More than a week has gone by since the murders of six women of Asian descent happened in Atlanta, Georgia, and another mass shooting has occurred since then in Boulder, Colorado. Even as news cycles continue to modulate, we, as two scholars of Asian American literature and culture, offer this dialogic reflection on the shooting in Atlanta and its place in a broader cultural history and conversation about violence and race. Professor Michele Janette’s research focuses on Vietnamese American literature and film; Assistant Professor Tom Sarmiento’s research focuses on diasporic Filipinx and queer literature, television, and film.
Question 1: What are one or two historical facts it is really important to remember right now, in order to contextualize the shootings in Atlanta on March 16, 2021?
Prof. Janette: As so many other commentators have noted, this shooting is part of a long series of legal discriminations and violent attacks on Asian Americans in the U.S. The Page Act of 1875 was an early stage-setter. It prohibited the immigration of Asian women, in the name of preventing prostitution, so it had the double-whammy impact of excluding this population from entry and connecting them symbolically to sex work. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law and the disenfranchisement, dispossession, and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II are two more egregious historical examples of the U.S. legacy of anti-Asian discrimination, but if I had to limit myself to expanding on only one more example, it would be the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. It bears a chilling resemblance to the Atlanta shootings, because in both cases, white perpetrators targeted and killed Asian Americans based on their own racist presumptions. Chin, a 27 year-old Chinese American engineering draftsman, was beaten to death by two white men who were angry about Japanese dominance of the auto industry. Last week, Soon Chung Park, age 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44, were shot to death by a white man who saw the spa as “temptation” and sought to exculpate his violence through his sexual neuroses. The cases resonate in illustrating a point Viet Thanh Nguyen has made eloquently, that racist violence (both physical and discursive) lurks evilly in wait in our culture, ready to attack and attach to non-white bodies without any logic but that of availability and prejudice. Not that the violence would have been justified if the attackers had been “right” about who their victims were, but the fact that Chin had no connection to the Japanese auto industry, or that many of these women were former school-teachers, licensed massage therapists, and the age of their attacker’s grandmothers renders the ill/logic of racist stereotyping painfully visible.
Prof. Sarmiento: Absolutely! I appreciate that the first three examples you bring up reveal how anti-Asianness is foundational to U.S. national identity and embedded in its immigration law. What happened in Atlanta is a part of structural violence. The Page Act in particular is helpful for understanding the gendered and sexualized nature of Asian racialization in the U.S. And Chin’s murder almost 40 years ago is still palpable; a colleague who teaches at Bowling Green State University in Ohio shared with me how visceral that event continues to feel for her students. To add to your list, the U.S. colonization of the Philippines (1898–1946) paved the way for U.S. military presence in the region. As scholars of American Empire have articulated, the version of imperialism enacted by the U.S. appears benign and often is not framed as empire, which results in the erasure of the historical and ongoing links between the U.S. and Asia. The trope of Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners” actually is ironic given that many of the countries that Asian immigrants hail from are historical familiars of the U.S. Another problematic trope that may be hackneyed among Asian Americanists but clearly persistent is that of Asian Americans as “model minorities.” This stereotype imagines Asian Americans as “honorary whites” and not aggrieved racial-ethnic subjects, and thus makes invisible people of Asian descent as marginalized people of color in the U.S. as well as instances of discrimination and violence directed toward them. Not only does the model minority myth lump all Asian ethnics together, thus flattening the diverse and complex histories of East, Southeast, and South Asians, but also it pits Asian Americans against Black, Indigenous, and Latinx Americans. The appearance of #Asian4BlackLives last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, however, illustrate the relationalities and solidarities that counter Asian American racial exceptionalism (though such Asian and Black coalitions aren’t new—I’m thinking of figures such as Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs).
Question 2: Why must we understand and analyze this recent event through an intersectional lens?
