March 16, 2021 marked the 53rd anniversary of the My Lai massacre, one of the most heinous mass murders against unarmed civilians in US imperial history. Vietnamese women and young girls were mutilated and gang raped and children were slaughtered by white American soldiers. And in Atlanta, on the same day 53 years later, we saw the massacre of eight individuals in three Asian-owned businesses.
Once again, white men are committing acts of racialized, gendered violence, this time against Asian American women.
The system that continues to perpetuate hateful stereotypes and prejudices against Asians and Asian Americans has finally manifested in a deadly rampage by a twisted, deranged suspected white supremacist, enabled by the very same American institutions that have failed to protect us from violence.
I will not reference the killer’s name, and I urge that everyone center the tragedy around the victims’ lives, and not the perpetrator’s. The names of the victims are: Soon C. Park, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong A. Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Yaun, and Paul Andre Michels — as well as Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, who was wounded and is currently in critical condition.
Some Victims Had No One
As we’ve learned more about the victims’ lives, we’ve begun to see a picture of their struggles emerge. They were immigrants, who came to America, working low-wage jobs and long hours to find better lives for the families. In the aftermath of the shootings, authorities had trouble identifying some of the victims who didn’t have family in America— they had no one else besides their coworkers who would notice that they were gone. Some victims had no one to protect or to grieve them. I can’t imagine how incredibly lonely they must have been.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, violence against Asian American people has escalated drastically. Viral videos of Asian Americans being randomly slapped, spat on, kicked, punched, and even stabbed have surfaced. Ngoc T. Pham, an 83 year old Vietnamese man, was violently punched and assaulted. Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84, was killed after an attack in San Francisco. Noel Quintana, 61, was riding the subway when he was slashed across the face with a knife. Stop AAPI Hate reports that of the 3,800 hate crimes self-reported in 2020 and 2021, but despite glaring statistics, it’s likely that these numbers are underestimated.
Asian Racism Predates the Pandemic
Many Asian Americans will end up not reporting their hate crimes to authorities. For the past year, some politicians, led by now-former president Donald Trump, have put forth their full display of hatred and virulent sinophobia, calling the coronavirus “Kung flu” and the “China virus” — giving leverage for non-Asian Americans to direct their anger and fear towards us.
To be clear, racism and targeted attacks against Asian Americans have persisted long before the pandemic. A culture of racial violence against Asian people in our motherlands, combined with a perpetual “otherness” propagated toward diaspora Asians has normalized the discrimination and stereotypes that we face. It’s sad that it’s taken tragedy for America to wake up and comprehend our struggles.
Rooted in Colonialism and Imperialism
Beyond the current political atmosphere, the culture of violence against Asian Americans is without a doubt, intertwined with this country’s history of imperialism and colonialism in our motherlands. It is rooted in mockery and erasure of Asian cultures, the conditions of poverty in our countries created by war, and the discrimination diaspora families face when they attempt to assimilate.
And the sinister legacy of racial violence against Asian women is intrinsically rooted in the perpetuation of aggressive sexual violence and exploitation of Asian women in the Asia Pacific.
During the Vietnam War, millions of women were routinely raped and mutilated. Author Gina Marie Weaver, in her book, “Ideologies of Forgetting: Rape in The Vietnam War,“ found that rape of Vietnamese women by American troops was a “widespread, everyday occurrence” that was essentially “condoned,” even encouraged, by authorities. In Japan in 1995, three US soldiers abducted, tortured, and raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl. On October 11, 2014, Jennifer Laude, a Filipina trans woman, was killed by US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton in Olongapo, Philippines. There are countless other unreported rape and rape-murder cases. In Okinawa, it’s estimated that 10,000 Okinawan women were raped during the Allied occupation of Japan. Many of these women are now dead or are elderly and have been traumatized and are reluctant to step forward and tell their stories.
“My Body Was Not Mine”
And in many of these countries, which were impoverished by war, young women were driven to military prostitution or sex work as a means to provide for their families. US military bases became breeding grounds for physical and sexual abuse toward sex workers. Commercialized sex zones continue to thrive on military bases today, as one worker told Politico in 2015, “Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s.”
Asian women were commodified and objectified, treated as subhuman, easy targets to rape and then kill. We were made out to be subservient, exotic, docile creatures meant to fulfill the sexual fantasies of American men. But even after the wars ended, these dehumanizing stereotypes have never really left the collective American subconscious.
Hypersexualized and Hyperfetishized
Ultimately this has manifested into the harmful stereotypes that we know today, the image of Asian women being portrayed as submissive, passive, suggestive, and exotic objects. Popular culture and films have only perpetuated these dehumanizing and hypersexualized stereotypes toward Asian women, making it socially acceptable to make salacious and unwanted advances toward Asian women.
The killer has claimed that he was suffering from a “sexual addiction,” and was attempting to root out temptation, giving leeway for some to say that the perpetrator’s motives were not rooted in racial violence. Last week, FBI director Christopher Wray told NPR: “While the motive remains still under investigation, at the moment, it does not appear that the motive was racially motivated.”
