When most people have a bad day they take a nap or push through a workout to cheer themselves up. But in March of 2021, a man police claim was “having a bad day” drove to three spas in Atlanta and opened fire, murdering eight people—six of whom were women of Asian descent. It sparked a worldwide conversation about discrimination and an outcry for change.
Unfortunately, the Atlanta shooting wasn’t the first attack on Asian Americans this year. In February, a video of Vicha Ratanapkadee, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant, being tackled in San Francisco went viral. The video shows a man rushing across the street in broad daylight to charge at Ratanapkadee, who later died. Chesa Boudin, the city’s district attorney, told the New York Times that there was “no evidence to suggest” the crime was racially motivated. The suspect’s lawyers said he had an “outburst of rage.”
While the number of hate crimes reported in major U.S. cities decreased last year, crimes directed at Asian Americans spiked. According to a study from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, hate crimes in 16 metropolitan areas, including New York and Los Angeles, dipped seven percent from 2019 to 2020—but those targeting Asian Americans spiked nearly 150%.
Stop AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate, a national reporting center, documented 3,292 anti-Asian incidents in 2020. And by February 28 of 2021, their national report stated 503 more incidents had already occurred. “The number of hate incidents reported to our center represent only a fraction of the number of hate incidents that actually occur,” the report said. “But it does show how vulnerable AsianAmericans are to discrimination, and the types of discrimination they face.”
Most of the discrimination documented in the report are incidents of verbal harassment (68%) or shunning (20%). It said 11% of incidents were violent —a fact that University of Miami senior Sarah Simon said is new and scary. “Anti-Asian hate crimes are at an all-time high,” the exercise physiology major said, “and the physical violence is new for me. I’ve never really had to worry about that, and it’s crazy that I feel that way now.”
Across the United States, many Asian Americans are on high alert. After the February attack on Vicha Ratanapkadee, the Royal Thai Consulate-General in Los Angeles warned Thai individuals in California to be keep their guard up when in public. According to the Tennessean, just 48.7% of Asian American students in Tennessee returned to in-person schooling when given the option to stop learning remotely—the smallest percentage out of any ethnic group. In New York City, Asian Americans make up 18% of students, but less than 12% of them returned to attend in-person classes.“
I spoke to a school principal who said a woman brought her child on the subway to school, and she was harassed on the train,” said Washington Post education reporter Moriah Balingit. “And after that, she decided to keep her daughter home. She was afraid to ride the subway. Asian Americans are disproportionately making the decision to keep their children home.”
The Coronavirus is commonly cited as a major reason for the rise in anti-Asian American hate. “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have definitely seen an increase in anti-Asian hate,” said senior Jamie Harn. “At first, it would just be people joking about Asian food and how it’s ‘sketchy and disgusting.’ But I think as more people started blaming China for the virus, people would always ask me if Vietnam was a dirty country or if our food can also cause a pandemic.”
She said that even people close to her would say that they had to stay away from Asian food just in case.
Some far-right groups and individuals including former president Donald Trump referred to the disease as the “China” or “Wuhan” virus. “A recent report by the University of California in San Francisco directly linked Trump’s first tweet about the Chinese virus to a significant increase in anti-Asian hashtags,” said Yunqiu (Daniel) Wang, a senior lecturer and biology adviser at UM.“
The election has corresponded with a resurgence of anti-Asian hate,” Joel Finkelstein, the co-founder of the Network Contagion Research Institute, told the Washington Post “There are a lot of people looking for others to blame.” In January, they reported, “Terms including ‘China,’ ‘Wuhan’ and ‘flu’ surged on far-right forums like Telegram, 8kun and TheDonald.
“The physical violence is new for me. I’ve never really had to worry about that, and it’s crazy that I feel that way now.”—Sarah Simon, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI SENIOR
Harmful stereotypes and phenomena including the “model minority” label and fetishization of Asian women may also play into the violence. The “model minority” myth,” University of Maryland Baltimore County professor Charissa Cheah told the Washington Post, perpetuates the idea that Asian-Americans as a group have succeeded in this country and have “moved beyond discrimination.” She said another harmful and sometimes conjoined issue is “the sexualization and exoticization of Asian-American females in a very disturbing way.” The Stop AAIP Hate report showed that Asian-American women are 2.3 times more likely than men to report hate incidents.
For Abby Pak, a freshman at UM, “I feel like jokes towards the Asian race are often overlooked. Being called Jackie Chan or Ching Chong isn’t ‘just a joke,’ but actually so racist and hurtful. Ever since I was young I just laughed it off, especially because I grew up in a really white area,” said Pak. She said that recently a man approached her while at a restaurant with friends and ask if she believed in God or studied the Bible. “When I said I didn’t, he said ‘oh, you study the Karate Kid right?’ Comments like that are often very unnecessary and just not funny.”
When the Atlanta shooter confessed to his killings, he told authorities they were not racially motived, but that he was a “sex addict” trying to “eliminate temptation.” But many advocates, activists and academics don’t buy it. Instead, they note that such violence and sentiment lie at the intersection of racism and misogyny.“
Violence can be racially and gendered motivated—that is, racialized misogyny,” said Donna Coker, a professor at the UM School of Law. “That the two are intertwined. There is a long history of white men fetishizing Asian women, of presuming them to be sexually available. In addition, there is a long history of blaming women—and particularly women who are of racially subordinated groups—for male sexual desire.”
“The killer showed that for him, these women were not worth respect as human beings, but were sexual objects,” said Claire Oueslati-Porter, a senior lecturer in gender and sexuality studies at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences. “He specifically went to Asian businesses with Asian workers. There were other businesses on the same street that he could have attacked but didn’t. The fact that he felt he had the power to ‘eliminate’ Asian women means that he was engaged in white supremacist patriarchal violence. He denied racism, but a lot of racism isn’t understood as such by the racist. The killer justified his violence by using his religiosity, describing these human beings as ‘temptations.”
For all the claims of “bad days,” tantrums and sexual fanaticism, the numbers don’t lie: Attacks on Asian-Americans have skyrocketed in the past year, and it’s hard to chalk these incidents up to coincidence.
There are things people can do to combat anti-Asian discrimination, even if they aren’t personally affected by the phenomenon. “People should learn the history and culture of Asian countries and see all the beautiful parts of them,” said Harn. “It’s unfair to blame one single country for the pandemic when one, pandemics could and have originated from many places and two, other countries could have helped with the spread of it.” Pak agreed. “I think UM students can help in combating the issue by always being an ally and watching what they say,” she said. “I know some people think they are just making a joke but it isn’t as funny as they think it is.”
*Some reporting courtesy of UM Communications.
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This article was published in Distraction’s summer 2021 print issue.