Prof. Sarmiento: Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s critique of the U.S. legal system as unable to account for the lived reality of Black women and other women of color’s intersectional lives reminds us that this recent event as well as the increased attacks against Asian Americans this past year aren’t simply matters of race/ethnicity. That early reporting recognized most of the victims as women who appear to be of Asian descent on one hand casts the Atlanta shootings as part of the wave of anti-Asian violence across the country since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic; on the other hand, the fact that seven of the nine victims were women begs us to recognize gender as a factor: this is also violence against women. What’s more, the location in which these crimes occurred—in Atlanta-area strip-mall spas offering massage—invites us to consider the sexualized, classed, and geographic dimensions of this horrific and mournful event. As Celine Shimizu Parreñas has shown, Asian and Asian American women are haunted by the stereotype of hypersexuality. The history of U.S. empire in Asia has created the conditions for such a coalescence of race, gender, and sexuality—demanding that we consider racialized gender, gendered raciality, sexualized race, and racialized sexuality. Moreover, the gendered and sexualized nature of the “intimate care industry” (to borrow from my alma mater’s statement on this event) also reminds us of the labor conditions of immigrants who must endure racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Whether or not these spas engaged in sex work isn’t the point, which isn’t to say sex work in and of itself is bad; rather, the too easy association with Asian women and sexual service must force us to ask why such links exist in the first place. Finally, Atlanta may not be the first place you think of for where Asians live and work; however, race, class, gender, and sexuality also are about space and place. To acknowledge Asian/Americans in the South is to counter the trope of invisibility that plagues Asian/American experience.
Prof. Janette: Yes, absolutely. You are so right to connect all these various layers. I’d add also the specific militarized history of US occupation of so much of Asia in the 20th century as playing a significant role in the coalescence of gender, race, and hypersexualization at play here — in other words, part of the reason that Asian women are hypersexualized in the 21st century is because in the 20th century U.S. wars in Asia, and U.S. bases in Asia both disrupted traditional economies and displaced existing populations and also fostered a new sex work economy to cater to “R&R” for soldiers on leave. The U.S. certainly wasn’t alone in this (Korean “Comfort Women’s” abuse by the Japanese military was horrific), but U.S. militarism in Asia played a major part.
Question 3: Why is this shooting garnering widespread, sustained attention beyond Asian American communities? (i.e., What makes this different, if at all, from other instances of anti-Asian violence that have escalated during this past year of COVID-19?)
Prof. Sarmiento: A day after the Atlanta murders, The Atlantic published “Why This Wave of Anti-Asian Racism Feels Different,” an interview by journalist Morgan Ome with author Cathy Park Hong right before the shootings occurred. Although Ome and Hong are responding to the considerable volume of anti-Asian sentiment and violence during the COVID-19 pandemic (commentators have been stating 4,000+ reported cases) and not to the specific events of Atlanta which had yet to occur, their perspective nevertheless point to a shift in awareness and response to racism against people of Asian descent not seen in recent decades. Hong prophetically states: “We have far to go. This is typical of this country, to not really focus on racism unless it’s sensationalized in some way, unless there’s a viral video, or someone gets murdered. I wouldn’t be surprised if Americans just forget and think, Onto the next news cycle. It’s great that white people and other non-Asians are picking up on this, but we can’t trust them to continue to train their attention on what’s happening to Asian Americans. We need to continue vocalizing who we are and our role in this country.” Sadly, death has brought heightened awareness to what Asian/Americans have been enduring this past year as a result of racist and xenophobic rhetoric by a former federal administration. However, as many critics have pointed out, the roots of this hatred and violence are core to white supremacy, a founding orientation of the U.S. nation. Not unlike the racial reckoning that erupted last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, it’s not as if this one Black man’s death sparked an awakening (though for some it certainly did), as Black death unfortunately has been with us for quite some time. But for reasons yet to be fully known (if we’ll ever know them), being in lockdown created the conditions of possibility for some courageous people to say, “Enough is enough,” and for others to pay attention more as our normative ways of relating or not relating to each other have been upended. And yet, the racialized discourse surrounding the pandemic ironically has flown under the radar for a year. Not only do we need to engage the Atlanta events intersectionally, but we also need to consider the relational intimacies between anti-Asianness and anti-Blackness, for example, directed as they are by white supremacy, patriarchal power, and capitalist exploitation.
Prof. Janette: Ome’s article is so great. And I’m glad you’ve brought up the need to think about intersectionality not just as the matrices of oppression surrounding a particular person’s experience, but also in terms of how different structures of discrimination and violence intersect. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s Asian and Asian American Studies Program has a great post about how the field can support the Black Lives Matter movement and reckon honestly with the complicated historical Asian-Black tensions as well as alliances. And there was a really interesting panel last July about how Asian Studies can better address race, as well as mentor and encourage Black scholars in Asian Studies. There has been great scholarship coming out in intersectional analysis, too. For example, Le-Khac Long’s 2020 book Giving Form to an Asian and Latinx America looks at how literary artists like Aimee Phan, Junot Diaz, Karen Tei Yamashita, and Sandra Cisneros chart the linked political and economic struggles of Asian and Latinx community formation in relation to each other.
