As the news settled in of the shootings in Georgia that left eight dead — six of Asian descent — Nicole Vallestero Keenan, a Seattle resident with Filipino roots, had flashbacks from a lifetime of sexual harassment and assault.
In the decade that she lived or worked near massage parlors in the Chinatown International District, Vallestero Keenan said that many men — mostly white — had tried to grab her on the street or usher her into their cars. One week in the summer of 2016, she said it had happened three times.
“The way Asian women experience racism is highly sexualized, and so it’s not something that you can easily piece apart,” she said.
Georgia officials say the 21-year-old white suspect in the Atlanta shootings blamed his actions on a “sex addiction” and may have been headed to Florida to carry out further attacks. They are investigating whether race was a factor in the shootings.
The incident was triggering for many Asian American women in Seattle, particularly during a time of increased attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Between March 2020 to February, the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate received reports of 3,800 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders nationwide. Most of the incidents were verbal harassment, followed by shunning and physical assault, according to a report released Tuesday. Hate incidents involving women were reported 2.3 times more than those targeting men.
Vallestero Keenan said she saw an increase in anti-Asian rhetoric and attacks following the 2016 election of former President Donald Trump and during the coronavirus pandemic. Early in the pandemic, Trump called the coronavirus the “China virus.” Although the coronavirus was first discovered in Wuhan, China, its origin remains unknown.
Seattle resident Vy Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American, said the “model minority stereotype” and the stereotyping of Asian American women “has been weaponized to silence us and to not speak up when harm is happening.”
In Nguyen’s eyes, the intersection of race and gender needs to be considered in further investigation of the killings. Over the past two years, she said she had been accosted and assaulted in Seattle.
“Just because the police aren’t labeling it as racism doesn’t erase what we are experiencing in this moment,” Nguyen said, adding that it felt dismissive that sex addiction was being considered as a cause for Tuesday’s violence.
Lisa Chin, president and CEO of Seattle-based nonprofit Treehouse — which advocates for equity and racial justice in the foster-care system — said the shootings in Atlanta were undeniably racially motivated.
“If those who are charged to protect us … deny that we are being murdered or that there is a hatred or racial component to it, then there’s no hope for any of us,” Chin said. She recommended that people speak up when they witness others targeting Asian women.
“We will not be silent when we are being murdered,” Chin said.
In a Tuesday announcement, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Interim Police chief Adrian Diaz described the Atlanta shootings as a hate crime.
“We grieve with Atlanta and for the victims and their families,” they said. “We also stand together with our Asian American community against the rise of hate crimes toward Asian Americans, which especially target Chinese Americans. In Seattle and across our nation, our Asian American neighbors, places of worship, and businesses have been deliberately targeted by racism, xenophobia, and acts of violence related to misconceptions of COVID-19. Just this weekend after repeated incidents in our community, Seattle came together to stand against this hatred toward Asian Americans.”
The two added that former Gov. Gary Locke “so clearly said ‘hate is a virus.’ And through our acts, we must each be the cure.”
Gov. Jay Inslee also released a statement Wednesday, characterizing the violence as part of a nationwide rise in anti-Asian violence. “These shootings reflect hate against Asians, against women, and against immigrants. We all have a role in denouncing hatred wherever it reveals itself.
“We stand in solidarity with all those impacted, including our Asian community members who are suffering in the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes. All leaders, past and present, should condemn these acts for what they are and commit to a more open dialogue about how this happened and how we can do better by our Asian American communities,” Inslee said.
Anti-Asian hate crimes have also been on the rise in Seattle. The Seattle Police Department received 14 reports of anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020, compared to nine in 2019 and six in 2018, according to SPD Blotter.
Two Seattle churches — Grace Chinese Lutheran Church and IFGF, or International Full Gospel Fellowship — found anti-Asian messages in their parking lots, according to a report by KIRO-TV.
During a rally and march against violence toward Asian Americans in the Chinatown International District on Saturday, speaker Ben Yan shared that he and some of his friends have been spat on and told to “go back to your country.”
Speaker Noriko Nasu, a Japanese teacher at Inglemoor High School, shared that she and her boyfriend had been seriously injured during an attack near Hing Hay Park on Feb. 25. Sean Holdip was charged with two counts of second-degree felony assault by the King County prosecutor’s office earlier this month. Nasu said that she was dissatisfied when she heard that Holdip may only be sentenced to up to 14 months in prison if convicted.
Durkan and Diaz said the city is committed to holding accountable those who commit hate crimes and will be ramping up security to protect “our Asian American neighbors,” including increased outreach to Asian American communities and organizations.
Seattle police said local organizations have resources for community members to counter misinformation, racism and discrimination, and that the Chinese Information Service Center has produced translated handouts and videos to help people report bias incidents.
Seattle City Council President M. Lorena González said in a statement Wednesday she would explore investments in community-led organizations that serve the local Asian American and Pacific Islander American community. She credited local organizations such as API Chaya, Asian Counseling and Referral Services and Utopia for helping to keep those communities safe.
“To our Asian American and Pacific Islander American community — I stand with you and I know you are exhausted by the daily targeted attacks of Asians and Islanders. Gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia is never okay,” González said in the statement.
While it is necessary to develop policy that serves people of color, Vallestero Keenan said that it is more important to think about how to shift American culture. Black and Indigenous people and people of color need to be humanized through empathy, she said, society needs to be taught the value of multiculturalism and neighborhoods need to be designed so that everyone feels welcome.
“The less exposure we have to people who aren’t like us, the less opportunity we have to love people who aren’t like us, and the easier it becomes to blame or harm them,” Vallestero Keenan said.
Information from The Associated Press and The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.