ROUNDUP WEEK 42 – MARCH 19, 2021
There is no appropriate way to begin this newsletter. By now, we’ve all spent the past few days watching the headlines roll in: eight people, six of them Asian women, were killed in an act of racist, misogynist violence on Tuesday night across three Atlanta spas.
To start their vigil last night, the NYC-based organizers for the rights of Asian sex workers, Red Canary Song began with these words: “Let grief be part of the movement-building process for which we allow hallowed space, and let it build within us the compassion, wisdom, and rage that propel us into new battles.” This week, grief is in no short supply.
Amid so much grief, we extend our deepest condolences to those killed in Tuesday night’s massacre, the people who loved them, and the Asian communities across the United States who are fearful and mourning through the weeks ahead. We commit to confronting anti-Asian racism and xenophobia whenever we encounter it.
With this newsletter, we see our role as sort of twofold: work together to debunk the racist, and equally harmful “I’m not racist but,” mythology that we have all been taught, and to equip ourselves with the perspective necessary to continue to chip away at white supremacy’s grip on other areas of our lives. To do this, we want to start by (1) acknowledging our own biases and limitations to the perspective we can offer here (we’re learning too!) and (2) by first pointing our readers towards phenomenal pieces by Asian writers and artists this week.
All of the best pieces we’ve read this week have come from Asian writers talking about their own experiences. Before you read anything three white girls are writing about this, we encourage you to read the pieces that informed this newsletter: Li Zhou’s The Long History of Anti-Asian Hate In America Explained,
Morgan Ome’s interview with Cathy Park Hong on Why This Wave of Anti-Asian Racism Feels Different,
Chanel Miller’s illustration of her feelings this week,
Red Canary Song’s official statement about the murders.
We also want to hold space for the names of those killed.
Yong A. Yue, 63
Suncha Kim, 69
Hyun Jung Grant, 51 (whose son has some powerful quotes about his mother in this interview)
Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33
Xiaojie ‘Emily’ Tan, 49
Daoyou Feng, 44
Paul Andre Michels, 54
Soon C. Park, 74
We already know this newsletter will not be the comprehensive piece that the individuals killed on Tuesday deserve. Nothing could be. But, we feel it’s important to share with our readers just a few of the talking points that may arise among family and friends when talking about the past year of anti-Asian hate.
OUR CHOICE TO USE THE TERM “ASIAN” RATHER THAN AAPI
For the remainder of this newsletter, we will use the term “Asian,” rather than “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders” or “Asian Americans” to describe anti-Asian biases. We aren’t saying this is the “right,” choice (and if you are uncomfortable with this choice, we welcome that feedback!), we just want to offer an explanation for anyone wondering. We will stick with “Asian” for two reasons:
- Not every Asian person in the United States is an “Asian-American.” Formal immigration processes are tricky and not every person who comes to the United States considers themselves “American,” nor wants to.
- The anti-Asian racism at the roots of United States policy are directly pointed towards xenophobic beliefs about Asian cultures and countries. We cannot divorce the racist violence toward Asian individuals in the U.S. from the violence inflicted upon Asian countries and cultural subgroups by the U.S. military over the past 250 years. It’s impossible to disaggregate racist fears of Asians in our communities from racist foreign policy. Similarly, it is impossible to disentangle the harms of U.S. racism on Asian individuals from the harms of U.S. imperialism in Asian countries.
The determining factor in whether or not someone is attacked in an act of racist violence is whether the attacker perceives them as a certain race, not necessarily whether or not they actually are said race. The determining factor in whether or not someone deserves our support and care is if they are human, not if they are American.
JUST BECAUSE SOMEONE SAYS IT WASN’T RACIST DOESN’T MEAN IT’S NOT RACIST
Oftentimes as white people, we (yes, Emily, Ellie, and Hayden), have this guttural first instinct to “not really” our way through racism. What we mean is that the moment someone acknowledges that racism played a part in a tragedy, we feel ourselves becoming defensive, rather than empathetic. It’s like racism is this dirty family secret we all know but will deny like our life depends on it rather than acknowledge and resolve. Or, we are willing to acknowledge its existence but through years of “jokes” and “that’s just my opinion,” we are conditioned to defend it constantly as “not that bad.” White supremacy culture is seductive like that. It’s like its own kind of fight club: to acknowledge white supremacy’s existence is to decrease some of its power. Acknowledgement of it is the first step in dismantling it. But, because white supremacy requires our denial of its existence to self-sustain, those most beholden to it will look for every opportunity to dismiss mention of it. To “make it about race” is really whittling away at the structures that embolden racism by calling attention to their existence. To “accuse someone of racism” is to draw attention to how their action reflects generations of harms.
