One year after the Atlanta spa shootings, not much has changed for Asian Americans

A year ago on Saturday, March 21, 2021, protestors gathered in Indianapolis’s Monument Circle for the “Indiana Stop Asian Hate Rally” organized by local Asian community organizations. Photo by Kelly Wilkinson.

MAE-MAE HAN | CULTURE CO-EDITOR | mhan@butler.edu

Content warning: references to physical and sexual violence.

On March 16, 2021, a white man shot and killed eight people — six East Asian working-class immigrant women, specifically — in the now-infamous Atlanta spa shootings. This act of violence is generally regarded as an anti-Asian hate crime, even if the shooting’s local police did not consider it as such; an official even justified the crime in a press conference by saying the shooter was having a “bad day.”

Most notably, the shooter claimed his motive to be his “sex addiction,” in which he viewed the Asian businesses operated by Asian women as a “temptation” to eliminate.

Soon after the shooting, American society rose up in huge waves in support of the Asian American community in what seemed to be a watershed moment in our racial politics and our sense of Americanness.

One year later, what has changed?

This violence is nothing new

While the Atlanta spa shootings may have shaken the world with its apparently unprecedented violence, violence against Asian Americans and Western society’s hypersexualization of Asian women is centuries-old. This was nowhere near an isolated incident.

When I first heard the news of the Atlanta shootings, my honest-to-God reaction was, “Oh, another one.” It truly was not until other people — white people — started reaching out to me and discussing it that I came to my senses, and I realized this sort of brutal violence is not normal, even though it had been my “normal” since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since Jan. 2020, I saw over and over how the pandemic exacerbated the Asian American “perpetual foreigner” myth, the historic narrative that Asian Americans do not truly “belong” as American. Asians are then scapegoated for anything from COVID-19 to unemployment to war, but additionally, we are perceived as weak, easy targets. From March 2020 through Dec. 2021, over 10,000 hate incidents against Asian and Pacific Americans were reported to the Stop AAPI reporting tool. Another report estimates 3 million Asian American adults have experienced a hate incident since 2021.

In spring and summer 2020, I was inundated with images of Asian American elders who were set on fire, and I was bombarded with memes making erroneous jokes about the “China virus” and how Chinese people spread COVID-19. I was overwhelmed with story after story of Asian Americans harassed in the streets and spat at to “go back to China” for supposedly creating the pandemic, and I saw how Asian businesses were hit first and hardest by the pandemic for being assumed to already be infected and much, much more.

Peter Wang, Taiwanese American lecturer of art history who co-developed the GHS 212 “Asian Americas” course, has observed how the pandemic’s major rise of anti-Asian racism has affected his own behavior.

“During the pandemic, when I travel, I always have to think twice,” Wang said. “Is it safe for me, [even] grocery shopping? Will I be alone somewhere in the middle of nowhere? Because even in California, you see somebody is hiking and then gets confronted [with racism].”

In that time, I was too terrified to even take a walk in the neighborhood that I have lived in since I was two years old: not out of fear for contracting COVID-19, but out of fear of being the victim of a hate crime for simply daring to visibly exist as a Chinese American in white America. After all, a Chinese family acquaintance was brutalized in summer 2020 for being so bold as to go jogging in a white neighborhood. Who was to say that would not happen to me, too?

However, even before the Atlanta shootings, before the pandemic, anti-Asian violence has been ingrained into American history. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant U.S. anti-immigration law in our history. The Los Angeles Chinese Massacre of 1871 is sometimes described as the largest mass lynching in U.S. history. FDR’s Japanese internment camps, which presumed all Japanese Americans were anti-American spies, stole 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of whom were citizens, from their homes. The murderers of Vincent Chin — a Chinese American who was clubbed to death in 1982 by white men because they blamed Japanese economic success for their unemployment — never received any prison time. The list goes on and on and on.

While the Atlanta shootings may have seemed shocking to some, it is only one small piece of the mammoth puzzle that is anti-Asian racism in America.

Photos by Kelly Wilkinson.

The intersectional marginalization for Asian women

Asian American women are victims of almost two-thirds of anti-Asian hate incidents, and 74% of Asian American women reported experiencing discrimination in 2021.

