pushing back against the idea that sex workers, particularly Asian American sex workers, are helpless.
And as Kim notes: Not all places where Asian and Asian American women perform massages do sex work. Kim says this narrative comes from the stereotyping of Asian women as sexually submissive to White men. But she also emphasizes avoiding pitting sex workers and non-sex workers against one another. Sex work is work, she says.
“We need to be sex positive in the way that we talk about work, just like janitorial work,” she says. “I want to hold up and honor these women.”
There are ways for everyone to stay engaged in fighting anti-Asian hate past this moment, activists and scholars say. Balance points to a number of crowdsourced organizations and resources that can help and says people should continue to educate themselves on the historical context of anti-Asian hate.
“It’s also important to include Asian American voices when we’re talking about race relations,” she says.
Wang agrees that pushing forward the stories and experiences of Asian American communities is crucial.
“I think that also makes us do the hard work of thinking about relations amongst communities of color, and to connect many of the different issues that are happening here, locally, nationally and also globally,” she says.
Another way to stay engaged is to lift up the voices and work of organizers, she adds, which can be a necessary part of healing: “It’s always important for us to connect the practices of healing with accountable practices of community work.”