This should go without saying but we want to amplify this point: there is no “it wasn’t about race” in situations where a particular race of people is targeted. It does not matter what a police report says. It does not matter what the murderer says. It does not matter what we as white people want to believe happened. When we are determining whether or not to name someone’s behavior as racist all that matters is this: was this action, that targeted and harmed people of a particular race, motivated by those generations of harm? Here, the answer is unequivocally yes.
FETISHIZING ASIAN WOMEN IS STILL RACISM
There is a long, violent history stereotyping Asian women as sexually submissive, portrayed in popular culture as exotic “lotus blossoms” and manipulative “dragon ladies,” or as inherently superior to other women in a way that erases their individuality. This is, in no small part, related to the expectations of U.S. servicemen, who would use the services of sex workers during their tours in Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, compounding stereotypes of Asian women as erotic sex objects or manipulators, trying to “entrap good American husbands.”
According to Dr. Kyeyoung Park, a professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies at UCLA, many of the women who were in the sex trade were later brought to the United States as brides, and some of them who were later separated or divorced from their husbands started massage parlors, a history that likely helped shape a perception of all Asian-run spas as illicit and the women who work in them as sex workers.
Fetishization and sexual domination of Asian women has been foundational to racism towards Asians in the United States. It isn’t “flattery” to sexualize Asian women, it’s reductive of their humanity.
VIOLENCE AGAINST SEX WORKERS
Regardless of whether or not the women killed Tuesday were engaging in sex work, the assumption that they were was a motivation for their killer. It’s important that we acknowledge this, that they were targeted and treated as disposable because they were (or were believed to be) sex workers. The police were willing to shrug off this mass murder as a white man’s “bad day” in no small part because they worked in an industry where we’ve been taught violence is deserved.
We can’t shy away from conversations about sex work in our assessment of Tuesday’s events. It’s readily apparent that the shooter’s belief that these women were a source of sexual temptation for him was a driving force of his decision to kill them (we could unpack this as a whole separate newsletter about purity culture). Our discomfort naming that sex work is a real, valid occupation that’s workers deserve care, compassion, and dignity contributes to the violence that sex workers face.
THE LEGACY OF RACIST POLICY TOWARDS ASIANS IN THE UNITED STATES
This past year, between March 16th and March 30th of 2020, twice-impeached former president Donald Trump used the phrase “Chinese virus,” more than twenty times. His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, called it the “Wuhan virus.” That language morphed into the “China Virus,” and in moments of cruel humor, the “Kung Flu.” Members of the Trump administration would go on to use this toxic nomenclature for the remainder of the Trump presidency. On March 10th, 2021, Trump issued a strange and truly pitiful statement saying, “I hope everyone remembers when they’re getting COVID-19 (often referred to as the China Virus) Vaccine, that if I wasn’t President, you wouldn’t be getting that beautiful ‘shot’ for 5 years, at best, and probably wouldn’t be getting it at all. I hope everyone remembers!”
Thousands of Americans joined their leaders in the racist blame-game and the impact was immediate. In the past calendar year there has been a 150% increase in reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans in 16 cities—verbal harassment, physical violence harassment, and this week, a killing spree.
While it’s tempting to assign this kind of hateful, racist tragedy (and the 150% increase in hate crimes over the past calendar year) to 45 and his ilk, we want to reach past the temptation to label this as something somehow unusual or happenstance. Tuesday night’s tragedy was not a random event. Rather, it was the devastating but natural byproduct of the way anti-Asian racism has been baked into Western culture since the very construction of race. This leads us to a quick micro-history lesson we’ve been putting off having because it makes us so uncomfortable to use the language but here we go:
Content warning: racist language, garbage ass race science, (and language with ableist implications)
In the 1600s and 1700s colonization was sweeping what’s now the Americas and European colonizers were kidnapping and enslaving people from Africa to force them to work without pay. As a means of somehow justifying the inhuman treatment of Black people shipped across the world, “race science” began to emerge as a field of study. Language separating the races became mainstream in the late 18th century when scholars from the Gottingen School of History developed the concept of dividing the world into two distinct races; per Christoph Meiners: “Tartar-Caucasians” and “Mongolians”, believing the former to be beautiful, the latter to be “weak in body and spirit, bad, and lacking in virtue”. This eventually resulted in Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s five distinct races of people: Caucasoids (white people), Australoids (Indigenous people whose ancestral home was Australia or parts of South Asia), Mongoloids (people from what we now know as Southeast Asia and China), and Capioids and Congoids (people from various regions of Africa, who were later recategorized as a joint race: Negroids).
