The Asian diaspora has been mourning the tragic loss of eight lives—six of them Asian women—at the hands of a white man who went on a killing spree specifically targeting Asian spas in the Atlanta area. Coupled with the apparent and hypervisible uptick in anti-Asian violence and COVID-19 racism, Asian pain has permeated the public sphere on a national level for the first time in decades. Not only have we as a community been forced to recognize how truly vulnerable we all are to white supremacist violence, we once again find ourselves united by our shared trauma.
Asian Americans know that this trauma isn’t isolated to the pandemic, or to the massacre in Atlanta—even if large swaths of Americans are only beginning to understand the racist violence we’ve endured in this country. We know that this epidemic of violence and hate against Asians, especially the most vulnerable in our communities, has persisted long before COVID-19, and has played itself out time and time again—during U.S. acts of war and imperialism in Asia and the Pacific, in restrictive and discriminatory immigration legislation, in our media portrayals, and in the daily abuses low-wage migrant workers face. All of these issues are interconnected and work together to continually push Asian women in the U.S. and abroad into precarious and dangerous positions, working jobs that break our backs and our spirits, and stereotyped into objects for domestic abuse and sexual gratification.
The pain goes deep and has gone unaddressed
Removing sexual “temptation” is the Atlanta killer’s reasoning behind his murderous rampage—a sentiment that speaks directly to the hypersexualization, fetishization, and demonization of Asian women. It’s been noted how sympathetic the police were to the killer, reasoning that it was a “really bad day for him.” But police have long played a similar role in treating Asian spa workers, sex workers, and survivors as merely casualties in a long campaign against the moral depravity of sex trafficking, even when they lack evidence that trafficking has taken place.
“All [the murderer] could see is his own self-loathing, and he could not see these people as human beings,” said Red Canary Song Co-Founder Kate Zen at a vigil hosted by the group, which organizes Asian and migrant sex workers in New York City. “This is the problem that we experience so often as sex workers. People swallow you up in the ideas they have about you and they refuse to see you … It is so violent to erase a human being in this way, and it leaves the human lost in translation.”
But how did we get to a point where Asian women have been reduced down to our sexualities and our bodies viewed as disposable? In an article for TruthOut, scholars Rachel Kuo and Salonee Bhaman outline how the United States’ endless wars and military occupations across the Pacific are inextricably linked to violence against Asian women, both overseas and in the U.S. “The targeting of Asia as a foreign threat and an enemy to be eliminated alongside U.S. desires for dominance over Asia work in tandem with the imagination of Asian women as submissive fantasies to be conquered,” Kuo and Bhaman write. “Military encounters were often ‘first encounters’ U.S. soldiers had with Asian women.”
These encounters were endorsed and encouraged by the U.S. military, creating camptowns of local sex workers for American G.I.s stationed in countries like South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines. The U.S. military’s conquests created and fueled the modern-day sex tourism industry in which Asian women and children are seen as “exotic” bodies for Westerners to use and discard.
Our sexualities are viewed both as a service to white men and as an existential threat
This white male gaze perspective also gets conscripted in the West through media portrayals of Asiatic women as demure, hypersexual, submissive, servile, but also deceitful—and often, as disempowered sex workers. This perception of Asian women also dates back to our earliest arrivals into this country, when Chinese women were sold into sexual slavery in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush in the 1850s. The first ever restrictive immigration legislation in the U.S., the Page Act of 1875, essentially barred all Asian women, namely Chinese, from entering the country under the assumption that they were coming for “lewd and immoral purposes,” or to engage in prostitution. We needed to be kept out in order to save white men from our immorality and venereal diseases.
The U.S.’ wars abroad and expansions of empire have also resulted in the forced migration of countless refugees, with Southeast Asians being the largest resettled refugee population in U.S. history. Often, refugee women and other Asian women who immigrate here without much support end up working the low-wage, blue collar jobs relegated to migrant women: care work, domestic work, and sex work.
A GoFundMe created by the daughter of Eun Ja Kang, a survivor who works at Gold Spa gives us a glimpse into the conditions her mother worked under. “My mom is the sole money maker in my family of [three],” said Joyce Cheung, Kang’s daughter. “For years, I would rarely see my mom as she slept and ate with her coworkers at her workplace. She would come home on some weekends. Sometimes her arrival home would be a surprise for us as we never really knew when she had a day off.”
While some journalists and those seeking to abolish sex work are choosing to grasp onto this moment to reveal the horrors of the sex industry and make arguments for criminalization, these women need support, safety, and protections—not to be rescued, raided, or eliminated.
As a society, we must contend with how we got here, and not just through a historical or political analysis. We must ask ourselves: Why is it that people only start caring about our issues in the aftermath of extreme violence? Why do we have to keep on rehashing our histories of trauma only to be heard when there’s a body count? And are these histories really so obscure or are they willfully ignored? Most importantly, how can we begin to care for survivors before they become victims?
As much as we are mourning the devastating loss of the eight human lives to senseless and dehumanizing violence, we must also direct our love and energy towards the Asian women who are harmed and dehumanized every day in their jobs. We should care for massage workers and sex workers, whether or not they identify as trafficking survivors. We should care for domestic workers who lack labor protections and are three times more likely to live in poverty than other workers. We should care for home attendants who work back-to-back 24-hour shifts without sleep for days. We should care for the people whose work and livelihoods have been keeping our loved ones alive, taking care of our homes, and healing us with touch—while they’re alive.