Thoughts on the Atlanta Shooting

The AAPI community is still reeling from the shooting that took place in Georgia last week. All across the country there have been demonstrations and people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent calling for justice. The goal of this post is to bring some awareness to the racism that Asian and Pacific Islander women face in the U.S. and what you can do to support your AAPI friends, coworkers, and employees.

If you don’t know what happened last week, here’s a quick summary:

On Tuesday, March 16, a man open fired in three Atlanta-area massage businesses. Eight people were killed, six of whom were women of Asian descent. Police have yet to establish whether the crime was racially motivated. The perpetrator himself said he wanted to “eliminate temptation” because he had a sex addiction. People in the AAPI community reject the claim that the crime was not racially motivated, as racism against Asian American women is often overtly sexual in nature.

The shooting comes at a time of increased hate incidents against Asian Americans. Stop AAPI Hate reported that nearly 3,800 such incidents have been reported nationwide since last March, with the majority being reported by women.

A Little History

Racism against Asians and Pacific Islanders is often not taken seriously, and until now it has not been spoken of much in the media. But it is nothing new. Racism against people of Asian descent has been alive in the U.S. since at least the 1850s when Chinese immigrants worked dangerous, low-wage jobs in mining and railroad construction. It was then that the trope of Asians coming to take white men’s jobs was born. About thirty years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration, was passed. It was the first law restricting immigration to the United States.

In the 1920s and ’30s, in the midst of the American colonization of the Philippines, many Filipinos–mostly men–immigrated to the United States for work. They took low-wage, labor-intensive jobs on Hawaiian plantations, California farms, and Alaskan fisheries. Not only were Filipinos subjected to widespread anti-Asian sentiment, since they were often mistaken for Chinese and Japanese immigrants, but again the trope of Asians taking white men’s jobs flared. This led to anti-Filipino attacks in California and Washington, which began with an incident in Stockton on New Year’s Eve in 1926 and increased through the Great Depression.

During WWII, Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the suspicion that they would aid Japan in the war. No spies or informants were ever found among these Japanese American citizens. When Japanese Americans returned to their homes and businesses, many had to rebuild their lives because their homes had been taken from them and their businesses vandalized.

In Texas in the mid-1980s, after the Vietnam War when many Vietnamese fled to the U.S. to escape the communists, the trope of Asians taking white men’s jobs flared once more. Vietnamese immigrants took up shrimping and many became successful. This prompted members of the KKK to set Vietnamese-owned shrimping boats on fire.

During the Los Angeles Riots of the 1990s, many Korean American businesses became the targets of destruction. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, hate crimes against those who were perceived to be Muslim, which included many South Asian Americans, spiked. More recently, former president Donald Trump’s reference to the coronavirus as the “China virus” on Twitter has led to a spike in anti-Asian sentiment both online and offline.

How AAPI Women Experience Racism

For AAPI women, racism and sexism are often experienced together. Race adds an extra layer to the misogyny that most women regularly experience. Women of Asian descent have historically dealt with a number of different stereotypes.

  • The Perfect Housewife – Docile, subservient, only speaks when spoken to
  • The Prostitute – Sensual and erotic, making herself available to any man who asks
  • The Dragon Lady – Manipulative, cold, domineering, and untrustworthy, often sexually voracious
  • The Model Minority – Hardworking, conscientious worker bee who keeps her head down and does what she’s told, not fit to be a leader

As with all stereotypes, the individuality, feelings, and experiences of AAPI women get erased. These stereotypes present a barrier to giving and receiving empathy. And as we saw in last week’s shooting, the sexual objectification and dehumanization of Asian women inevitably leads to violence. Because if a man doesn’t see a woman as human, if he sees her as a sex object and a “temptation” to be eliminated, he can justify to himself abusing and even killing her.

What You Can Do

As a bi-racial Filipino American woman, I personally have experienced the sexualized racism that my other AAPI sisters have experienced. Starting from grade school and through college I experienced more and more intense forms of racism, even from people who said they loved me and were my friends. It’s taken me years to heal and take pride in my Filipino heritage after being shamed for it and internalizing other people’s racist assumptions about me. Here are a few things you can do to support AAPI women as we process and grieve this tragedy and the anti-Asian discrimination and hatred we regularly experience both online and offline.

Reach out. Ask if we’re doing okay. Ask how you can support us. We might not answer you right away or at all because we feel overwhelmed and don’t want to talk. Please be understanding and kind.

Listen to us when we talk about our experiences with racism. This tragedy has triggered a lot of us, and memories of racism from microaggressions to full-on abuse are at the forefront of our minds as we process all of this. Listen without saying anything because the truth is that if you’re not an Asian American or Pacific Islander American woman, you don’t really understand what it’s like to be in our skin. Listen to our pain, our frustration, our anger, our sorrow. And just be there to offer an ear and a hug and a shoulder to cry on. Please don’t say anything that contains the words “at least,” “but,” “get over,” or “move on.” We need you to validate our feelings right now and just sit with us in that.

Educate yourself. Learn about the history behind the racism against AAPI people. Learn about the different ways in which Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans are discriminated against in the U.S. Examine your own biases. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable for me, too. I had to do this for myself because I had internalized so much of the racism that I had experienced and truly believed I was inferior because of race and gender. But the internal work is so necessary to be able to empathize and be in solidarity with us.

Support us. Stop AAPI Hate is a great organization to start with. Click on this link to find ways you can support their work and be a part of the change we want to see in our country.