Beneath a cloudy sky at dusk, more than 200 people gathered in front of the steps of Angell Hall to grieve the victims of anti-Asian violence in the Atlanta area earlier this month and reflect on the implications of the attack for the Asian American community.
Just over a week after a 21-year-old white man killed eight people in Asian-owned massage parlors in Atlanta, the vigil aimed to create a space for healing for those in the University of Michigan community. The vigil, organized by the United Asian American Organizations, an umbrella organization for campus Asian American groups, was also live-streamed on UAAO’s Facebook.
Six of the eight victims on March 16 were women of Asian descent, sparking discussion over the historical violence against and fetishization of Asian women in Western imperialist culture. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, hate crimes against Asian Americans have also skyrocketed and anti-China sentiment has increased. According to the Stop AAPI Hate Coalition, nearly 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian hate have occurred since March 2020, 68% of them against Asian women.
During the vigil, LSA senior and UAAO President Anna Dang said it is necessary to consider the political climate which enabled shooting to happen. From the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020, former President Donald Trump frequently used anti-Asian rhetoric when referring to the coronavirus, leading to an increase of online hate speech targeted against Asian-Americans.
“And so today, at this vigil, I not only grieve, but I am in the politics that come with my Asian-American identity,” Dang said.
In her speech, Dang also highlighted the irony of the vigil’s location. Former University President James B. Angell, who Angell Hall is named after, helped negotiate a treaty that curtailed Chinese immigration in the U.S. and acted as the precursor to the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“We are standing on a concrete structure, on stolen lands, that represents anti-Asian violence,” Dang said. “I see many parallels between the toxicity of (this) historically white supremacist institution and the white supremacist violence that occurred in Atlanta.”
Dang said the question that is on her mind — and should be on everyone’s minds — is: “How do we stop this violence?”
Dang said she supports abolishing institutions and practices that perpetuate violence, like the prison-industrial complex and waging war against countries deemed “third world.”
She also again noted the political rhetoric around the pandemic.
“Racializing a pandemic is violence,” Dang said.
Dang cited the historical exclusion and scapegoating of Asian Americans as the beginning of the country’s tumultuous relationship with people of Asian descent. The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Dang said that her presence at the vigil was the result of violent American colonialism and imperialism.
“We cannot separate last Tuesday’s loss of life from this political call to action,” Dang said. “On this campus and at large, we need to take our position as a responsibility to form an abolitionist agenda.”
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, lecturer in the Department of American Culture’s program in Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies, emphasized this violent history by retelling the killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit. In 1982, Chin, a Chinese American, was killed by two white men during a night out after they suspected him of being Japanese — one of the men had recently lost their job in auto manufacturing and blamed his unemployment on the rapid growth of the Japanese car industry in the 1970s and 1980s.
Wang said the lack of punishment Chin’s killers received shows the criminal justice system has a history of not recognizing violence against Asian Americans.
“And in the end, (the killers) were sentenced to $3,000 fine, and three years of probation,” Wang said. “To this day, they have not not spent a single day in jail.”
A multi-racial movement formed in response to Chin’s death, which expressed outrage over the justice system’s handling of the case. In Detroit, Chinese American journalist Helen Zia and others formed the pan-Asian American civil rights group American Citizens for Justice in 1983, shortly after the light sentencing of the two men who killed Chin.
Wang said this ethnically diverse coalition shows the hope that sprung from the tragedy, noting that multiracial and multiethnic coalitions are still very present today to combat crisis and violence.
“There’s this amazing project called Letters for Black Lives where young Asian Americans explained Black Lives Matter to their elders, and translated it in all the different languages so that we literally have the words to talk to our elders and explain it to them,” Wang said.
Wang emphasized that this was not just about “one angry, young man” who caused the deaths in Atlanta. Rather, she said, this violence is systemic. Wang noted that unemployment, poor quality education, lack of access to health care and gentrification are just some of the many issues impacting the most vulnerable Asian Americans as well as other marginalized groups across the country.