It is impossible to truly understand the Atlanta shootings and the shooter’s “sex addiction” for Asian women without considering the factors of race and sexuality: specifically, the historic fetishization of Asian women under the Western male gaze. I once heard this intersectionality described as “misogyhuang,” a portmanteau of “misogyny” and “huang,” the word for “yellow” in Mandarin Chinese.

Within the “othering” of Asians, Asian women have been depicted as exotic and submissive sex objects, dehumanized to exist primarily for the sexual service of white men. This narrative dates back centuries. Rather than “Asian hate” in the “traditional” sense, this anti-Asian racism manifests as an inappropriate fascination and “love” for Asian women that stems from the same root foreignization of Asians in Eurocentric contexts.

The 1875 Page Act, which predated the monumental Chinese Exclusion Act by seven years, first restricted immigration of East Asian women to the United States, operating under the assumption that Asian women were prostitutes and hypersexual.

In the 20th century, this construction of Asian women has been compounded by war and Western imperialism in East and Southeast Asia. In times of war, sexual dominance of white men over Asian women — generally in the form of rape — served as another form of imperial power, and Western soldiers used local Asian women for their own pleasure through the lens of Asian women, being “hyper-sexualized yet demure and submissive … ‘small, weak, submissive and erotically alluring’” in comparison to women of other races

This hypersexualization and presumed weakness has subsequently been reinforced by stereotyped misrepresentations in the media. Our mere existence as Asian women, constructed under the white male gaze and without our consent, is deemed as inherently sexual — like the Atlanta shooter’s perception of Asian businesses with Asian women as “temptations” for his sex addiction.

Just to name a few, I see the modern reincarnation of the Page Act in the many internet comments written by bros warning their fellow bros that any dating profile of an attractive Asian woman is most definitely a scammer. Apple’s adult content filters blocked the word “Asian” for over a year, and TikTok censored the phrase “Asian women” for about a month. It is hard to blame them when in middle school I Googled “Asian teen girl” to find a celebrity doppelgänger for myself, and all that came up was porn.

In the Harry Potter series, the most prominent Asian character Cho Chang — a girl of hodgepodged East Asian background with a Chinese last name and a Korean last name as a first name — primarily exists to serve as the white boy’s object of desire. In “Mean Girls,” the two Asian teenage girls serve as the butt of the joke when it is revealed they are both having sex with a white male teacher.

Unfortunately, these examples — while perhaps abhorrent — are not aberrational. 

Fetishization of Asian women is disturbingly commonplace

Actual screenshots from my old dating profile of guys who “liked” me in the fall 2021 semester. It is with great disappointment that I have plenty more where these came from. Photos courtesy of Mae-Mae Han. 

Because of how deeply ingrained our hypersexualization is in our culture, it is a very universal experience for Asian women to have experienced racial fetishization

Hell, even Mark Zuckerberg was blatant about his Asian fetish, also known as “yellow fever.” Before Facebook, Zuckerberg created an MP3 player called “Synapse.” Weirdly enough, to promote the program, he wrote in the site’s “about” page: “At some point in every man’s life, he’s bound to find himself in bed with a Chinese girl. It may happen suddenly, and you may not remember how it happened, but it will happen — I guarantee that.”

Unsurprisingly, the Zuck is now married to a Chinese American woman.

Heather Curtis, sophomore web design and development major of Filipina descent, shared her experience with racial fetishization in past and current relationships. 

“I’ve had past boyfriends allude to them saying they ‘colonized’ me,” Curtis said. “Other experiences I’ve had [have] mostly [been] on dating apps. The guys that typically match with me often say that they are extremely into anime.”

That is unfortunately all too relatable. I have had multiple ex boyfriends, white and non-white, who expressed their fetish for Asian women as a simple matter of “personal preference” while insinuating Asian women just look, act and feel a certain way. Though none of them — well, maybe one of them — were as blatant with their yellow fever as Zuckerberg, and they were generally “nice” people, they still saw no wrong in their covertly exoticized perception of Asian women.

