On the night of Tuesday, March 16, a white male shooter targeted three spas in Atlanta and nearby Cherokee County, killing eight individuals, six of whom were Asian women. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I’m not. I live only a two-hour drive away in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and even before the pandemic I’ve been called names like “chopsticks” and “P.F. Changs” and experienced racist harassment as a student activist. The intersection of racially motivated hate and gun violence is unfortunately part of our American gun violence epidemic narrative, and the Atlanta shooting simply highlighted that fact. Instead, I’m surprised that our leaders still haven’t laid proactive measures to prevent such incidents, including ones that emphasize the severity of hate crimes.
“Eight dead in Atlanta spa shootings, with fears of anti-Asian bias.”
“Captain who said spa shooting suspect had ‘bad day’ no longer a spokesman on case, officials say.”
“He said a sex addiction is why he killed Asian women.”
I spent the first 48 hours constantly refreshing the Google web page and scanning headlines as details about the shooting were slowly released. As a devout gun violence prevention student activist, I’ve found myself in similar situations numerous times: spending an afternoon refreshing a web page to learn about the victims of a shooting. But as a member of the Korean and larger Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, this shooting struck a very personal chord.
Within the past 12 months, the organization Stop AAPI Hate has recognized 3,800 incidents of hate crimes targeting the AAPI community. These attacks range from verbal abuse to assault and murder, with an overwhelming number of hate crimes focused against AAPI women. Yet, even in the face of these devastating statistics, Georgia law enforcement and President Joe Biden didn’t officially categorize or acknowledge the Atlanta shooting as a hate crime, although law enforcement said “nothing was off the table” in determining motive. Instead, the shooter’s actions were rationalized and advertised by many as the result of having a “bad day.”
Yet, the root causes and the widespread implications of this shooting transcend the defense of simply having a “bad day.” Everyone has bad days. My bad days—bursting into tears after defending the rights of undocumented immigrants and being called an “Asian b***ch” in the school hallway—have often stemmed from the inherent discrimination woven into our American culture. However, I haven’t used them as an excuse to commit violence. The Atlanta shooter’s “bad day” cost eight people their lives and resulted from the centuries-old intersection of racism, discrimination, xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, misogyny, and gun violence. And it’s frustrating that it apparently took countless attacks on Asian Americans—many of them elders—culminating in this recent mass shooting, to motivate a national uprising and awareness of AAPI hate among the general public, mainstream media, and our political leaders.
For the last three years, I’ve worked as a student advocate pushing for gun sense legislation after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting impacted my then-community of South Florida. I’m grateful to have learned more about the influence of systemic racism within the statistics and patterns of gun violence and its disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities. However, largely due how the AAPI community is often portrayed as “successful”—which often erases the struggles of different Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities within the AAPI umbrella—and the harmful “model minority” myth, I’ve observed time and time again how AAPI experiences are often erased from the narrative of American racism and hardship. Even in my activist community, where I expected recognition of AAPI hate, I’ve faced numerous microaggressions. At a leadership conference I was even told that I was “ungrateful” for wishing there was more AAPI representation in our history curriculum, and yelled at for “not representing all the minority groups equally.”
The honest truth about being an AAPI activist in the gun violence prevention movement is this: Your entire activism is a constant balance of privilege and recognition. In the discussion of the disproportionate impacts of gun violence, many in the AAPI community can find ourselves in a grey area among white communities and the Black and brown communities. I try to uplift the communities most impacted by gun violence while also drawing distinctions about the unique challenges faced by my own community. I’ve had numerous conversations defining who I am within the AAPI community and finding a balance of highlighting my personal struggles living in the South and attending a homogenous school, while recognizing that my story is less than a fraction of the multidimensional, infinite narrative of the AAPI community. It’s a very careful and evolving understanding that I am constantly working on because it’s important to my goals as a gun violence prevention activist and as a Korean American.
It can be complicated, but perhaps it’s these intricacies of our identities and the roles we play in society that truly make this work so worthwhile and gratifying. But more importantly, these last few months have both reinforced and identified allies the AAPI community has in its corner, as well as reminded people of the long history and effects of AAPI activism. During the aftermath of the Atlanta shooting, friends and colleagues in the gun violence movement sent texts ranging from “I am thinking about you and everyone in the AAPI community <3” to “a little reminder that you are a good and kind and lovely person.”
It’s these moments of pure love and appreciation, persevering through the media reports of such a hateful tragedy, that gives me hope and makes this work worth fighting for.