“We need to come together and work with social and economic justice for all of us,” Wang said.
LSA senior Anju Jindal-Talib spoke at the vigil on how the stigmatization of sex work by the media and broader culture perpetuates violence against marginalized groups, particularly Asian women. Certain media outlets have equated the massage workers to sex work, though authorities have not found any evidence of sex work in the massage parlors where the shootings took place.
However, given the shooter’s perceptions of the women as sex workers, Jindal-Talib said centering the protection of sex workers is crucial to ongoing conversation.
“The assailant described the attack as eliminating his temptations,” Jindal-Talib said. “Rather than seeking help or evaluating his own toxic masculinity, the assailant felt not only motivated but rightfully justified to exercise brutal violence against these individuals.”
Jindal-Talib also urged participants to notice how the media portrayed the crime, particularly the media’s hesitancy to label the killings as a hate crime.
“There’s been a hyper focus on the assailant’s sex addiction instead of the interplay of stigma around sex work and a racialized fetishization of women of color, in particular Asian women,” Jindal-Talib said.
The fetishization of the victims was not limited to the attacker, Jindal-Talib argued. Both Aromatherapy Spa and Young’s Asian Massage, two spas where the shootings took place, have more than 200 Google reviews including racial slurs and lewd comments about the employee’s bodies.
“These comments highlight not only white male entitlement but how Asian women are eroticized and made a vulnerable target for violence, especially when they are viewed as sex workers,” Jindal-Talib said.
Music, Theater & Dance freshman Owen Scales attended the vigil and said the frequency of these hate crimes disturbs him.
“I think it’s disgusting that its not treated as something that is terrorism or a hate crime,” Scales said. “(It’s) kind of terrifying how numb we kind of grow to it.”
Music, Theater & Dance freshman Kate Cummings said she attended the vigil in-person to offer support to the Asian American community.
“I’m here tonight to support the AAPI community, not only here in Ann Arbor, but nationwide and worldwide,” Cummings said. “I think that this is a beautiful opportunity for us to all come together and mourn the loss that the families have gone through … I think it’s really important that we stand beside our AAPI peers and band together as a community right now more than ever.”
In a Facebook post, State Sen. Stephanie Chang, the first Asian American woman to be elected to the Michigan state legislature, wrote that as a University alum herself, she was thoroughly impressed by the University students who organized the vigil.
“Out of the Stop AAPI Hate events in Michigan I’ve been to so far, their vigil was by far the most incredible,” Chang wrote. “They covered everything from fetishization of AAPI women, Vincent Chin, sex worker issues, economic inequality, to police issues and solidarity with other BIPOC communities, had a great call and response affirmation, and even had a talented vocalist!! All within about an hour.”
Artistic expressions of mourning and hope were provided by performers like Music, Theater & Dance junior Helen Shen who sang “Someday” from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Later in the evening, Music, Theater & Dance senior Levana Wang read poetry from University alum Carlina Duan’s “I Wore My Blackest Hair.” Ending the vigil were Music, Theater & Dance seniors Erica Ito and Thani Brant, who performed Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.”
LSA junior Natalie Suh spoke at the vigil about how the violence in Atlanta flooded her with a lot of different emotions.
“This violence brought up my own experiences with racism, sexism and fetishization of Asian American women,” Suh said. “So if you’re feeling emotionally or physically tired, or too overwhelmed to even think about yourself this week, we see you.”
Suh also stressed the importance of learning about the lives of the victims.
“They were mothers, grandmothers, daughters, friends, wives, co-workers, neighbors, maybe even regulars at a restaurant or a market,” Suh said.
UAAO is still collecting donations to distribute to community organizations and the victims’ families through @uaao_2021 on Venmo. According to Dang, they hope to keep coalition-building and “existing through resistance” with these donations.
To conclude her speech, Wang said to the audience that those who identify as Asian American should embrace their identity and push back against Anti-Asian rhetoric amidst the Atlanta tragedy.
“There is power in calling ourselves Asian Americans,” Wang said. “We are Americans. We belong here.”