What’s on this Georgian’s Mind: Reflections on the Atlanta Shootings and Anti-Asian Hate

On March 16th, a white man murdered 6 Asian women in a domestic terrorist attack.

Before we go any further, let me tell you where I’m coming from. I’m a Korean-American who was raised underneath the shade of a Georgia pine. I’m the proud son of immigrants and love the South so much that I stayed for college. And right now, I’m mad as hell.

When I first heard the news about the shootings in Georgia the morning after, I tried to brush it aside and go on with my day, but I just couldn’t get this news off of my mind. The fact that Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue were victims of yet another mass shooting in America was certainly heartbreaking in and of itself. When I realized that the 3 Asian spas targeted in the shootings were all within an hour of where I learned how to ride my bike, went to church, and ate buttermilk biscuits for the first time, it hit as close to home as it possibly can.

I had been following the rise in hate incidents against Asian Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As an Asian American myself, it was certainly troubling for me to see Asian Americans being scapegoated and targeted — being spit on, being cursed out, or beat up. There were 3,795 incidents received by the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center from March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021. And given the number of incidents that go unreported, I can’t even imagine the true scale of the hate that Asian Americans are experiencing.

Yet at the same time, the violence felt far away, as most of the incidents I heard about were in New York or California. Although I haven’t personally experienced any prejudice during this last year, I know that’s largely attributable to the reality that I haven’t really gone outside during the pandemic. As someone who has the privilege of being able to work remotely and to reduce my own personal risk of getting COVID-19, I have spent a good 99% of the last year in the comfort of my apartment. So the fact that Asian-owned businesses in the Atlanta area were targeted and that the victims of the shooting had sons the same age as me was a rude reminder of the pervasiveness of anti-Asian hate across our country.

It’s beyond infuriating that despite the fact that violence and assaults targeting Asian Americans have been perpetrated for months, it took a mass shooting for anti-Asian racism to actually even be covered by the media. For a year now, our community has been speaking out about the attacks on our communities, and it’s fallen on deaf ears. A shout into the void. The only way to describe this feeling of utter invisibility (and perhaps this encapsulates the overall experience of being an Asian American) is when you’re trying to talk while on a Zoom call, but you can’t unmute yourself or turn on your camera. Sure, you’re in the meeting and your square is there on the screen, but you have no other option but to watch in despair as the conversation moves onto the next topic as your voice remains unheard.

As I continue to process how we find ourselves here at this moment, I’ve reflected on the fact that in this one tragedy, there are so many different factors here at play:

  • The ‘perpetual foreigner stereotype’, where Asian Americans are seen as outsiders and never as Americans, even if we do everything ‘right’ — serve in the military, contribute to the economy, or wear red, white, and blue. Where Asian Americans are asked ‘where are you from’ and then asked again ‘no, where are you really from’. For surely they can’t be American, even if they were born in the US and have never visited their motherland.
  • The ‘model minority myth’, in which the overall academic and economic success of the Asian American community has been used as a juxtaposition to the condition of black Americans. This myth not only downplays the role that systematic racism has played in holding back black Americans, but also serves to divide communities of color. Moreover, this myth paints, with a broad stroke Asian Americans as a homogenous and monolithic group. It fails to account for the fact that many immigrants from east Asia were highly educated and already wealthy and that the income disparity among Asian Americans is the largest among all races. And perhaps most consequentially, it falsely suggests that Asian Americans don’t experience struggle or racial discrimination.
  • The fetishization of Asian American women has resulted in sexualized violence against Asian women, who have been fetishized as exotic curiosities. Of the 8 victims of the Atlanta spa shootings, 6 were Asian American women. And it’s not just this incident where Asian women have faced sexualized violence. Let’s not forget that the ‘Emily Doe’ in the Brock Turner case was an Asian American woman. The sad reality is that racism and sexism have always been intertwined for Asian American women. Being seen as the objects of desire of men with ‘yellow fever’ means that Asian American women are seen as objects, and nothing more.

And as I continued to reflect on this shooting, I couldn’t stop mulling over a few details.

It’s not lost on me that the perpetrator was 21 years old — close enough in age to me that we could have attended high school at the same time. Racism is not something that can be eradicated with time alone — we need to actively work to end hate.

