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The Toll Racism and Sexualization Takes on Asian-American Women

Flowers left by mourners outside one target of the shootings, Gold Spa.

Daoyou Feng. Hyun Jung Grant. Suncha Kim. Paul Andre Michels. Soon Chung Park. Xiaojie Tan. Delaina Ashley Yaun. Yong Ae Yue.

These are the eight victims of fatal shootings at three massage businesses in Atlanta and nearby Cherokee County on Tuesday. Six of the victims were of Asian descent, and two were white. Seven were women.

The gunman in the shootings, Robert Aaron Long, said his actions were "not racially motivated," but caused by "sexual addiction."

"He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did," said Cherokee County Sheriff's Office Capt. Jay Baker. He made it clear that Long's motive for the shooting had to be either racial or misogynistic — not both.

Since the arrival of the Coronavirus last spring, anti-Asian attacks have increased by nearly 150 percent. President Trump addressing the pandemic as the "Wuhan virus" and "China virus," only ignited a more substantial fire against Asian-Americans. Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, told the L.A. Times, "In a recent analysis, we found that a quarter of the incidents we tracked included a perpetrator using language similar to Trump's. Things like 'Wuhan virus,' 'China virus,' 'kung-flu' and 'go back to your country."

Those who commit bias crimes tend to target men. Yet, Stop AAPI Hate, a group that collects reports of hate incidents against Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities, saw in their recent analysis that out of almost 3,800 incidents recorded in 2020 and 2021, two-thirds of the reports came from women.

"People on here literally debating if [the Atlanta shooting] was a misogynistic attack against women or a racist attack against Asians," Jenn Fang, the creator of Asian-American feminist blog, Reappropriate, wrote in a Twitter thread. "What if — wait for it — it was both."

Racism and sexism have always been inextricably bonded for Asian-American women, and many agreed with Fang's statement. Unwanted sexual come-ons, racially provoked sexual abuse, and demeaning hypersexualization are regular experiences for Asian-American women. When Capt. Baker said the Atlanta gunman just had a "really bad day," this seemed like yet another excuse for violence against women. Those three words displayed how white men can get a pass for almost anything in America. Many Asian-American women were left wondering, "If Long shot six white women, how differently would this story be told?"

United States policy has aided in the fetishization of Asian women and emasculation of Asian men. The Page Act of 1875 barred Chinese women from coming into the country since lawmakers thought they were all prostitutes up to no good. Other laws prohibited mixed-race marriages, leaving many Chinese men as wandering bachelors.

Less than a decade later, the Chinese Exclusion Act was put into effect by President Chester A. Arthur, banning both new immigrants and existing residents from becoming U.S. citizens. "Yellow peril" was going around — American's fear of "Asian invasion" by Chinese individuals willing to provide cheap labor.

After Pearl Harbor in 1941, though there was no evidence to prove this was the case, anyone of Japanese descent became a potential enemy threat. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing over 100,000 people of Japanese descent into U.S. prison camps. Dr. Suess even created a cartoon where rows of Japanese Americans line together in California to collect a brick of TNT. "Waiting for the signal from home…" the caption says.

Throughout the following decades of the 20th century, wars against several East Asian countries only heightened discrimination against Asian-Americans. As white heterosexual male presence increased in East Asia, particularly during the Philippine-American War, World War 1, and the Vietnam War, several harmful stereotypes about Asian women arose. Society painted them as "sexually submissive" and exotic "lotus blossoms" — the perfect accessory for white men in needing of spicing up their lives.

Inexpensive sex to American service members became readily available when stationed in lands like Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. In 1990, an article called "Oriental Girls" was published in Gentleman's Quarterly (G.Q.). It described the Western male's fantasy of an Asian female as someone who doesn't "insist on being treated like a person, fret about career moves" and a break from "those angry feminist seas."

On Thursday, Dale Minami, founder of the Asian Law Caucus and former professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR, "In the last three major wars, the United States fought war against Asian countries - Japan, Korea and Vietnam. And that leads not only to dehumanization of those people simply to justify, you know, psychologically the killing of the, quote, "enemy." And those images remain. The antipathy remains and survives." Western societies have long viewed Asian communities as less developed and advanced, so it is no surprise that soldiers also treated the women they slept in degrading ways.

Japan also participated in this sexual imperialism during the 1930s and late 1940s, forcing Chinese, Filipino and Korean women into "comfort women"—a brothel that serviced Japanese soldiers.