Prof. Sarmiento: To add, given the diversity within Asian America, it’s important to consider the different histories, cultures, and lived realities among various Asian ethnic groups. What’s more, seeing #StopAAPIHate has reminded me of how Pacific Islanders often get lumped with Asian Americans but that the former’s experiences may not always be at the center of discourse and policy. I recall reading last fall Naomi Ishisaka’s Seattle Times article on the uneven effects of COVID-19 on Pacific Islanders compared to their Asian American counterparts. Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) feminist scholars such as J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Stephanie Nohelani Teves, and Maile Arvin also have articulated why subsuming Pacific Islanders under the banner of Asian America can be problematic. Moreover, Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Y. Okamura’s 2008 collection Asian Settler Colonialism, which focuses on Hawai‘i, challenges Asian America to recognize its complicity in white supremacy and settler colonialism.
Question 4: Why/how is this an issue of local impact?
Prof. Janette: Because racism exists here. Thinking globally and nationally is so important, but projecting the fight “over there” can also be a way to avoid looking and acting close to home. We need to do both. As Aline Lo and Mai-Ling Hong wrote last week, “Like most Americans, the suspect has no doubt consumed countless examples of racist, misogynistic tropes and stereotypes regarding Asian women, as well as portrayals of white, male entitlement to Asian women’s bodies.” We are all part of that culture as producers, consumers, critics, and respondents. We can act personally, politically, creatively, culturally, and we must.
Prof. Sarmiento: Yes! And Asian people and businesses (thankfully) exist here, too! As a Filipinx American living in Manhattan, Kansas, I’ve grown concerned about the real possibility of anti-Asian sentiment and behavior directed toward my brown Asian body since the start of the pandemic but even more so in recent weeks with the rise in reporting of violence against elderly Asian Americans in places with higher Asian populations than our town (my thinking being if it can happen there, it certainly can happen here). When COVID-19 emerged last year, I recall the mix of disbelief and familiarity among my Asian American literature students, some of whom are of Asian descent, regarding the intimacies between race and contagion. A year later, here we are, sadly and frustratingly. Also, I read today about Kansas Representative Rui Xu’s recent experience with anti-Asian hate in a Russell bar (Xu is the first Chinese American to serve in the state legislature), which reminded of me the 2017 shooting of Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, two Indian immigrant men, one of whom died (Kuchibhotla), in an Olathe restaurant. Such incidents highlight both the racial diversity of Kansas and Kansas not being immune to prejudice and hate.
Question 5: What are a few things someone can do right now to work against discrimination and violence against Asian Americans?
Prof. Janette: One: Don’t let this event, or other acts of racism, slide by. R.O. Kwon, who visited our campus last year, wrote last week that “The silences this week ring loud, in the texts we haven’t received, in the absences on social media, as the people who say they deeply love us, who have heard us talk about this, fail to wonder if we’re okay, fail to see if in this time of great collective sorrow it might be a good time to offer us some of that love.” Make that less true. (Maybe you think you should’ve acted already, or that you’ll make a mistake. I’ve been there, for sure. But we have to just get over that. Reach out now. Reach out anyway. Reach out again.) Two: Create better. This is an English Department blog. Our department and its graduates are full of creative writers who do and will produce the culture of the future; of teachers who do and will promote and amplify voices we think are valuable. I’ve said repeatedly here that cultural preconceptions have played a role in this violence. So let’s fix the culture. Three: Participate politically. Laws matter. They shape who can get into this country, and who can get guns, for example. Elected officials matter. They shape the way we name pandemics, and control access to powerful institutions at both local and national levels, for example.
Prof. Sarmiento: Kwon’s statement resonates with me; I’m honored that I was able to attend her visit right before lockdown. And yes, civic participation is key. Building on the theme of structural change… One: Teach Asian American authors. Out of the four to eight classes faculty teach, one author at minimum should be an Asian American author. That’s like one in forty, give or take, depending on how many authors you teach per course—a low bar! While the field of Asian American Studies has long dissuaded the use of numerical demographics to justify the existence and relevance of teaching Asian American perspectives, my proposal comes out to 2.5% representation on a syllabus compared to a 5.6% US population (as of the 2010 US Census). And to clarify, an Asian American author doesn’t always write about being Asian American or engage the experience of Asian Americans. Though, to effect change, simply teaching such authors without calling attention to their racial-ethnic background and discussing why that’s important to note (especially given their underrepresentation in some literary and critical genres) isn’t enough; we need to make systemic inequities visible. Two: Cite Asian American scholars. The field of Asian American Studies was born out of the student strikes of 1968/69 at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley. Its 50+ years of existence has produced an expansive archive of thought. I recognize that such seemingly nation-based scholarship might appear irrelevant to those not engaged in US discourses; however, Asian American scholars don’t just do work on race in the US. Their/our research connects to larger questions of region, nation, diaspora, and empire; race and ethnicity (obviously); gender and sexuality (as intimated above); ableness; the economy; the environment; health; aesthetics—you name it, there’s probably an Asian Americanist that has done/is doing that work. Three: Learn (more) about Asian American history. The 2020 5-part PBS documentary Asian Americans is currently streaming for free: https://www.pbs.org/show/asian-americans/!
