Content warning: The following article discusses violence, murder, and anti-Asian racism.
It’s days like this that I wish sorely that I could step out of my own skin. But, I can’t, and neither could the six Asian women murdered yesterday in Atlanta: Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng have been named so far.
What haunts me, and so many other Asians in this moment, is that my own mom can’t step out of her skin, either. Knowing this in 2021, I have to worry about if my mom and other Asian women in my life could be victims of violence on the basis of race.
Week after week, hearing about the increase in senseless and racist violence that Asian people, and specifically our elders, have endured throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have to admit that I was starting to feel desensitized. With each news report of another beating or murder, I found more and more I wanted to read less and less. There’s a deep, indescribable weight of fear, disgust, and anger that has formed in my belly. I felt that I had to just continue to helplessly carry it around. I suspect I am not the only person who has felt this way.
After today, I have realized that enough is enough. This isn’t an American problem: this is happening all over the world. We must act, through vocal advocacy and through government policy, to stop this tragic anti-Asian violence.
However, advocating against anti-Asian hatred is insufficient: we must remember who in the Asian community is suffering the most. Those bearing the brunt of this racist violence are Asian elders, immigrants, sex workers, darker-skinned Asians, and women.
Asian people seem to be valued only for the labour that they can contribute to their communities. This societal pressure is felt particularly hard by those who are already at the margins of Asian communities. Whether that labour is the back-breaking work of running restaurants that are open 365 days a year that have been boycotted for racist reasons during COVID-19, or working in a startup tech firm as a computing engineer without a chance of promotion, or working in a massage parlour or nail salon ー Asian people are taught by our own cultures and society writ-large that we must work hard without complaint to be worthy of anything. Many Asian parents, with their abundance of care for their childrens’ safety, dissuade us from being involved in anything that might stir up trouble or disturb peace, including activism and politics.
I have to be specific and say that Asian women aren’t targeted because of being in a wrong place at the wrong time. Asian women are sexualized on the basis of race by all kinds of people, but are also infantilized and belittled. The intersection of these two realities paints a clear and grotesque picture: to many, Asian women are quite literally only valued for their physical bodies.
What is especially disgusting about yesterday’s murders is the murderer frequented the massage parlours his victims worked at. He claims he was trying to amend his “sexual addiction”. What this person elected to do, and what the truth is, was that he used these women for their labour and then discarded them when he felt like he wanted to. Some have said that the shooter “had a bad day” and the murders happened as a result of that. Because of his “bad day”, this man has ruined the lives of eight families.
As disposable as racialized people broadly are treated in their workplaces, this is especially true for someone as vulnerable as a sex worker in a massage parlour. What pains me so much is the idea that even one of these Asian women murdered was trying to provide for her family or kids. I am a child of working class Asian immigrants. My parents sacrificed everything in their lives, uprooted themselves to try to provide a better life for me and my brother. Even though there haven’t been many reports yet on the Asian women murdered, to think that it is even possible that one of the Asian women we lost yesterday was trying to do the same thing my parents did for her own children is a tragedy beyond words.
The Asian community must unlearn the idea that civic disruption and activism is something we can’t participate in. We can, and we must speak up and speak loudly. We cannot sweep the dead bodies of our elders and vulnerable community members under the rug. People outside of the Asian community must recognize the racist violence that racialized people are vulnerable to, and actively denounce this reality. We all must advocate for those who are especially vulnerable, because it can be even harder for marginalized communities to speak up.
As we speak up against anti-Asian racism, we must also fight for Black lives and Indigenous lives. Anti-racist advocacy without a lens of intersectionality is in a vacuum and absolutely useless in my opinion.
On a final note, checking in on your Asian friends is a good first step, but that isn’t the end all be all. Please don’t post that ridiculous yellow square Instagram graphic that draws from last year’s Blackout Tuesday either — Asian people aren’t yellow, this act is performative at best, and may actually detract from the seriousness of the situation we are in. Put your money where your mouth is if you are able, and donate to an organization doing anti-racist groundwork. Share the work of Asian writers and advocates, and speak up against racism when it happens in front of you.
To my fellow Asian community members, we have to keep fighting. For our moms, for our grandmothers, and for those who can’t.