This then gave rise to many other theories of race science, that all basically broke down the world into some “biological differences between the races” justification for why different races of people could, and therefore should, be treated differently. These theories have all been completely debunked. Geneticists and ancestral anthropologists alike have quashed all use of “race science” for classifying individuals today. In fact, in 2019, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists stated: “The belief in ‘races’ as natural aspects of human biology, and the structures of inequality (racism) that emerge from such beliefs, are among the most damaging elements in the human experience both today and in the past.” But the harm of their initial use remains. This was particularly true of the term “Mongoloid,” which was used to officially discriminate against Asian people in the United States for over 100 years.
The term was used explicitly on the following U.S. policies:
- In 1858, the California State Legislature enacted the first bill of several that prohibited the attendance of “Negroes, Mongolians and Indians” from public schools
- In 1885, the California State Legislature amended its code to make separate schools for “children of Mongoloid or Chinese descent.”
- In 1911, the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was using the term “Mongolic grand division,” not only to include people from Mongolia, but “in the widest sense of all,” to include people who were ethnically Malay, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. In 1911, the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was placing all “East Indians,” a term which included the peoples of “India, Farther India, and Malaysia,” in the “Mongolic” grand division.
Beyond the racist nomenclature, these race-based distinctions gave rise to myriad exclusion policies designed to exclude Asian people from entering or thriving within the United States. The Federal Naturalization Act of 1870, the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, three of the nation’s first immigration laws were designed explicitly to bar Chinese laborers from entering the country and barred people of Asian descent from citizenship. Motivated by widespread xenophobia and concerns about workplace competition, these laws made it impossible for immigrants to reenter the country if they visited China, thus leaving men who entered for work little opportunity to reunite with their wives or bring their families to their new country.
These laws — along with others that bore their same effects — explicitly tagged Asian immigrants as people who did not belong. The first lines of the Exclusion Act read “Whereas in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof…”
These Acts nationalized what has become standard practice in California – San Francisco had legally segregated its schools in the 1850s-70s and San Francisco’s Chinese residents were repeatedly used as “medical scapegoats,” as illnesses, including smallpox and the bubonic plague, spread in the late 1800s.
Anti-Asian racism spread further with the Immigration Act of 1917, which extended the Chinese Exclusion Act to include the entire Asian-Pacific (called the “Asian barred zone act”) and instituted the first literacy tests for all immigrants, to reduce European immigration as well. This beget the Immigration Act of 1924, which resulted in the first use of national quotas for allowing numbers of immigrants to enter (and intentionally used the 1890 census data, rather than the 1910 census data to inform the numbers, allowing greater numbers of white European immigrants, and unfavorable to Asians and Eastern/Southern Europeans, who were largely Jewish).
Modern anti-Asian bias was massively influenced by WWII-era anti-Japanese sentiment. From 1942-1946, over 120,000 people of Japanese descent (62% of whom were citizens) were forcibly relocated and incarcerated in concentration camps. (Which even the U.S. government itself said in 1983 was a grave injustice).
The U.S. military occupation of Asian nations has also influenced the ebb and flow of racism through the years – from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Tokyo to our involvement in the Korean war. From the flattening of Vietnam to the U.S.’s support of bombings in Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, the U.S.’s cruelty towards Asians wasn’t limited to immigrants alone. And like with many cases of military violence, those who migrated following the destabilization of their home were often greeted with more racism (an excellent example of this is the Vietnamese “boatpeople” who fled to the states in the late 70s and 80s and were used as political pawns to promote anti-leftpropaganda).
Our point here is this: there has been an astronomical rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the past year but this kind of xenophobia is nothing new or “unamerican.” It doesn’t serve us to pretend like generations of exclusion, segregation, and frankly, cruelty, towards Asian people hasn’t laid infrastructure for this horrific tragedy. We can’t dismantle that infrastructure without acknowledging its existence.
To our Asian friends and neighbors, we see you, we grieve with you, and we are holding you in our hearts this week. To everyone else, we are calling ourselves in once again to ask ourselves how our “jokes,” fears of difference, and misconceptions beget this kind of violence, too.
In lieu of our speaker fee, this month we’ve donated our Patreon funds to Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta. As individuals, we’re donating our money to Red Canary Song. We invite you to join us in redistributing wealth to both/either/local mutual aid groups & orgs supporting the Asian community members in your locale this week. Some places to start are Asian Pacific Labor Alliance, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund.
This weekend, we’re holding all of you close. We’ll be watching Minari like we’ve been meaning to do for a few weeks now. Reach out to the people you love. Drink some water. Go read some poetry. We’ll see you Tuesday.
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden