‘What we were afraid of’: Asian American women condemn attacks

Deadly shootings in Atlanta come as Asian American women are bearing brunt of rise in hate incidents across the US.

A candlelight vigil in Garden Grove, California, after the shooting that left eight people dead in Atlanta, including six Asian women [Apu Gomes/AFP]

When news broke that a gunman had opened fire on spas in the US city of Atlanta, eventually killing eight people including six Asian women, Tiffany says she felt as though she was having an out-of-body experience.

The Vietnamese-American 22-year-old, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said she turned to her mother – who before the COVID-19 pandemic worked at an Atlanta hair salon – and realised that she, too, was in shock.

“Now as somebody who’s a daughter of an immigrant, I’m just really relieved that I don’t have to worry about my parents walking out the streets and working while this is happening,” Tiffany told Al Jazeera.

But the attacks, she said, hit very close to home.

“Hair salons, nail salons, janitorial work, massage parlours, spas – this work is very common within our community,” she said. “And to see this sort of act of violence … we [were] frightened and scared and confused and angry.”

Six Asian women were among those killed in the shootings at three separate spas in the Atlanta area on Tuesday evening, which sent shockwaves throughout the city and across the United States.

Mourners visit and leave flowers at the site of two of the shootings that occurred on March 16 at spas in Atlanta [Megan Varner/Getty Images/AFP]

Authorities charged the alleged gunman with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault in relation to all three shootings, US media reported on Wednesday. He is expected to appear in court on Thursday.

Police told reporters the 21-year-old suspect told them he was “not racially motivated” but that he saw the establishments as “temptation” because of a sex addiction.

But Asian American leaders and experts say racism and stereotypes against Asian women played a role in the attacks, which have deepened an already widespread sense of fear within the community.

‘Our worst fears’

“We cannot separate the race and the gender identity of the victims here in this case,” said Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the executive director of National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF).

Coimorrow says when she realised the shootings had taken place at spas, her first thought was that “there has been a mass killing of Asian American women”.

“It was almost like our worst fears had come to fruition,” she told Al Jazeera, pointing to a rise in anti-Asian racism and hate incidents that has disproportionately affected Asian-American women across the country.

“This is what we were afraid of, was that we weren’t going to get enough attention in time to avoid, to prevent, something like this from happening.”

Choimorrow says the attacks are being felt by Asian-American women “at a personal level that we’ve never experienced before and it’s because we’ve all lived and experienced racialised sexual harassment and violence that is directed at us”.

Race and gender identity played a role in the deadly violence, she adds, as did the fact that the women worked in the service industry. “They were completely invisibilised,” Choimorrow said.

Hate incidents

Observers have pointed to hostile rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic, including by former US President Donald Trump, who labelled the coronavirus, the “China virus“, to explain the recent increase in anti-Asian hate incidents.

Asian Americans have reported being verbally harassed and physically assaulted, or having their businesses vandalised, among other instances over the past year.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on Wednesday that regardless of the attacker’s’s motives, the attacks on Tuesday took place against that troubling backdrop.

“It is unacceptable. It is hateful and it has to stop,” she told reporters.

In a report published on Tuesday, the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center documented 3,795 hate incidents aimed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders between March 19, 2020 and February 28 of this year.

Verbal harassment accounted for just over 68 percent of the incidents, shunning 20.5 percent, and physical assault 11.1 percent. Women reported hate incidents 2.3 times more than men.

“I think we’re seeing the convergence of two horrible trends: harassment and violence against women, and harassment and violence against Asian Americans,” said Melissa Borja, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who specialises in Asian/Pacific Islander studies.

She said her own research shows that about 60 percent of media-reported, anti-Asian hate incidents during the pandemic were aimed at women. “This is a very painful moment to be Asian American and female,” Borja told Al Jazeera.

“It comes on top of a year where people are already feeling afraid and threatened and so this intensifies these fears of violence and racism. I think that the profound feeling of Asian American women right now is just of rage and grief.”

A view of the Gold Spa after the deadly shootings in Atlanta on March 17 [Dustin Chambers/Reuters]

Long history

But Borja tells Al Jazeera that anti-Asian racism and violence goes back much further, to the arrival of large numbers of Asian immigrants to the US in the 19th Century.

She points to racially motivated massacres of Chinese immigrants in California and other parts of the western US in the 1800s, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that blocked Chinese labourers from migrating to the US and the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“The current moment feels a lot like the backlash against Asian Americans in the 1980s when there was a decline of the American auto industry and competition from Japanese automakers. A lot of that was taken out on Asian Americans,” Borja added.

Meanwhile, Asian-American women leaders in Atlanta say they are still reeling from the attacks.

Stephanie Cho, the executive director of an advocacy group, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said the community is feeling “sadness, devastation, anger, fear and also resilience all at the same time”.

A mourner with a sign reading ‘Black and Asian Solidarity #StopAsianHate’ [Megan Varner/Getty Images/AFP]

“It’s something that we are reeling from right now and we’re trying to come up with the best community response that really centres the needs of the victims and the victims’ families,” she said during a news conference on Wednesday evening.

“It has been a devastating day to say the least,” added Leng Leng Chancey, the Georgia-based executive director of 9to5, an organisation that supports women workers in the US.

“Our communities … here in Georgia and Atlanta [are] really grieving,” Chancey told reporters during the news conference. “I think the community is in shock. People are trying to process what happened, also trying to figure out what is the most important thing that we need to heal from this.”

Source: Al Jazeera