Disclaimer: When we refer to Asian and Asian American communities, we intend to name East and Southeast Asian and Asian American communities specifically. Asia and Asian diasporas are not a monolith, nor are the People that we are speaking alongside in this piece.
On March 16, 2021, a white man purchased a handgun and opened fire on three Asian-owned spas in Atlanta, Ga., killing Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Paul Andre Michels, Hyun Jung Grant, Yong Ae Yue and three other women whose families have requested their names remain private, along with another victim left wounded. Cherokee County Sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker, who has previously expressed anti-Asian and generally racist beliefs on social media, justified the attack, asserting it was simply “… a bad day for (the suspect).” This refusal to attribute the attack’s nature to its true origins in anti-Asian racism, white supremacy and oppression is a reflection of our governing institutions’ denial of these aforementioned systems permeating through the very foundation of our country.
Xiaojie Tan, 49, was a massage therapist and the owner of two local Georgia businesses, including Young’s Asian Spa. Her ex-husband, Michael Webb, remarks that “she was full of smiles and laughter. She was just a pleasure to be around.” She would have turned 50 on March 17, one day after her death.
Hyun Jung Grant (maiden name: Kim) was a single mother who dedicated herself to her two sons. She worked relentlessly at Gold Spa. Hyun Jung’s favourite dish to make was kimchi jjigae, and she loved spending time with her sons at the aquarium.
After Yong Ae Yu was laid off due to the pandemic, she worked as a licensed massage therapist at Aromatherapy Bar. Yong Ae moved to the United States from South Korea in the 1970s and was the mother of two sons. She was a great cook and a fan of noraebang, Korean karaoke.
Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, was on a date at Young’s Asian Massage with her husband, Mario Gonzalez, for a couples’ massage. A server and grill operator at the Waffle House, Yaun often shared eggs and grits with homeless people during her early morning shifts, and a friend described a “light around her” that drew people in.
Paul Andre Michels, 54, was working on maintenance and hardware for Young’s Asian Spa. Kikiana Whidby, the mother of Michels’ godson, reflected on his kindness in an interview with CBS News. Michels was a Detroit native and his brother, John Michels, remarked that he was considering opening his own massage business.
Three other lives were lost, and one man was wounded. Their families have requested that their privacy is honored beyond these facts. Here are the correct pronunciations for the names of Hyun Jung Grant, Yong Ae Yue and Xiaojie Tan. Please honor their lives and legacies with this in mind.
Between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021 alone, Stop AAPI Hate has recorded 3,974 firsthand accounts of anti-Asian violence in 47 states and the District of Columbia. According to the report, Asian women are 2.3 times more likely to be assaulted compared to Asian men. It is important to note that low-income Asian women in service industries are particularly at risk to these attacks, demonstrating the intersectionality between gender and class in rising anti-Asian violence. While the form of attack ranges from spitting to verbal or even physical harassment, the majority of assaulters targeted violent attacks to one of the most vulnerable within Asian communities in the U.S.: elders. Despite this data, it is impossible to measure the severity of anti-Asian sentiment, as incidents frequently go unreported within Asian communities in the U.S.
Among these attacks, on Jan. 28, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai American man, was pushed to the ground and killed while taking a morning stroll in his San Francisco neighborhood. On March 19, Xiaozhen Xie, 76, was punched in the eye in downtown San Francisco before crossing the street. Though she was able to valiantly defend herself with a wooden stick, her family reported that Xiao was “very traumatized” and became scared to leave her home. After her grandson raised almost $1 million for medical expenses through her GoFundMe, Xie decided to donate all of the funds towards supporting Asian American communities to combat the deeply-rooted anti-Asian racism present in society at large.
In response to this violence, police departments nationwide have increased police presence in areas with high Asian populations. However, experts have discovered that more policing does not necessarily lower crime rates. Instead, the vast history of abuse toward the most vulnerable members of the Asian community — including those with undocumented immigration status, mental health issues, women and migrant sex workers — has instilled a legitimate fear of law enforcement, exacerbated by the possible difficulty of overwhelming language barriers and cultural stigma.
For Asian and otherwise marginalized peoples, the police prove to be a deadly force. In December 2020 alone, two Asian-American men suffering mental health crises were murdered by the police. Pennsylvania State Police fatally shot Christian Hall, 19, while his hands were raised. Angelo Quinto, 30, died after an officer pressed his knee on his neck for over eight minutes. Additionally, police presence has specifically targeted Asian massage parlors, including two of the three targeted in the Atlanta shooting, which has proven detrimental. Yang Song, a 38-year-old Chinese woman and employee at a Queens massage parlor, was sexually assaulted by a man that claimed to be an undercover cop. In 2017, Song died after falling four stories from her apartment during a New York Police Department raid while officers were attempting to arrest her for engaging in sex work. The argument that the police officers were simply doing their jobs only exposes a larger systemic issue of the inherent corruption and harm of law enforcement, as well as the violence of criminalizing sex work. These cases prove that the police are oppressive, masquerading as protectors while continuing to perpetuate the harm they pretend to subvert, placing Asian communities in further danger under the guise of protection.
