I was looking forward to doing a post on Women’s Month in March, celebrating our achievements in recent years, and reporting on the status of women’s rights both in the USA and globally.
But then eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in Atlanta and the wind went out of that idea.
Hatred on the Rise
Last year saw a surge in racism targeting Asians after the coronavirus spread in North America. President Trump kept calling it the “China virus”, fanning the flames of prejudice and hate among his followers and more. Just a few days before the spa killings in Atlanta, Stop AAPI Hate published its national report.
This organization was formed in response to the alarming increase in anti-Asian and related incidents of racism during the pandemic. It’s a joint effort by the Asia Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), the Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), and the Asian American Studies Department of the San Francisco State University. Launched in March of last year, it aims to collect and address reports of racist incidents. It provides the opportunity for victims to report in 12 languages (including English) that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders may speak.
The instances of racism reported in their document are eye-opening and reveal how widespread the problem is. Russel Jeung, Professor at the Department and founder of this organization, stresses how “rising racism” is a misleading phrase since such racism has always been a major problem faced by native-born and immigrant residents of AAPI communities in the USA. It has intensified since the pandemic and is thus receiving more media attention in the “woke” era.
The Atlanta Spa Killings
Xiaojie Tan (49) was the owner of two spas in Atlanta and was planning to retire soon. She wished to go sightseeing in Alaska and Europe as a newly minted retiree. But these dreams were squashed forever when a 21-year-old white man entered the Youngs Asian Massage Parlor on a bleak afternoon, March 16th, last week. Soon, four people inside the spa were dead, including Xiojie. The other victims were Ashley Yuan (33), Paul Andre Michels (54), and Daoyou Feng (44). A fifth victim, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, is still recovering.
The perpetrator, Robert Aaron Young, then drove 30 miles away and shot three Asian women inside Gold Spa. He then went across the street to an aromatherapy center where he shot another woman dead. The names of these victims were Yong Ae Yue (63), Soon Chung Park (74), Suncha Kim (69), and Hyun Jung Grant (51).
After that, the man left for Florida on Interstate-75 in his black Hyundai Tucson, presumably to continue the massacre. A surveillance tape taken at the first spa as he was entering and then leaving was eventually used to catch him. His parents identified positively and helped track his car by sharing key information. He was caught the same night by Georgia State Patrol, who force-wrecked his car since he refused to stop.
On being caught, Young told the police officers of having frequented the first two spas where he committed the killings. In his own words, his motivation was to eliminate temptations he found difficult to control. In Florida, he wanted to find outlets for “something he shouldn’t be doing.”
Blurred Lines of Intersectional Prejudice
Robert Young did not believe he was motivated by hatred for any ethnicity in committing these hideous acts. Rather, he was struggling with sex addiction and “was the end of a rope.” That may have been his perspective, but in a tone-deaf faux pas that bespeaks the problem of ignorant irresponsibility, the Cherokee County sheriff chose to highlight it in his press conference, even when the victims hadn’t received any media coverage yet.
Both Young’s dismissal of the ethnic flavor of his own crime and the sheriff’s blunder point to the intersectionality problem in both racism and sexism. Young and Sherriff Baker not only subscribed to sexualizing stereotypes of laboring Asian women as sex workers but also failed to “see” the role of both skin color and ethnic background in their own attitudes.
In the words of Professor Pawan Dhingra of the Asian Studies Department and a founding member of Stop AAPI Hate:
“Whether [the crimes] meet that legal definition or not, they all fit a long history of viewing Asian Americans in particular ways that make discrimination and violence against them more likely.”
The intersectional problem of sexualized racism against Asian women has a history nearly a century older than Japanese Americans’ internment during WWII. In 1875, the US Congress passed the Page Act against the entry of Chinese women as immigrants for fear of “lewd and immoral” purposes of travel. More recently, the US military struck a deal with Thailand’s government for a “rest and relaxation” opportunity for the US soldiers fighting in Vietnam. This deal is recognized as the originator of Thailand’s booming and problematic sex industry.
Beyond The Killings: The Asian American Intersectional Pigeonhole for Women
There are four different ways to think about (and research) the intersectionality of Asian women in America:
i) Not consider the intersectionality at all and just group them as a large part of the US Asian American population.
ii) To acknowledge both gender and racial minority but still not regard the combination of the two as creating a unique experience for the Asian American women.
iii) To focus on and “see” the discrimination of females within the Asian American demographic.
iv) To understand and investigate the unique experiences arising from being both female and Asian American in the USA.
Not much will happen toward addressing the dangers of discrimination for Asian American women in society unless we specifically focus on their unique issues at a grassroots level, whether it’s general racism or sexism, or a toxic combination of both.
In a recent study, two professors performed a thematic content analysis of in-depth interviews and focus-groups concerning different Asian American women’s experiences with stereotypes and discrimination. The study shows the clear distinction between “generalized racism” experiences and “sexualized” or “gender-specific racism”, highlighting the need to seek out more women in all research into anti-Asian discrimination.
Experiences of Generalized Racism:
- Token representativeness: Many people took the women as representative or as a stand-in for all Asian Americans at large. Sometimes they were treated as a token “minority”.
- Mislabeled, mistaken ethnicity: This related to the assumption that all Asian Americans are alike or look alike, regardless of the tapestry of nationalities or cultural groups that broad categorization subsumes.
- Foreign and outsider: These stereotypes ignored the generational or nativity status of Americans born to Asian families. The women were assumed to be non-American, to not know English, or to not subscribe to American traditions.
- Exclusion: Not invited as participants in community events or activities or being actively kept out of them. This stereotype was commonly reported in professional settings, where social hang-outs or activities at work were explicitly or implicitly not open to Asian American women.