It’s not lost on me that his escape vehicle of choice was a Hyundai Tucson. Hyundai is a South Korean car manufacturer. I couldn’t shake off the irony that as he drove around in a Korean car, he violated 4 Korean-American’s right to life.

It’s not lost on me that this murderer was arrested without a scratch, while George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer after allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill.

And perhaps what has frustrated me the most is how this whole situation was handled and portrayed after the gunshots when quiet. I hear people claiming that race was not at all a motivation and that people are just trying to bring race into this conversation again. The basis for this first claim is predicated on the fact that the perpetrator alleged that this wasn’t racially motivated, and I find it odd that we would think to accept that at face value. Moreover, it confuses me because the perpetrator, who claims he was trying to eradicate his sexual temptations, drove past 3 strip clubs and a few adult entertainment shops. Instead, he only targeted three spas where Asian women were employed. If his sex addiction was his sole motive, then it seems odd that he would drive past more sexually explicit establishments. And why did he even visit these spas in the first place?

Again, the murderer admitted himself that he wanted to destroy those who were a part of his sexual fantasies. Based on the demographics of his targets, it’s clear that this was Asian women. To be clear, it’s entirely possible for someone to have multiple motives for murdering eight human beings. It’s entirely possible for this to have been simultaneously motivated by sex addiction and racism. Honestly, as much as I wish that race didn’t have to be part of the conversation, how can it not be when we are being attacked and assaulted on the very basis of our race?

So let me say again what’s on this Georgian’s mind: on March 16th, a white man murdered 6 Asian women in a domestic terrorist attack.

Something needs to change. I know that talking about race is uncomfortable. But anti-Asian hate is killing us. The tragedy in Georgia was not an isolated incident. In less than a month since the shootings, an Asian grandmother was punched in the face on the street unprovoked, and Vilma Kari was pushed to the ground, kicked, and stomped on while on her way to church.

And as unnerving as it’s been for me, I’m more worried for my mom and sister. It’s been the elderly and women who have been disproportionately targeted by acts of racism. I get nervous every time my mom has to step outside of our house — even it’s to go out and get eggs at the grocery store. When I’m not physically there with her, who will step in if someone tries to hurt her with their words or actions? And every time I hear about another attack in New York City, I pray that I don’t find my sister’s name among the list of victims.

So how can you help? Be an actively anti-racist ally. Learn about Asian American history. Help expel the model minority myth. Engage in conversations about issues of race and racism. And when you see racism or bias — don’t be a passive bystander, speak out.

I’m not going to act for a second that I have all the answers, that I’m don’t make mistakes, or that I know everything there is to know about this complex and multi-faceted topic. But I am committed to learning more and improving myself. I know that this learning journey may never end. I know that there is purpose in the effort. I know that I, as do all Asian Americans, belong here. And I know that we are entitled to our unalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over this past year, it’s the importance of connection. So let’s talk about this. Words matter. Because something has got to change. At the start of the pandemic, we all talked about establishing a ‘new normal’ once COVID was over. Although I found it a bit cliche at the time, I want to take everyone up on the offer. So let’s work together to create a hate-free ‘new normal’.

For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it

(Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”)

Resources:

https://www.pbs.org/show/asian-americans/ — A PBS documentary about the history of identity, contributions, and challenges experienced by Asian Americans. I finished the full series but have heard great things about it!

https://anti-asianviolenceresources.carrd.co/ — Below you’ll find resources that have been compiled to help individuals educate others, take action, donate, and more.

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/what-you-can-do-to-fight-violence-and-racism-against-asian-americans — 8 Actions you can take today to help to fight anti-Asian violence.

https://www.advancingjustice-aajc.org/events — You can attend a Hollaback Bystander training more that will give you more confidence intervening the next time you see Anti-Asian and Asian American harassment online or in-person. I’m signing up for a session this month!

https://stopaapihate.org/ — The Stop AAPI Hate reporting center tracks and responds to incidents of hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, shunning, and child bullying against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.

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Willie Chang

Willie Chang

Follower of Christ. Avid reader of The Atlantic. Huge Atlanta sports fan. “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”