Targeting the Vulnerable
No, let’s call this for what it was: it was a racially gendered massacre. It is a hate crime. All three establishments the killer terrorized were Asian-owned businesses. As evidence revealed that he frequented these places, he knew that most of the workers were Asian. He was targeting vulnerable, working-class Asian American women, who he perceived as nothing beyond sexual objects. The March 16 murders were a direct manifestation of America’s sexual imperial history and white supremacist oppression.
The failure of the FBI and Cherokee County Police to acknowledge that this was a hate crime rooted in both gendered and racial violence reveals their ignorance of the struggles– and the vulnerabilities — of working class Asian Americans across this country.
Fighting to Protect Working Class Asian Americans
When Americans think of Asian people in this country, they’ve opted to perceive the monolithic “model minority” trope — that Asians are relatively prosperous, well-educated, and successful in comparison with other BIPOC groups. What this myth fails to capture is the disparaging wealth gaps within the AAPI community, and erases the struggles of working class Asian families. It’s been used by white Americans to drive racial wedges between Asian Americans and other minority groups, dismissing the idea that institutional racism has played a part in detrimental material conditions of their communities and lives, because look, the Asians have worked hard!
The truth is that this country has not truly seen or recognized the struggle of Asian working class people. Many Asian immigrant families work menial, low-wage labor jobs in the beauty or food service industry, and are subject to working long hours and dealing with rude, often racist American patrons.
This Could Have Happened to My Family
I live in Morrow, where there’s a pocket of AAPI families who are also working mostly menial, low-paying jobs doing nails, hair, or working in the service industry. This could have happened to my neighbors, my friends, or my family.
Georgia House Rep. Bee Nguyen, who represents Georgia’s 89th District, said the killings highlighted “the vulnerability, the invisibility and the isolation of working-class Asian women in our country. And we know that vulnerability makes them targets.”
Because of collective willful ignorance, we have swept away the struggles of working class Asian Americans and failed to protect them.
Language Barriers in our Institutions
As I listened to one of the 911 calls released by Atlanta Police from Tuesday’s murders, my heart immediately sank. The female caller was speaking English, but in an audibly heavy Korean accent — the operator could not understand the speaker’s Konglish. She became impatient and annoyed at the linguistic barrier — oblivious to the fact that a massacre was happening.
As a Vietnamese daughter, I know how irritated Americans get once they hear my parents speaking English with a Vietnamese accent. They get irritated, annoyed, and become unwilling to help us. That’s why in light of this massacre, I feel less concerned about my own experiences of racism and more worried about the traumatic experiences that my parents and grandparents have faced here. Language barriers continue to pervade in institutions, leaving non-English speaking populations vulnerable and powerless.
Because of Georgia’s no-wait gun legislation, the 21-year-old perpetrator had no problem buying a firearm at Big Woods Goods in Holly Springs on the day of the massacre. Georgia currently does not require a waiting period for firearm sales, which means a person may purchase one from a federally licensed gun seller immediately if they pass a background check.
Notice that most of the deceased from American mass shootings fall into a vulnerable minority group: In 2019, El Paso saw the largest U.S. massacre of Latino people. In 2016, the Orlando nightclub shooter killed LGBTQ+ people. In 2015, the Charleston killer opened fire on Black churchgoers, brutally killing nine people. And now, another white extremist has targeted and massacred yet another vulnerable population: Asian American women.
When Will Legislators Come to Their Senses?
In the wake of every single mass shooting in America, legislators brawl back and forth on the issue of gun legislation, but they always fall substantially short. While politicians have continued to waste time and fall short of their promises, this pattern has grown into an eerily cyclic one, creating a conducive environment that’s just waiting for the next white domestic terrorist attack.
Have we learned nothing since Parkland, Charleston, Orlando and El Paso? Why do we continue to make the same mistakes? Why is it so easy for extremists to get their hands on a gun? And how many more innocent hard-working Americans need to lose their lives, before legislators come to their senses?
Women are Still Being Ignored
On March 17, 172 House Republicans voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. This included six Republicans from Georgia’s Congressional delegation: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Rep. Rick Allen, Rep. Drew Ferguson, Rep. Jody Hice, Rep. Austin Scott, and Rep. Andrew Clyde. On Thursday, at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, Rep. Chip Roy expressed concern that the hearing would “venture into the policing of rhetoric in a free society.” He insisted that sinophobia and xenophobia were only natural elements of American geopolitics.
Back in Georgia, during a joint press conference with Atlanta Police, Cherokee County Sheriff department spokesman Jay Baker seemed to humanize the killer, saying that he just had “a really bad day.” Baker has since been removed from the case, following immense backlash from the public.
Even in the face of death and tragedy, we are still being ignored and scapegoated by American political institutions.
What Can We Do?
Support AAPI focused advocacy organizations in Georgia and across the country. Support local Asian businesses. Donate to the families of the victims. Write about the injustice. Speak out. Raise awareness and stand in solidarity with the AAPI community. Last week’s deadly rampage shook our community to its core, but in no way was it a surprise. We have seen this coming for a long time now. It’s time for the rest of America to act.