The Atlanta mass shooting was traumatic for any woman who has ever been fetishized and targeted for being Asian.
I’ll never forget my first racist confrontation with a passerby. I was walking down Melrose Avenue, a posh part of a Los Angeles neighborhood, after watching a performance with my friend. We were in great spirits, recounting the play when suddenly a middle-aged man rode past us on his bicycle and yelled in our faces at the top of his lungs: “Ching-chi-chong-chang!”
He cackled as he biked away in an awful attempt to mimic Mandarin and embarrass us with his blatantly racist remarks. People around us silently stared and turned away uncomfortably. My friend scoffed in disgust and shrugged off the interaction, but I felt like my blood was boiling in my veins from being so disrespected and publicly humiliated. In a moment of blind rage, I ran to my car and drove as fast as I could to confront him and demand an apology.
He was shocked when he saw me speed up to him and lost his balance. He fell off his bike and began shaking in fear as I stood over him, all the while continuing to yell racial slurs as he swung his U-lock at me, pinned beneath his bike.
The last thing he said will forever be ingrained in my memory: “You fuckin’ Asian women are always dismissing me! You’re so fuckin’ rude when all I wanna do is ask you out and give you a compliment! All you do is reject me!”
My mind was swirling trying to make sense of our interaction.
Did I know him? Had we met before?
No, I had never seen him before in my life, but at that moment I felt my entire identity reduced to my appearance. It was the first time my existence as an Asian American woman was subjected to a stranger’s verbal abuse and deranged behavior. I stood in silence and walked away after seeing both of our pain in complete clarity. His ego was still reeling from the blows of rejection and as a way to cope, he made me a casualty of his negative personal experiences — a hatred that he projected onto all Asian women.
This memory has been resurfacing as I wake up week after week to an ever-expanding list of brutal anti-Asian hate crimes, most of which have made me increasingly more worried about my parents. However, on the day I woke to news that several Asian women had been murdered in a mass shooting, it rattled me to my core. As I watched the story unfold in Atlanta, I felt the words trapped inside me pour out as tears. I did not know them, but I saw myself represented in them — eight victims, six of them Asian women, all of whom fell victim to a single man’s personal pain and sickness.
My mind flickered to that evening in Los Angeles. What if this man had used violence to cope with his rejection? If this had happened today, I never would’ve confronted him or even considered talking back, but being bullied into silence is exactly what each hate crime tries to accomplish. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a year-long spike in attacks against the Asian American Pacific Islander community — a 150% spike to be exact — each act a triggering reminder of how hatred can manifest into violence when your existence and identity as an ethnic minority becomes a target.
Asian women in particular have had a longstanding history of being fetishized and, in turn, dehumanized. They are all too often viewed as submissive objects of affection, thought to be quiet, polite and obedient to attract prospective suitors. More often than not, they are raised to not talk back or push against the grain. We’ve seen now that this narrative has become fatal. It proliferates the idea of male dominance and female objectification. Each time a woman of color is attacked, catcalled or dismissed by a racial slur, it is a blatant attempt to tell them that they do not belong — that they will always be seen by their race before anything else.
There is also this dual sense of injustice after such devastating tragedies because violence against women, especially stories involving gun violence, have become normalized in America. They come to prevalence — sparking politicized debates of gun control and headlines of body counts — and then disappear in the news cycle like blood being washed off of pavement. Year after year, there is no real change that comes.
I consider myself “lucky” that I was only attacked by this man’s words, but it doesn’t escape me how destructive words can become when weaponized against an entire race the way COVID-19 has now been forever tied to Asians and cost so many their lives.
I ask myself each day: what does real change look like? How do we sustain the conversation beyond a moment in the spotlight or diversity initiative? The only thing that gives me hope is seeing people who genuinely care, people who are stepping up to be allies, leaders and activists to bring issues to light. As we have witnessed this tragic increase in violence, we are also seeing an unprecedented amount of people and corporations using their dollars to back their voices in standing up for legislation and inclusion on a local and national level.
If you’re Asian like me and have been feeling some semblance of what your role is, one thing that has been tremendously healing is simply recognizing that every opportunity we have to express ourselves is a chance to end the cycle and reshape the narrative to build a foundation for someone else. Shut down the “where are you really from” conversations and use them as a chance to re-educate if someone is genuinely willing to listen to the harmful effects of asking those types of questions.
This idea of being forced into silence has perpetuated amongst the AAPI community for decades. It may not be comfortable or part of our upbringing to be the face of these issues or combat day-to-day microaggressions, but it is our individual responsibility to advocate for ourselves and make our demands for change to be heard. Our lives depend on it now more than ever.
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