Investigators say Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old White man who faces murder charges in connection with the attacks Tuesday, March 16, at three Atlanta-area spas, told officials he didn’t shoot anyone because of their race, but because of his own sex addiction. He told police he carried out the attacks to “eliminate that temptation,” authorities said.
But experts say Long’s comments reflect an all-too-common attitude toward Asian women that can lead to harassment, discrimination, violence and even human trafficking.
“Asian American women are racialized and sexualized, and it’s not possible to disentangle those two,” said Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, professor of Asian American studies at UC Irvine. “Pop culture has presented women of Asian descent as China dolls, geishas and prostitutes.”
The same day eight people died in the Atlanta shootings, Stop AAPI Hate, a national nonprofit that monitors hate and discrimination against the Asian American Pacific Islander community, reported it had received 3,795 incident reports from March 19, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021. Most of the reports — 1,691, or 44.6% — were reported in California, and about 68% of all incidents targeted Asian women.
Race and gender are intertwined when it comes to hate targeting women of Asian descent, according to Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, the organization that co-founded Stop AAPI Hate.
“It’s so common for Asian women to report that an incident was sexual in nature, but they also got called a racial slur,” Kulkarni said.
More than their bodies
Across Southern California and the nation, experts say, Asian American women are channeled toward providing “intimate services” such as massage, nail care, hairdressing, waxing, nursing and other personal services where they are required to touch customers.
There are also those businesses where sexuality becomes the selling point. For example, Little Saigon in Orange County is renowned for its cafes where women serve coffee and tea clad in lingerie and high heels. Dating sites and apps that cash in on the fetishization of Asian woman abound.
Over the years, police raids in local massage parlors have exposed human trafficking and exploitation of women of Asian descent. But many in the community say these stories that have played out in media and pop culture muddle the image of Asian women, eventually dehumanizing them and portraying them as servile, exotic, forbidden beings.
In reality, the women who work in these personal services sectors are complex human beings who are mothers, wives and productive members of society, said Tammy Tran, a Westminster-based activist and community organizer. These women work to put food on their tables or to provide their children with a good education, she said.
“I’m a second-generation Vietnamese American. I have an education,” Tran said. “Many women don’t have that. They only have their bodies.”
Students at Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove and Laguna Hills, a majority of whom are Asian women, learn to draw clear boundaries at work, school co-owner Linh Nguyen said. Many students are immigrants who may not be fluent in English or know their rights or the laws of the land, she said.
“We teach them that they need to be clear-cut about what their services look like and draw a clear line between what is appropriate and inappropriate,” Nguyen said. “We talk about how they could respond in different real-life situations. They also need to know they don’t have to be afraid to refuse service to clients who are behaving inappropriately.”
Pushing for justice
While the horrific shootings in Atlanta may be viewed as a watershed moment, shocking other communities into recognizing the hypersexualization of Asian women, it is important to remember that Asian American women have been involved in activism for decades, said Rachel Kuo, co-founder of the Asian American Feminist Collective.
“Asian women in this country have been leading movements for a long time,” she said. “Collectives have been around, pushing for justice and equity for decades now. That work is really important to recognize.”
Meanwhile, it is crucial to build on work from the past to gain momentum for the future, Kuo said.
“Our organizing and political work shouldn’t be determined by news cycles or the speed of social media,” she said.As the investigation in Atlanta continues, officials in Georgia may opt to prosecute the shootings as murders rather than hate crimes, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in Cal State San Bernardino and a former New York City police officer.
“Many of us feel in our hearts that race played a role,” he said. “But when you get into a courtroom, the law doesn’t respond to feelings, but to evidentiary thresholds. Hate crimes are difficult to prosecute even when there are overt messages from the perpetrators.”
Many prosecutors, even those who believe a crime meets the definition of a hate crime, don’t want to jeopardize a case by introducing more complexities, Levin said.
“It shows the limits of the law.”