In closing, we recognize that neither of us has the lived experience of being an Asian or Asian American woman in this culture. We speak as scholars in the field who are deeply invested in Asian American lives and experiences, and we want to acknowledge the many women of Asian descent whose writings, activism, presence, wisdom, and love touch our lives constantly. Whether you are speaking out publicly, quietly upholding community, surviving this world’s sorrows, embracing its joys, or rolling through all of these and more, we know you are doing important work. And we thank you. We hope that, actually, this is not a closing but part of a continuing conversation.
Sources and further reading/viewing:
AAS Digital Dialogues: Asian Studies and Black Lives Matter. 22 July 2020. https://www.asianstudies.org/jobs-professional-resources/aas-digital-dialogues/asian-studies-and-black-lives-matter/
Asian Americans. PBS, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/show/asian-americans/.
Asian and Asian American Studies Program, UNLV. “In Support of Black Lives & Black Life.” 2020. https://www.unlv.edu/sites/default/files/page_files/27/AsianAmericanStudiesProgram-InSupportOfBlackLivesBlackLifeStatement.pdf.
Association for Asian American Studies: https://aaastudies.org/ (which has collected links to various statements)
Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, edited by Kimberlé Crenshaw et al., New Press, 1995, pp. 357–83.
Department of American Studies, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “Statement Against Anti-Asian Racism and Misogyny and the Mass Shooting of Asian Women in Atlanta.” 19 Mar. 2021. https://cla.umn.edu/american-studies/news-events/news/statement-against-anti-asian-racism-and-misogyny-and-mass-shooting-asian-women-atlanta.
Fujikane, Candace, and Jonathan Y. Okamura, editors. Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawai‘i. U of Hawai‘i P, 2008.
Ishisaka, Naomi. “Why It’s Time to Retire the Term ‘Asian Pacific Islander.’” Seattle Times. 30 Nov. 2020. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/why-its-time-to-retire-the-term-asian-pacific-islander/.
Joshi, Khayti Y., and Jigna Desai, editors. Asian Americans in Dixie: Race and Migration in the South. U of Illinois P, 2013.
Kauanui, J. Kēhaulani. “Asian American Studies and the ‘Pacific Question.’” Asian American Studies after Critical Mass, edited by Kent A. Ono, Blackwell, 2005, pp. 123–43.
Kwon, R. O. “A Letter to My Fellow Asian Women Whose Hearts Are Still Breaking.” Vanity Fair. 19 Mar. 2021. https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2021/03/ro-kwon-letter-to-asian-women.
Lo, Aline, and Mai-Ling Hong. “Statement by CAALS Co-Chairs Regarding Atlanta Shootings.” 17 Mar. 2021. http://caals.org/archives/1117.
Long, Le-Khac. Giving Form to an Asian and Latinx America. Stanford UP, 2020.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. Nothing Ever Dies. Harvard UP, 2016.
Novas, Himilce, and Lan Cao. Everything You Need to Know about Asian-American History. Plume, 1996.
Ome, Morgan. “Why This Wave of Anti-Asian Racism Feels Different.” The Atlantic. 17 Mar. 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/03/cathy-park-hong-anti-asian-racism/618310/.
Shimizu, Celine Parreñas. The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene. Duke UP, 2007.
Teves, Stephanie Nohelani, and Maile Arvin. “Decolonizing API: Centering Indigenous Pacific Islander Feminism.” Asian American Feminisms and Women of Color Politics, edited by Lynn Fujiwara and Shireen Roshanravan, U of Washington P, 2018, pp. 107–37.
“Why Are Asian Americans under Attack?” The Real Story from BBC, 19 Mar. 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3cszcpf.