The misconception that violence and hate perpetrated against Asian Americans is new, or has only surfaced amid the pandemic, is far from true. Racialized fear mongering and hatred against Asian Americans has existed for hundreds of years. The 1871 Chinese Massacre — where a mob of white men tortured and killed 19 Chinese immigrants — is one of countless examples in history of senseless violence towards Asians in the U.S. However, this violence is far more inherent to American society than civilian attacks, as it has been rooted in political schemes to colonize and exclude Asian populations globally. The first anti-Asian legislation passed was the Page Act of 1875. This law banned Chinese women from entering the country, due to a negative stereotype that these women were sex workers riddled with diseases, a seed of fetishization of Asian women that still can be seen today in much of mainstream media representation. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed — the first and only major act of legislation barring immigration from a specific nation — banning the immigration of Chinese immigrants and barring Chinese Americans already in the country from naturalizing. Its impact is an indelible mark on U.S. history, preventing Asian immigrants and their children born in the U.S. from becoming citizens (and thus from voting) until 1943. During World War II, over 110,000 Japanese Americans, including over 66,000 U.S. citizens, were forcibly incarcerated in subhuman conditions for years. Its devastating impact is grossly neglected in history as roughly 1,862 Japanese Americans died of disease in these camps, and every prisoner lost their livelihood during their internment.
This anti-Asian violence is not only a reflection of but a direct result of U.S. imperialism and intervention in Asia. In the aftermath of World War II, the American government employed military efforts to establish control over the Philippines, and during the Cold War, the Korean peninsula, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and other nations, where the U.S. enforced capitalism through intrusive wars and the establishment of U.S. military governments. Many East and Southeast Asian women were forced into working as prostitutes in U.S. military camps, perpetuating these harmful stereotypes that continue to impact how Asian and Asian American women are perceived and treated. These devastating political and military agendas were coupled with racialized fear mongering of East Asian people, known as yellow peril, which was popularized through American propaganda and attempted to garner anti-Asian sentiment amongst the American public. The United States government’s pursuit of satisfying an insatiable hunger for imperialism led to the callous loss of countless innocent lives as well as the perpetuation of harmful anti-Asian rhetoric for subsequent generations.
Anti-Asian violence has roots in Michigan as well. In 1982, during his bachelor party in Detroit, Chinese American Vincent Chin was brutally beaten to death by two white auto workers who blamed the rising Japanese auto industry for their lay-offs. Neither of them spent a day in prison. Despite this history of anti-Asian discrimination, racism against Asian Americans remains unacknowledged by many due to the popularized idea of the model minority myth — the erroneous perception that Asian Americans, as a monolith, universally attain academic and financial success because of inherent and cultural character traits. This notion has been weaponized by white supremacy to utilize Asian Americans as a wedge and negate the existence of racism and its effects, not only on Asian Americans but all minority groups. The term “model minority” was coined by a white, male sociologist in a 1966 New York Times article entitled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” in which he explores potential reasons for Japanese Americans’ success such as cultural values of “working hard”, and, in doing so, shames Black and other Americans of color for being “lazy.” But the model minority myth, especially when considering disaggregated data between varying ethnic groups, has since been debunked several times by researchers. Additionally, despite the undeniable existence of anti-Asian violence and racism in histories past and present, the erasure of these acts and events in educational curricula is a tool of white supremacy that serves to silence Asian voices and dilute public perception of anti-Asian racism.
The model minority myth persists in popular culture among other dehumanizing stereotypes that media industries like Hollywood continue to perpetuate. Asian men and especially women characters in Hollywood are often reduced to tropes which fit a monolithic aesthetic or cement them as the butt of the joke. They are one-dimensional accessories to the main characters, instead of complex, fully realized human beings, and when Asians are consistently perceived as subhuman, society begins to justify and normalize the violence which oppresses them. Asian and Asian American men are often portrayed as emasculated nerds, while their women counterparts are exoticized and fetishized. Asian women in films are generally either depicted as docile, innocent and nurturing of their white male love interests, or they are portrayed as fierce and hyper-sexualized. The legacies of box office hits such as “Charlie’s Angels,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and the 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket” (which originated the infamous words, “Me so horny, me love you long time,” uttered by an unnamed Vietnamese sex worker) normalized the objectification and dehumanization of Asian women. In the porn industry, keywords “Japanese” and “Asian” number among PornHub’s top search terms, and common porn plots such as those which feature Asian massage parlor workers are inextricably linked to the shooter’s motivation in the Atlanta massacre. The harmful ideology that Asian women are merely objects for sexual gratification renders them more vulnerable to violent sexual oppression in the forms of domestic violence, trafficking and assault.
When films do center and develop Asian characters with depth, they are often played by well-established, white Hollywood stars like Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone. Considering the limited roles and lower pay that Asian actors and actresses receive, Hollywood whitewashing is especially infuriating and harmful.
