When the news first broke about what happened in Atlanta, I was left feeling deeply unsettled by its implications. Especially as it occurred so soon after the historic Oscar nominations for “Minari,”it felt particularly insidious that it came at a time that disparaged the progression of Asian American identities. Although hate crimes toward us are not a new occurrence, the shootings served as a reminder of the country’s foundation of white supremacy, the pervasive roots of misogyny, and the global terrorism against Asians.
“Along with so many Asian Americans across the United States and around the world, I was left trying to grapple with what the killings meant and to learn more about the people who were killed,” Moon-Ho Jung, a professor in the department of history, said. “I think the killings resonated with a lot of Asian Americans because of the level of anti-Asian rhetoric and violence that's always been around since, really, the beginning of U.S. history.”
While anti-Asian racism is perpetuated by Western imperialism, Orientalism serves as the blueprint. By justifying colonial rule through claiming moral obligation and disguising massacres as religious crusades, Western nations created racialized ideas that would continue to serve as the foundation of many degrading caricatures. From coolies to model minorities, these are all forms of the Western imagination of Asia –– whose overarching theme is one of subservience and perpetual otherness.
This should sound familiar, as it echoes the sentiments of the Atlanta shooter, who expressed a sick, perverted, and dangerous desire to “tame the exotic.” Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident, but part of a history of sexual violence that entails the abuse and commodification of Asian bodies, particularly those of Asian women, under the white gaze.
“We shouldn’t forget that the shootings happened in a massage parlor, a particularly racialized and sexualized space with certain members of our communities, who are often rendered invisible,” Jung said.
Along with the aforementioned ideas, Orientalism has also perpetuated the feminization of Asians by juxtaposing Western nations as “masculine” and portraying the East as a sexually alluring land for conquest. As a result, Asian women were seen to embody hyperfemininity and became the objects of forbidden sexual desires, conjuring images of lithe geishas, insatiable prostitutes, and deceptive temptresses.
“You have this image under the assumption that Asia is somehow backwards, and to come to America, where a white man is, is this dream of liberation,” Jung said. “But, you also have these images of Asian women as the hypersexualized dragon lady who will use her sexual powers to undermine the white civilization.”
It is by design that Asian women are often perceived within overly sexualized gazes. In fact, the immigration system within the United States actively excluded Asian women through the Page Act of 1875, as it was reasoned that they were diseased sexual threats, further enabling this stereotype to proliferate throughout the country.
Additionally, military occupations and wars that were direct consequences of Western imperialism subjugated women to sexual violence as well.
“It produced a military economy where Asian women were compelled to participate in a sexualized business, and this deeply racialized image of Asian women as being sexually available to white men became part of the U.S. military complex,” Jung said.
Race became a modality in which gendered violence could be further inflicted. Thus, the fetishization of Asians, which is a product of colonization, serves as a vehicle for white supremacy to operate.
With this expansive history, I felt myself identifying my own personal experiences as a queer Asian person –– especially as a survivor of racially-based sexual assault. I remember my abuser relegated me to an “Asian massage boy.” At the time, I did not understand why it felt so degrading, but it took healing from the traumatic event to realize that I was expected to be grateful for being racially degraded and fetishized.
My experience of sexual violence and fetishization reminded me that sexual racism cannot be discussed without the politics of queer bodies. Because of the West’s religious fears of deviations from cisheternormativity, the feminization of Asians was utilized to imagine sexual desires of queer Asians within a heternomative structure; homoerotic desires were acceptable because they were reasoned to be within the confines of heteronormativity. Thus, these notions enabled the social hypersexualization and castration of Asians in contexts both within and outside of queerness.
Additionally, in many ways, my experience reminded me of how Asians, particularly women, are expected to be gracious in receiving degrading comments.
Whether these comments are about our appearance, our mannerisms, or our intellect, the entitlement of people who expect to be applauded for “complimenting” us is absurd and actively contributes to the harmful systems that denigrate our communities.
“I heard stories from my friends of being catcalled,” first-year Danika Lee said. “If we take it out of context, it’s really bizarre having a stranger openly voice their sexual attraction to you. It’s really not okay.”
In fact, it is precisely these microaggressions that contribute to sentiments like Yellow Peril, which portrays Asians as a threat to whiteness, and other racist tropes that fuel the rising aggression toward Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic –– again, we are the perpetual “other.”
“I find that lifestyle-wise things have changed a lot,” Lee said. “We avoid a lot of different areas, my mom won’t let me go out to certain places as much, and I always have to carry protective gear … Now, we are getting targeted by not just words, but physical attacks, where you can live or die from just being Asian.”
Although many people would argue that Asian Americans are only now facing overt forms of racism in acts of violence, this is simply not true.
“I grew up mostly during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and reflecting on my childhood in Michigan, I lived just one town over from where Vincent Chin was killed in 1982,” Jung said. “I would say racism was more out in the open, but I don’t want to say it’s gotten any better.”
Our extensive history of marginalization and exclusion as Asian Americans remains erased from most academia. This not only further portrays us as foreign in our own country, but delegitimizes our experiences and struggles, to the point where we are considered “statistically insignificant.”
“I think saying that things have gotten a lot worse is also kind of misleading in the sense that it's always been in the background,” Jung said. “Maybe it was underreported, or it was not caught on tape … I think the difference now is that it's becoming more visible.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Asian Americans have faced an unprecedented amount of racial violence that affects our most vulnerable members, from women to the elderly. Although racial violence is not a shock, the growing number of incidents is a source of anxiety for many.
The reason why I felt so unsettled by the shootings was because they represented senseless violence committed against people with such familiar backgrounds and experiences I shared. Although we should not lose focus on the victims, this gnawing fear of the possibility that the next victims could be my family, friends, or even my colleagues keeps me up at night.
Even though I am aware that American history cannot be understood without Asians, I still sometimes feel that I do not belong here. It gets hard feeling invisible and knowing that so many people still hate my existence.
Along with the interviews with Jung and Lee, being able to express my anger, sorrow, frustration, and joy with other Asians and BIPoC folx has helped me understand my complex identity, and how the systems we navigate were not built for us.
“I think being aware of our history is very critical,” Jung said. “Not only the history of anti-Asian violence, but how Asian Americans of the past have responded. They did not just sit there and submit to the violence. Asian American communities have always struggled and fought against anti-Asian racism.”
With the extensive history of Orientalism, Western imperialism, and exclusion, the racism perpetuated against Asian Americans is structurally convoluted and requires a nuanced understanding of differing constructs like gender and sexuality. It requires an acknowledgment that the liberation of our community is contingent on the liberation of women, LGBTQ+ people, and BIPoC folx.
I want to close with a profound but simple question that Jung shared during our discussion, encapsulating how we need to interpret the current political movement that has enveloped our lives:
“What does it mean to be Asian American today in 2021, and how are you going to use that identity to advance social justice, not only for Asian Americans, but for everybody?”
Reach contributing writer Kevin Min at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @astroboykev
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