For the women who weren't impregnated or later ignored by U.S. soldiers, some were brought back to the United States as brides. Kyeyoung Park, a professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, told The New York Times that if these women later got separated or divorced from their husbands, they started massage parlors. This likely fostered the perception that all Asian-run spas were illicit and the ladies who worked in them were sex workers.

The police in Georgia have not said if any of the three spas had ties to sex work. Few details are known of the Atlanta gunman's motive. Still, numerous hate crime tracking organizations notice misogyny paves a path for other types of extremist violence — typically by the hands of "incels" or involuntary celibates.

Long grew up in a strict Southern evangelical community, and he seemed to have an extreme fixation on sexual temptation. Many religious men like him feel the guilt, shame, and despair of "failing" abstinence from sex and lust outside heterosexual marriage.

Avoiding pornography and resisting inappropriate sexual desire is a significant theme in modern conservative evangelicalism. "So many men boil down how they're doing spiritually to how often they have looked at porn recently,"Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma, told the Times. "Not whether they'd grown in their love toward others, given generously of their time, or spent time connecting with God, but if they masturbated."

Brad Onishi, who grew up in Southern California's evangelical community, also said this culture "teaches women to hate their bodies, as the source of temptation, and it teaches men to hate their minds, which lead them into lust and sexual immorality."

Long's former roommate, Tyler Bayless, said that one time Long relapsed by visiting a spa parlor to have sex. When he got home, Long asked Bayless to take a knife from him so that he wouldn't hurt himself.

It isn't hard to see how the Atlanta gunman came to believe that women are forever the "temptress of men," and those who do not try to maintain modesty are a sinister force to our world. The massage parlors were "a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate."

Pop culture also plays a substantial role in the fetishization of Asian women. For example, in "Full Metal Jacket," a Vietnam War movie, two soldiers try to bargain down a sex worker's price. "Me so horny. Me love you long time," she replies. Now, these lines have become what Ellen Wu, author of "The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority," calls a "racially specific type of catcalling."

"It's instantly putting you in the position of being a foreigner, an outsider and a sexual stereotype," said writer Margaret Cho on the phrase. "It's an all-in-one combo."

You can also look at Broadway musical Miss Saigon for enforcing negative representations of Asian women. It tells the story of an American marine who has a one-night-stand with Kim, a Vietnamese sex worker. Kim becomes pregnant with his son, but the marine leaves Vietnam, and returns to America to marry a white woman. Kim tries to find the "strong G.I. to protect her," and years later, she and her son reunite with the marine and his wife in Thailand. When she realizes the marine has no intention of marrying her, she commits suicide, leaving her son, Tam, under the care of her distanced lover and his wife.

The Asian woman risking it all for an American man — how sweet (rolls eyes.) No surprise two white men created the musical back in 1989. The story also subtly hints that perhaps Kim embodies an unfit mother while the marine's wife, a white woman, is better suited to raise her son. Asian women are frequently ridiculed by men of all races — including Asian men, for choosing non-Asian partners. There is no doubt Miss Saigon casts another unfavorable light onto them.

Society's dehumanization of Asian-American women makes them frequent subjects to attacks on their culture and gender identity. They are not props for men to abuse, tropes in your next film, or mere objects to be thrown around. Even though I am a woman of color, it is clear that in different minority communities, the women who comprise them experience various pains. In a time of so much hurt, we all need to listen to the cries of those in danger. Hear the voices of Asian women who are so frequently silenced by the world.

The victims of the Atlanta shooting didn't need to become victims. If America paid attention to the violence the Asian community has experienced not only in this year, but from the time Asian immigrants came to the "land of the free" in the 1800s, events like these wouldn't happen. In a country built off of the backs of people of color, it is exhausting to see our lives reduced down to headlines in the news and blood on the ground. Those of us who are not of Asian descent need to open our hearts to their stories, open our wallets to donate to AAPI organizations, and realize what affects one group of people can easily affect another.

As Jiayang Fan of the New Yorker beautifully wrote, "One of [Long's] victims, Hyun Jung Grant, was a single parent who for years told her son that she worked at a "makeup parlor." Grant might even have sympathized with Long, who is only two years younger than her son. What's shameful is that Long could not bring himself to show any sympathy for her."


You can donate to the victim's families down below:

More organizations you can follow to support Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders:

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