One Year After the Atlanta Spa Shootings
In memory of Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels.
One year ago, a gunman tragically killed eight victims in the Atlanta spa shootings, six of whom were Asian women. The shooter, a white evangelical male, claimed that he had a “sex addiction” and the spas were a “temptation he wanted to eliminate.” It was a “really bad day for him,” explained Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, reluctant to say whether there were any racist motivations behind the attacks. This tragedy occurred while rates of hate crimes and acts of violence against Asians and Asian Americans escalated across the country as politicians and media outlets continued to blame China for the spread of COVID-19.
The Atlanta spa shooting brought national attention to the misogyny and racial violence Asian women have always faced in this country. And as a result of the increased attacks on Asian elders and women, Asian and Asian American organizers and activists pushed for more conversation around anti-Asian racism. In the past year, we wrote and read think-pieces about this country’s history of excluding, colonizing, and scapegoating Asians, helping us connect the past to the present. We organized vigils as we grieved and honored our departed. We facilitated self-defense classes and pepper spray tutorials out of fear that we would be next. We advocated for policy changes, raised money for grassroots violence prevention efforts, and educated the public and our communities relentlessly. President Joe Biden established a White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in response to Asian and Asian American advocacy efforts. I ran multiple educational workshops in response to anxious and worried calls from corporate leaders about addressing anti-Asian racism in their workplaces.
But not much has changed. According to Stop AAPI Hate, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) reported nearly 11,000 hate incidents between March 2020 and December 2021, with 4,632 occurring in 2020 and 6,273 in 2021. AAPI women make up over 60 percent of reported anti-Asian attacks. Asian women continue to be brutally dehumanized, assaulted, and murdered; in just the past few months, Michelle Go, Christina Yuna Lee, and GuiYing Ma have all been horrifically killed. Last Friday, a 67-year-old Asian woman was punched more than 125 times in the head and face and stomped on seven times while being called an “Asian b*tch.”
We are haunted by the possibility of violence on the subway, in our cities, and even in our own homes. Authorities are still reluctant to label these crimes as racially motivated, gaslighting and dismissing the fear, anxiety, and anger we’ve held in our chests over the past two years. We are still disproportionately targeted and afraid. Earlier this month, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum reported that nearly 75 percent of AAPI women experienced racism and/or discrimination in 2022, and 70 percent of AAPI women’s mental health was impacted due to the fear of gender and/or race-based violence.
White supremacy, with its inherently misogynistic and racist ideas about Asian women being weak, exploitable, and disposable, is built into the very fabric of this country’s ideologies, institutions, and policies. Despite increased awareness and advocacy, I am doubtful things can get better on structural or ideological levels. To be clear, I didn’t used to think like this, but the last two years have undoubtedly changed my perspective. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the precarity of our sense of belonging in this country and revived the “yellow peril” stereotype, which positions Asia as a cultural, political, economic, and military threat to the West.
The attacks over the last two years did not happen in a vacuum, but reflect the endurance of yellow peril, which physiologically and ideologically desensitizes, dehumanizes, and weaponizes Asians and Asian Americans. And as a result, we’ve seen policies to increase police presence, budgets, and surveillance, which often make our communities and our people, especially those who are newcomers, monolingual, undocumented, queer, or transgender, feel more unsafe. If this country really cared about us, they would listen to community experts calling for long-term, systemic solutions that uproot the yellow peril rhetoric perpetuated during the pandemic and address the root causes of violence, including poverty, lack of mental health care, housing instability, and underinvestment in communities of color. Instead, our pain is used to bolster policing and carceral approaches.
And yet, amid the ongoing violence and the failures of our systems, I see us continuing to struggle for something better. I recently spoke with Cassandra Lam, one of the founders of Join The Cosmos, a grassroots community space for and by Asian women in the U.S. She told me about their new reading series for emerging Asian women writers in New York City, organized by her co-founder Karen Mok. Located at Yu and Me Books, Manhattan’s first Asian American woman-owned bookstore, the reading series provides a physical space for Asian women to feel seen and heard as they stand up and read their work. It’s a simple concept, but a radical one: to have the opportunity to speak our truths, share our art, and be fully welcomed, held, and celebrated through it all feels somehow revolutionary in these times.
Erna Kim Hackett, founder of Liberated Together, hosted a similar space less than two weeks after the Atlanta shooting to honor the victims and offer a forum for our collective grief. About 20 of us across the country gathered on a Zoom call (and hundreds joined over Facebook Live) to cry, sing, share stories, and receive one another in our full humanity. Christine Yi Suh, one of the co-facilitators, opened the program with “Arirang,” a traditional Korean folk song of lament and loss, originally written and sung by halmonis (grandmothers). It’s occasions like these that keep me from giving up completely. It’s spaces like these, created for us and by us, that show me a pathway to healing.
As Asian women, we gather together to make meaning out of grief. We continue to create. We preserve our ancestral wisdom and rituals with each other. We collect and remember our stories so we can write ourselves into the right side of history. We connect, we organize, and we celebrate each other’s inherent worth, beauty, and resilience.
Recent events have simultaneously fatigued me and given me hope. As the societal pendulum swings between hate and progress, I find myself oscillating from despair to cognizance. On days when I get stuck in negative thinking, it is the art, voices, thoughtfulness, and leadership of other Asian women that lifts me from my darkness and brings me back to my purpose. Community is what makes life worth living.
A year ago, I tweeted: “Healing circles where Asian women sing songs to each other in their native tongues. Venmo notes that say, ‘have you eaten yet’ and ‘kbqq on me.’ Texts asking. ‘How is your sleep these days?’ and ‘how are your parents?’ This is how we heal.”
Gendered and racial violence endures. But I’m still here, an indisputable part of an ecosystem of Asian women who are still creating, still gathering, still checking in on each other, and still sending each other food. We are still loving each other. And we are still fighting for our lives, together.
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