Ironically enough, said exes would dismiss me as being “overly insensitive” when I spoke on the harms of Asian fetishization and the insidious ways it manifests.

And just like Curtis, I found that a disproportionate amount of people who tried to match with me on dating apps were very much so into anime or Kpop or just “really love” a Western-catered, sanitized version of Asian culture, and I have experienced many demeaning sexual comparisons drawn between me and hentai, or anime pornography derived from Japan. 

In particular, Asian women are often perceived as oversexualized in a “cute” or infantilized, pedophilia-adjacent manner. As such, guys like to compare me to “loli” hentai: hentai porn depicting seemingly-underage girls in reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “Lolita” that features a 12-year-old girl who is raped and trafficked by her mother’s partner. Really not a comparison I would like to have.

I even had a white ex boyfriend be so bold as to tell me how he and his friends debated whether Chinese or Japanese girls were hotter, and me being of Chinese heritage, he proudly informed me he finds Chinese girls hotter. Thanks a lot, bro — definitely does not make me feel completely dehumanized.

The harm of fetishization

Even without something as egregious as a shooting, all this fetishization is not without harm. Beyond the overall dehumanizing generalizations and stereotyping that we face under fetishization, Asian women face disproportionate amounts of sexual violence.

On PornHub, four out of the six most-searched terms in 2019 were related to Asian pornography.

A 2019 study found that 75% of PornHub videos with Asian women featured visible aggression against said women, and 36% featured “nonconsensual aggression.” Both figures were the highest for women for any racial group.

Perhaps most disturbingly, another study found Asian women to be the majority of victims depicted in rape porn, which has been linked to real-life rape of and general sexual violence against Asian girls and women.

The CDC states at least one out of three of American women have experienced sexual violence. For Asian American women, studies suggest that number to be six out of ten.

So no, being fetishized is not a compliment — and, no matter what my crappy ex boyfriends will tell you, it is not just a simple matter of “personal preference.”

Some government officials have taken action…

In the time immediately following the shooting, I saw a response like I had never seen before in support of Asian Americans. During that first year of the pandemic, I felt Sisyphian, as if I was shouting into the void. In the days after the shooting, I saw acknowledgment for the pain and trauma we face at a scale that was infinitely greater than was demonstrated the whole of the pandemic — or in my entire lifetime, really.

The “model minority myth” which constructs Asian Americans as “white-adjacent” and not “actually” facing racism and dismisses Asian concerns seemed to finally be dissipating.

In April 2021, a month after the shooting, Illinois made news by passing the TEAACH Act: Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History. It requires the inclusion of Asian American history in public school curricula.

In May 2021, Congress passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act to establish guidelines for reviewing and reporting hate crimes, though this has been criticized for overall harming marginalized communities by involving law enforcement.

In March 2022, President Joe Biden formally acknowledged anti-Asian hate in his State of the Union address.

But do these things actually address the systemic, structural problems?

…Still, the violence persists

In New York City alone, 131 anti-Asian bias incidents were recorded by the police: up from only three in 2019.

Dec. 31, 2021, elderly Chinese man Yao Pan Ma died after being assaulted while collecting cans in April 2021.

Jan. 15, 2022, Chinese American woman Michelle Go was killed when pushed into oncoming subway.

Feb. 13, 2022, Korean American woman Christina Yuna Lee was followed and murdered in her Chinatown apartment.

Feb. 27, 2022, a man was charged with hate crimes for attacking seven Asian women in two hours.

Feb. 28, 2022, elderly Chinese woman Guiying Ma died after being attacked while sweeping the sidewalk in Nov. 2021.

March 2022, a man was charged with attempted murder for hitting a woman 125 times “because she was Asian.”

The list goes on — and these are only the stories that got airtime.

Racism is perpetuated in everyday ways: Non-Asian women on TikTok

However, anti-Asian racism does not just manifest in overt violence and assault. It is not just the blatantly violent or egregiously racist who commit acts of racism. Meet Patel, Indian American health sciences and Spanish double major, underscores the importance of understanding implicit biases.

“Awareness of [anti-Asian racism] is a huge thing because that kind of gets people to understand their implicit biases, even though they may never go up and shoot up a salon or spa,” Patel said.

