Exactly one year ago, on March 16, a white man killed eight people—six of whom were Asian women—at three different Asian-run massage parlors in Atlanta. His victims were Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; Paul Michels, 54; Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63.
Shortly after the attack, local police publicly expressed doubt that the incident was a hate crime against Asian Americans, noting that the shooter, Robert Aaron Long, had told police he had a “sex addiction” and carried out the attack because he saw Asian women massage workers as a sexual “temptation.” Police, in other words, seemed to take the young, white, male shooter at his word and believed that Long’s admission that he had been motivated by gender and sexuality meant the attack couldn’t possibly stem from anti-Asian hate.
It felt as if Asian women simply didn’t exist.
Rhacel Salazar Parrenas, a professor of gender studies and Asian American studies at the University of Southern California, says the anniversary of Atlanta is made all the more difficult by “public silence.” Parrenas tells Jezebel it’s as if the shooting was “forgotten overnight,” despite continued—if not escalated—violence specifically targeting Asian women recently. “It’s a reminder of this unique racialization of Asians, and Asian women in particular, as expendable foreigners in this country,” she said. This racialization was certainly heightened by the onset of the covid pandemic, nicknamed the “China virus” by the former president, and inspiring a wave of anti-Asian, racist attacks.
The anniversary of the Atlanta shooting comes a week after a New York man assaulted and punched a 67-year-old Asian woman 125 times outside her apartment building. Earlier this year, in the span of one month, an Asian-American woman named Michelle Go was pushed to her death onto subway tracks, and another, Christina Yuna Lee, was stalked and stabbed 40 times by a man who followed her into her Chinatown apartment. The continuing attacks on Asian communities, which faced an almost exponential surge in racist harassment and violence amid the pandemic, have particularly targeted Asian women, who accounted for nearly 70% of reported anti-Asian hate incidents last year.
The Atlanta shooting significantly raised public awareness about anti-Asian violence—but often from a gender-neutral vantage point that’s obscured the racism and misogyny Asian women face.
Parrenas notes that attacks on Asian women have transcended class and targeted victims from all backgrounds, but low-wage, service workers—like the massage workers killed in the Atlanta shooting—are especially vulnerable because of the public nature of their work. Asian massage workers, sex workers, or those perceived to be sex workers are also more likely to be victimized because of their objectification, otherization, and perceived expendability in American society.
Long’s decision to target Atlanta massage parlors as a means to rout his “sex addiction” didn’t come out of nowhere—it was inevitably informed by years of hypersexualization of Asian women. The perverted stereotyping of Asian women as exotic sex workers and foreign brides under western patriarchy is also a consequence of imperialism, which yielded the sexual enslavement of colonized Asian women by the U.S. military.
National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum’s (NAPAWF) said in a statement shared to Twitter on Wednesday that tearing down these stereotypes is essential to “build a world where AAPI women can be safe in public spaces.”
“We are visible in the ways that dehumanize us and invisible in the ways that humanize us,” the organization said.
A year after the Atlanta shooting, we’re reminded of the trauma that extended from not just the attack, but local and county police departments’ dismissive response to it. Parrenas expressed confusion and bewilderment with ongoing calls for stronger hate crime legislation—which increases police funding—as a “limited” solution, that fails to address the systemic causes of anti-Asian violence.
“The problem is being reduced to the individual behavior of bad people who therefore should be removed from society, as if these attacks are an exception rather than a systemic problem in society,” she said. Instead, Parrenas says solutions like mental health services, housing, and other community resources would be more effective at actually “lessening the risk of these killings.”
Asian-American advocates have noted that diverting funding for crucial supports for marginalized people instead to policing is actually counterproductive to addressing anti-Asian violence, and allows Asian communities—and Asian women in particular—to be used as pawns for anti-Blackness and state violence.
At a Wednesday morning vigil hosted by Red Canary Song, a grassroots collective of Asian sex workers and allies, Tiffany Diane Tso, an organizer at Asian American Feminist Collective, said safety for Asian communities is incompatible with “a society that criminalizes houselessness and survival, that favors a privileged few and forces the rest of us to fight for scraps, that views human beings as disposable.”
“Policing has never been an effective response to violence because the police are agents of white supremacy,” Red Canary Song said in a statement in response to the Atlanta shooting at the time. The collective also criticized media coverage about the shooting that “invisibilize[s] these women’s gender, labor, class, and immigration status,” calling it “a refusal to reckon with the legacy of United States imperialism, and as a desire to collapse the identities of migrant Asian women, sex workers, massage workers, and trafficking survivors.”
The Atlanta shooting brought public dialogue about anti-Asian racism and violence from the margins into the mainstream. But one year later, amid rising violent attacks on Asian women, we’re reminded how little has changed.