Their names were Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Yong Ae Yue, Suncha Kim, Daoyou Feng, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun and Paul Andre Michels.
They were not, merely, a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” as a spokesperson for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office called the victims of a man who authorities say admitted killing eight people — six of them Asian American women — last Tuesday at three spas in the Atlanta area.
A “temptation you want to eliminate” is how you talk about a box of cookies you are trying not to eat, not how you talk about the lives of human beings.
In addition to the “temptation” narrative, the spokesperson went further, rationalizing the killer’s actions in the most cavalier way, saying, that in addition to the killer having a self-described “sex addiction,” “yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”
As shocking and horrifying as the killings themselves were to Asian Americans and people of all backgrounds across the country, the terrible Cherokee County police response told its own story — of people in power treating Asian American women as nameless, disposable and less than human.
In post after post, Asian American women shared their own encounters with violence and with the hypersexualization and fetishization that has a long history in the U.S. In a #MeToo-style outpouring, they told of being accosted on the street; having strangers hypothesize about their body parts and share their fantasies about being with Asian American women and on and on.
I would venture to say most Asian American women I know have a story about meeting a guy with an “Asian fetish” who only seeks out Asian American women due to a belief that we will be submissive and subservient.
Most Asian American women I know have heard a guy say the dreaded lines from “Full Metal Jacket” — “me so horny, me love you long time” — or scrutinized a man’s social media to see if all the women he dates are Asian American, a sign of an Asian women fetish.
To make matters worse, officials credulously reported that the killer was not motivated by racial bias. How did they know? Oh, he said he wasn’t, so it must be true. So somehow he managed to kill six Asian American women in a state that is only 4% Asian — but race was not a factor.
The real truth is that white supremacy, racial bias and misogyny are, as previous writers have noted, the waters we swim in. Violence against Asian American women exists at the intersections of racial and gender bias. You cannot separate an Asian American woman’s gender from her race or try to ignore the long history of policies and media portrayals that depict Asian American women as either “Madame Butterfly”-style tragic victims or dragon ladies.
As my friend and scholar Hye-Kyung Kang wrote so brilliantly in an op-ed last week, “Asian women’s lives are rendered cheap like the low-wage jobs that we often occupy: domestic workers, nail-salon employees and cleaners. For the most part, we don’t even exist, on screen, in textbooks or in the national consciousness.”
It reminded me of a recent quote by actor Steven Yeun in The New York Times, “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”
The model minority myth further hides the truth about the lived experiences of Asian American women. Despite what readers tell me every time I write about racial inequality, Asian Americans are not a monolithic group and are not universally wealthy, well educated and in professional jobs. According to Pew, the income gap between the highest and lowest income Asian Americans is larger than any other group.
This all, of course, is happening against the backdrop of a year of escalating attacks on Asian Americans, which I wrote about before, with the group Stop AAPI Hate reporting 3,800 hate incidents against Asian Americans nationwide between March 2020 and February. Of the reported incidents, 68% were against Asian American women and Washington state had the third highest number of cases.
Kalayo Pestaño is the co-executive director of API Chaya, a Seattle-based organization to support survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. Pestaño said the Georgia killings speak to the invisibility of Asian American women’s’ experiences.
“There’s just an overall missing connection to the sexual violence and sexual harassment that Asian women, including Asian elders, face in our daily lives before this became a sensation,” Pestaño said.
Part of Pestaño’s work has been to help community-led efforts to support Seattle-area massage business workers, through the Massage Parlor Outreach Project.
“It’s been a couple of years and there’s been very little support, I would say, from any organizations around this,” Pestaño said. “I think it makes people feel uncomfortable.”
Pestaño said the announcement by Mayor Jenny Durkan of increased police presence to address anti-Asian American violence is “absolutely despicable” and a solution designed to “disappear” social problems rather than address what actually keeps us safe.
Pestaño said listening to those most affected by racialized and sexualized violence and asking what they need should be the first step by public officials and advocates. Pestaño highlighted the statement by Red Canary Song, a grassroots coalition of Asian American massage spa workers, which flatly rejected calls for increased policing and criminalization as a response to these attacks, saying, “Policing has never kept sex workers or massage workers or immigrants safe.”
Those of us living at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities don’t get to pick and choose what part of ourselves is being targeted at any given time. We can experience bias around gender, race, sexual orientation and disability simultaneously, and carry a weight we can feel but others cannot see.
Asian Americans may be too-often invisible, but we are a crucial part of the American story. Our history and experiences should be valued and taught. Anything less contributes to the dehumanization and perpetual foreigner status that leads to the kind of tragedy we saw last week in Georgia.
(Note: For a reading list to learn more about Asian American history and experiences in Seattle and elsewhere, go to st.news/asianamericanbooks.)