Even beyond the men who think Asian women are just a “certain way,” non-Asian women are also guilty of upholding and capitalizing on the fetishization of Asian women.

“The whole e-girl thing on TikTok, kawaii culture, [a lot of that aesthetic] comes from especially East Asian countries,” Curtis said. “A lot of it is extremely sexualized, including by the white women who sort of take on that aesthetic, so it does a lot more harm … You still see hypersexualization, especially on TikTok, of Asian women and Asian aesthetics.”

Oftentimes, this involves non-Asian women appropriating the “submissive, kawaii stereotype while wearing infantilising clothes that are highly sexualised. Some of the worst cases are white influencers who put on an ‘Asian’ face and schoolgirl-like lingerie to pose for their OnlyFans content.” The “sexy Japanese schoolgirl outfit” and whitewashed anime cosplays, which simultaneously promote Eurocentric beauty standards within Asian aesthetics, are popular culprits among these predominantly white e-girls or “gamer girls.” The prominence of this on TikTok is a primary reason why as a chronically online Gen Z-er, I still do not have a TikTok account.

While non-Asian women can adopt and take off these anime and hentai-centered aesthetics that propagate Asian fetishization at will via clothing, hair or makeup, I — as someone who will forever and always look East Asian — cannot.

Ariana Grande has the power to change her look from “blackfishing” — or the act of appropriating Black aesthetics — to “Asianfishing” — or appropriating Asian aesthetics. I cannot turn my Asianness on and off.

White American music artist Ashnikko, who is known for her Japanese street fashion look and gained popularity through TikTok, can choose to sing, “She cute, kawaii, hentai boobies, that excites me” in her song “Slumber Party,” but I am the one who will continuously be perceived as “kawaii” and get the unwanted comparisons to hentai regardless of how I present myself.

And it is people like me who will be the ones who will be punished with unwanted Asian fetishization, who will forever be harassed by weeaboos — non-Japanese people inappropriately obsessed with Japanese culture — regardless of what clothes or makeup I am wearing, who will be forever condemned as nothing but “cute” and “helpless,” who will receive messages such as “u r the sexiest asian girl I’ve ever seen omg.”

And all while white women — none of whom would consider themselves “racist” and many of whom would probably consider themselves to be “allies” to the Asian community — gain social media followers or make money as they get to cherrypick the Asian experience and deepen Asian fetishization’s grip in society.

You do not have to be a woman or Asian to care

It is not my fault for simply living and breathing as an Asian American woman, so it should not be my burden of responsibility to dismantle the white supremacist, patriarchal systems that were created to marginalize people like me. Racism and misogyny are not problems due to the existence people of color or problems due to the existence of women; they are problems due to the product of white power and the product of male power over others.

Anti-Asian violence is not random, and the intersectional marginalization of Asian women that created the Atlanta shooting persists unabated. Patel resonates with this sentiment, particularly because his Asian mother has a salon that employs Asian women.

“[The Atlanta spa shootings could] happen [at] my mom’s salon, right?” Patel said. “It wasn’t that those women were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t that. It was that that they were targeted … The person responsible for [the shooting] didn’t just randomly walk into random place and start shooting it up. They had a grudge against a certain type of people, and that’s why they chose a specific place.”

As such, allyship is so incredibly important. Recognize your implicit biases, and recognize your privileges.

“I’m teaching race, gender and sexuality in contemporary art this semester, and it’s like, so what happens if you’re white, if you’re straight, you’re male?” Wang said. “You can still understand what happened, what’s going on … [It’s important] for students to be more open-minded to think about power and privilege and be very careful and critical about how power and privilege [are] used even in daily life.”

It can be easy to feel disconnected from “others,” but, as the adage goes, we do in fact live in a society.

“‘Disparities’ we think of something as happening to other people, and especially if we have the privilege of not experiencing that, but ultimately, we don’t realize and understand that everything is connected, and we are also impacted no matter how much we feel we are distanced,” Patel said.

So really, one year after the Atlanta spa shootings where Asian American women were targeted and killed, what has changed for us?

Spoiler: not much.

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