When she first read the headlines from Georgia, Danielle Kim knew in her bones what horror had come to pass.
A series of shootings at three spas in Atlanta and a nearby suburb had left eight people dead, including six Asian women. At least four of the six women were of Korean descent, like Kim.
“It was clear to me this was not just a random attack on just regular small businesses,” Kim said. “It appeared, based on what we’re seeing, that this likely may have been a lot more targeted toward the Asian community and specifically, Asian women.”
The suspect in custody — a 21-year-old white man named Robert Aaron Long — claimed he was not motivated by racism. But to many Asian Americans, Tuesday’s deadly rampage felt like the culmination of a year in which anti-Asian racism has soared.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Asian Americans have been insulted, harassed, spat upon, shunned, beaten, and killed. The organization Stop AAPI Hate has recorded nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents nationwide since last March, when the group first started tracking the attacks. More than two-thirds of the victims, the group noted, were women.
Law enforcement officials have said that Long claimed he was motivated by “sexual addiction,” but investigators are not ruling out the role anti-Asian bias might have played. Long has been charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault.
Four of the victims who were killed have been identified: Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44.
Regardless of the motive, the slayings have rattled many Asian Americans, still reeling from the recent and highly publicized assaults on Asian elders in California and New York. On Jan. 28, an 84-year-old Thai man named Vicha Ratanapakdee was brutally beaten during his morning walk in San Francisco. He died of his injuries days later. Earlier this month, an 83-year-old Korean women in White Plains, N.Y., was struck so hard she blacked out.
As she processed the news, Kim thought of her Korean parents, small-business owners in New Jersey, and her near constant worry for their safety. And she was reminded of an incident last March, at the beginning of the pandemic, when a middle-aged white woman snarled at her to “go back to where [she] came from” as they passed each other in the Seaport.
“That comment sat with me for days and weeks to come,” said Kim, secretary of the Massachusetts Asian American Commission. “Every once in a while, I’ll think back to that moment.”
This past year of sickness, isolation, and death has been emotionally and psychologically taxing for nearly everyone, but for Asian Americans, grief and anxiety have been compounded by anti-Asian sentiment fueled by the pandemic. Civil rights groups have accused former president Donald Trump of stoking the flames of hate when he referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus” or “Kung flu.” But the history of anti-Asian racism is much longer.
Historian Ellen Wu, director of the Asian American Studies Program at Indiana University, said Tuesday’s killings stem from a wretched tradition of discrimination against Asian women, who are stereotyped not only as passive and submissive, but as hypersexual and exotic.
The fetishization of Asian women began with the Page Law of 1875, the first federal statute to restrict immigration to the United States. The law was ostensibly aimed at preventing Chinese prostitutes from entering the country, but in practice, it excluded virtually all Chinese women, Wu said. During and after the Korean War, American soldiers regularly frequented Asian sex workers — women, Wu notes, who “didn’t have a lot of options” in countries devastated by war.
From “Madame Butterfly” to “Sayonara,” the image of the feminine, sexual, and subservient Asian woman has been recycled generation after generation in popular culture, Wu said, and consequently, has become “embedded in our collective cultural imagination.” And so for many Asian American women, it’s impossible to separate the Georgia shooter’s apparent misogyny from the specter of racism.
“There is often a lot of unchecked, invisible violence that exists for Asian women, whether it’s because of their race, or because of their immigration status, or the type of industry they’re in,” said Lisette Le, executive director of VietAID, a Fields Corner nonprofit that primarily serves Vietnamese nail salon workers. “They can be seen as disposable.”
Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu, a daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, recounted in a statement her own experiences with anti-Asian racism following Tuesday’s attacks.
“Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve racist encounters with strangers,” she wrote. “People who knew nothing about me except for my appearance feeling empowered to pull eyes into slits, or to chant ching chong sounds.”
She also described “that constant feeling of needing to be aware, ready, on guard whenever out in public.”
Asian Americans represent about 7 percent of the population in Massachusetts. In the United States, Asians make up about 6 percent of the population, up from about 2 percent in 1980, William Frey, chief demographer at the Brookings Institution, told The New York Times.
Feelings like those experienced by Wu are not uncommon among Asian American women. A 27-year-old Southeast Asian woman who spoke to the Globe recalled how a stranger pulled a fake gun on her while she was walking to work in Dorchester last May. The woman, who asked to remain anonymous so her family wouldn’t worry, said a man was approaching her from the opposite direction when he aimed a bright green firearm at her. He pulled the trigger and the gun clicked.
“I flinched,” she said, “and then he kept walking.”
She had always felt safe walking to work, but that moment changed everything. She felt conflicted about calling the police because she was worried about how their presence would affect Black residents in the neighborhood. But her co-workers urged her to report the incident.
Between sobs, she tried explaining the incident to police, but the operator on the other end “was confused why I was calling,” she said. “They didn’t understand.” She was transferred to 911 and again, she was questioned why she was even calling when “this is not an emergency.”
“They kept transferring me here and there,” the woman said. Then the call dropped.
The only official record of what happened to her is a complaint she filed online with the civil rights division of the state attorney general’s office. But “there was no follow-up,” the woman said. She doesn’t own a car, so she still walks to work. But now, she spends more money on rideshares and avoids public transportation because she fears being attacked on a train or bus.
She tries to hide her Asian features.
“I wear sunglasses, I wear caps, I wear hoods,” she said. “I wear sneakers in case I need to run.”