Of the eight people who were killed when a White man attacked three metro Atlanta spas, six were Asian women.
Investigators said it was too early to say whether the crime was racially motivated, and instead pointed to the suspect’s claim of a potential sex addiction.
But experts and activists argue it’s no coincidence that six of the eight victims were Asian women. And the suspect’s remarks, they say, are rooted in a history of misogyny and stereotypes that are all too familiar for Asian and Asian American women.
They’re fetishized and hypersexualized. They’re seen as docile and submissive. On top of that, they’re often working in the service sector and are subject to the same racism that affects Asian Americans more broadly.
The way their race intersects with their gender makes Asian and Asian American women uniquely vulnerable to violence, said Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.
And those factors came together this week in a dangerous, and ultimately deadly, way.
These perceptions are rooted in US history
The perceptions of Asian and Asian American women as submissive, hypersexual and exotic can be traced back centuries.
Rachel Kuo, a scholar on race and co-leader of Asian American Feminist Collective, points to legal and political measures throughout the nation’s history that have shaped these harmful ideas.
One of the earliest examples comes from the Page Act of 1875.
That law, coming a few years before the Chinese Exclusion Act, was enacted seemingly to restrict prostitution and forced labor. In reality, it was used systematically to prevent Chinese women from immigrating to the US, under the pretense that they were prostitutes.
US imperialism has also played a significant role in those attitudes, Kuo said.
American service members, while abroad for US military activities (including the Philippine-American War, World War II and the Vietnam War), have a history of soliciting sex workers and patronizing industries that encouraged sex trafficking. That furthered denigrating stereotypes of Asian women as sexual deviants, which were memorialized on screen.
All of those perceptions “have had the effect of excusing and tolerating violence by ignoring, trivializing and normalizing it,” Kuo said.
They’ve affected Asian women economically
Those stereotypes also feed into perceptions of “Asian women as cheap and disposable workers,” said Kuo. That’s made them economically vulnerable, too.
Asian American businesses have already been hit especially hard during the pandemic, fueled both by unemployment and xenophobia.
Asian women, in particular, made up the highest share of long-term unemployed workers last December, according to a January report from the National Women’s Law Center.
And many Asian American women work in service industries, such as beauty salons, hospitality and restaurants.
“The narrative gets lost because we’re seen as the ‘model minority,’ where they think we’re all lawyers and doctors and engineers, but look into it a little deeper and many of the women in our community work in frontline service-based sectors,” Choimorrow, of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said.
Other advocates also called attention to the recent victims’ employment situations.
“That the Asian women murdered yesterday were working highly vulnerable and low-wage jobs during an ongoing pandemic speaks directly to the compounding impacts of misogyny, structural violence, and white supremacy,” Phi Nguyen, litigation director at Asian American Advancing Justice - Atlanta, said in a statement.
Massage parlor workers and sex workers are especially at risk, according to Esther Kao, an organizer with Red Canary Song, a New York-based collective of Asian and Asian American advocates for massage parlor workers and sex workers.
She said those workers not only face stigma, but are also often migrants. Some may fear they risk deportation should authorities investigate violence or crimes against them.
It’s also important to note that not all massage businesses provide sexual services, Kao said. To suggest as much, as the suspect in the Atlanta area attacks did, is a “racist assumption,” she said.
“It ties specifically to the fetishization of Asian woman,” Kao added.
They’re showing up in the violence seen today
The recent attacks come as Asian Americans are experiencing a rise in incidents of hate and violence since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, echoing a historical pattern that has seen Asian Americans targeted during times of crisis because they are viewed as foreigners.
Groups that track violence and harassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders say that their data shows that women are disproportionately affected.
Nearly 3,800 hate incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate between March 19 last year and February 28 this year. Women were targeted in a disproportionate share of those incidents, making up 68% of the reports while men made up 29%, the report found.
Melissa Borja, an assistant professor of Asian/Pacific Islander American studies at the University of Michigan, noted on Twitter that she and another team of researchers observed a similar pattern.
Despite those findings, the degree to which Asian and Asian American women are specifically affected by hate and violence often goes unnoticed, Choimorrow said.
“We become invisibilized when we talk about crimes against Asian Americans,” she said.
“It’s really high time that we have a full conversation about our unique experiences and challenges, because of how society views us specifically with this racialized, gender lens.”
What’s needed to address this problem is a systemic approach that acknowledges the threats that Asian and Asian American women are facing, Choimorrow and others said.
Because as long as Asian and Asian American women are overlooked, the kind of violence seen in these recent attacks could very well happen again.
CNN’s Caitlin Hu contributed to this report.