- Inevitably successful: The assumption of being rich, smart or wealthy, good at math, etc. This toxic stereotype is commonly hurtful in educational or professional settings. The women found that this stereotype was very difficult to fight off and caused problems when their personal reality was very distant or even opposite to the stereotype.
- Culture-based discrimination: Negative reactions to culture-specific elements such as ethnic foods or dresses, and native languages.
- Criminality: Being suspected of and/or followed around after attribution of criminal intent such as theft.
- Bad drivers: Shouting or joking about, or discriminating based on this stereotype.
- Denying the discrimination experience: Refusing to believe racism still exists or that it’s not targeted toward Asian Americans.
Experiences of Racialized Sexism:
- “Exotic” and “yellow fever”: Being objectified, fetishized, exoticized. This type of sexism is common among men who are strangers to these women. Specific instances included violations of personal space, sexualized comments on body parts or ethnic dressing, assumptions of sexual prowess or promiscuity, increased attention or obsession, or catcalling. A problematic finding was that most discriminators seemed to think they were being positive and giving “compliments” to the woman.
- Not a leader: Regardless of experience in educational and professional settings, the women’s decisions, knowledge, or skills were questioned. They were passed on for promotions and leadership opportunities or were relegated to jobs with reduced responsibilities.
- Cute and small: Assumptions surrounding a petite body type.
- Invisibility: Being ignored in customer service, non-Asian individuals being preferred for interaction, or having a friend responding on your behalf.
- Service worker: Assumed to be the service worker at a place, or assumed to be the nanny of one’s own kids.
- Submissive and passive: Assumed to be docile and nonreactive. Whether these women were in authority or others were in authority to them, the expectation of being accommodating, passively at the receiving end, or submissively nonreactive were prevalent in all areas of personal and professional lives.
Another study on the intersectional stereotypes for Asian American women adds “manipulative and untrustworthy ‘Dragon Lady’” and “hard-working employee or worker bee” to the above list.
The Larger Intersectionality Black Hole
Being a minority woman not only exposes one to racism but opens the door to additional sources of discrimination arising from prevalent stereotypical schemas of women of particular ethnicities. A large impediment to change has been the black hole found in academic circles where intersectional issues of women are barely understood.
Remember, the academic world often informs and guides policy. Policymakers, government officials in relevant departments, and activist organizations rely on or hire academic researchers to cut out mere “talk” and “opinion” from the tough realities to establish facts.
These facts then serve as the baseline for resource allocation for policy, development, and more research. With America and Europe dominating academic thinking in these areas, their histories have shaped how social issues have been conceptualized and studied, informing policy. With racism, the major focus has been on black men, while issues related to white women have dominated research into sexism.
For the most part, intersectionality has been treated as a “methodological challenge”. The purpose of social science is to isolate the direct effects of an assumed “cause” as purely as possible. Thus, in racism studies, gender is typically seen as one more condition to rule out or “control” in order to get a clearer picture of racism. Similarly, in sexism studies, the aim of the social scientists is typically to hold the effects of race/ethnicity constant, in order to isolate the causes of sexism. This kind of methodology washes over the qualitatively different experience of having a particular gender-related identity in a given ethnic group.
It’s easy for women of any minority to get the negative end of a bargain. For instance, research has shown that once you are perceived as a black person, it’s hard for you to be seen as a “woman”. The reason for that is the dominance of hyper-masculinity associated with black men in particular, but that also bleeds over into perceptions of black women. Academic critics of gaps in social sciences on intersectional research have drawn an alarming conclusion:
“Intersectional ‘invisibility’ creates prototypical targets for discrimination.”
A major problem arises when research methods seeking to understand the experiences of a group of people prone to invisibility are not considered “scientific enough”. Modern intersectional research relies on qualitative data, that is, transcripts of in-depth interviews, ethnographic approaches which combine interview and observational data, and focus-group discussions.
However, big money funding in the world of research favors more “rigorous” hypothesis-testing research of experimental nature – the kind that systematically takes intersectional groups off the table or does not study enough members to draw meaningful conclusions. The result is that most of the issues that filter through to the policy-making tier of society are based on studies focused on men – not women – of different minorities.
But, as the Atlanta massacre shows, women and men from all groups experience discrimination in fundamentally different ways. And yet, due to the intersectionality black hole, when it comes to public, academic, or policy discussion, the different forms of discrimination suffered by women in these groups are also ignored. One group of researchers tested this phenomenon to alarming results by specifically asking participants to name common targets of discrimination.
As we can clearly see, ethnic groups without a centuries-long history in the USA do not even figure in these results. Instead, they remain “unseen”, creating a dangerous space where racism, sexism, or any qualitatively different product of the two, continues unnoticed.
Crossing the Line: When Discrimination Becomes Overtly Predatory
It is in this context of invisibility that a disturbed individual cannot “see” his crime as involving race and that the sheriff “sees” no problem in mansplaining the perspective of this same-race, same-gender perpetrator, ignoring the intersectional phenomenon at play.
During the pandemic, there has been an increase in physical acts of discrimination against Asian Americans both men and women, including the elderly. In January, an 84-year-old Thai man was shoved to the ground and subsequently died from sustained injuries. A few days later, a 91-year-old man walking on the sidewalk was pushed face-first onto the pavement in Oklahoma’s Chinatown. In New York City, a 61-year-old Filipino man was slashed in the face on a subway, so deep that he could not talk for some days.
These incidents should not only heighten our awareness of the rise in violent discrimination of Asian Americans but also increase awareness of a different type of intersectionality, the one combining agism with racism.
A problem has no solution until it is brought out fully in the open, studied without social or academic bias, and allowed to filter through to all levels of policy, governance, and public discourse. Until then, all the citizens of this country who are subject to more than one category of discrimination are stuck in a black hole of ignorance and dismissal.