Furthermore, companies often use the exoticization of Asian culture and aesthetics as a marketing strategy. A recent surge in the West of rice water hair products, a technique created by the Yao women, exemplifies the othering and capitalization of Asian women. Instead of respecting their traditions and culture, brands like Viori have designed products such as rice water shampoo around the objectification of Yao women. Companies like Viori overemphasize and exploit the aesthetic appeal and intrigue of ancient, tribal practices and use Asian women as props for profit gain. Additionally, Asian food, like sushi and pho, and Asian industries, like K-pop and anime, are on the rise. This disconnect rooted in the glaring hypocrisy by those who consume Asian products yet refuse to support Asian people begs the question: Do Asians only deserve humanity if they can provide commodities for the West to enjoy? When Asian people are reduced to their products, entertainment, costumes or ancient philosophies and practices, they are ultimately dehumanized and further subjected to violence.
The news industry, like popular culture, is undoubtedly complicit in its heightening of anti-Asian rhetoric and violence. By continuing to paint China as a menace to Western society and by subsequently equating this narrative with the Asian diaspora, this manner of news reporting draws targets on the backs of Asian Americans and Asians worldwide. Sinophobia, for instance, has steadily been ingrained in politics and the news since before the Cold War. With projections that China will soon surpass the U.S. as a world superpower, many Americans have honed their eyes in on China in attempts to restrain its economic growth and maintain the power of the U.S. and its allies in the West. As a result, the economic failures of America’s capitalist system are falsely projected onto China and its government. Rather than blaming America’s economic ineptitude, politicians and pundits have consistently pointed their fingers at China for the slowing of the American economy, COVID-19 failures and for jobs shipped overseas. And as America’s wealth gap increases and poverty continues to rise, this messaging is effective in scapegoating China for America’s inability to provide for its own citizens.
Much of the news media and politicians alike have cast a similar nationalistic image by outsourcing blame of COVID-19 on China. In an attempt to absolve themselves of a failure to address the casualties and slipping economy of a deadly pandemic, the Trump administration branded the pandemic as China’s fault. Much of the press, both on the right and the left, referred to the virus in the same vitriolic manner, calling it the “China virus” and “Kung Flu.” By legitimizing this rhetoric, Americans internalized the propaganda, and already-present sinophobic sentiments began to rise. Many Americans then extrapolated this hatred of the Chinese government onto Asians as a whole, contributing to the rise of violence against Asians in America. Even still, the larger media landscape suggests that anti-Asian sentiment has lain dormant for years beneath the surface, in wait for a larger catalyst such as COVID-19 to fuel its physical manifestations.
In the specific context of the Georgia shooting, mainstream news outlets largely failed in providing accurate coverage. Discussion has largely fallen on the shooter and his possible motives, one prominent theory being a sex addiction (which research suggests pertains more to perceived violation of moral beliefs rather than symptoms of a self-diagnosed addiction). Because many articles covering the shootings have simply regurgitated statements from the police, the shooter’s motive was often described as inconclusive, with no scrutinous examination of the details of the case. Though many mainstream news conglomerates such as The Washington Post and CBS News state the racial identity of the victims and acknowledge the Asian communities’ concerns about the shooting, they would not directly suggest race as a motive for the violence in their initial reporting. In contrast, Atlanta-based Korean news outlets contacted more secondary sources and included specific details regarding the events that took place during the shootings by the next day, and their reports revealed that a witness heard the shooter express explicit intent to murder all Asians present.
Furthermore, mainstream news media has failed to recognize the humanity of the salon employees, customers and families attacked. CNN interviewed the shooter’s grandparents, which made him appear more sympathetic, but released no statements regarding the lives and characters of the spa employees and customers who were killed. Even in their deaths, Asian women were pushed aside in favor of centering the white man. Rightfully choosing to tell the stories of the victims, many Korean American news articles paid little attention to the shooter and instead devoted their writing to the women, interviewing family members and others who knew these women well. The Korean American media, in direct contrast to the mainstream English U.S. media, treated them not as mere victims of a heinous crime, but as people with livelihood, character and relationships. The violent impacts of negligent news reports and depictions of Asian Americans demonstrate the need for Western media to challenge widespread and institutionalized prejudice within their own sphere of influence.
Moving forward, the Michigan in Color team will continue to commit itself to being diligent about speaking out against systemic and interpersonal oppression in a timely and truthful manner. We owe it to the communities we serve to write and report meticulously on the issues as they unfold.
For decades, our public school curricula, as well as national narratives perpetuated by much of Western media, have intentionally excluded the histories of marginalized communities to conceal the state’s heinous acts committed in the name of “democracy” or “freedom.” Such blatant censorship has purposefully fostered ignorance amongst the majority of the U.S. population, further perpetuating the white supremacy and oppression that is so deeply steeped in this nation. As artists, as writers and as a collective in solidarity with these aforementioned communities, the Michigan in Color team maintains a responsibility to debunk widely-propagated narratives and serve as a bridge for solidarity and truth.
We commit ourselves to partaking in and sharing mutual-aid and educational resources, as well as opportunities for donations and volunteer work. The resources we share regarding resisting anti-Asian racism are by no means all-encompassing, but we hope you will visit this document (with donation, volunteering and other resources), which can also be accessed through the link in our @michiganincolor Instagram bio. We will continue to share more.
If we are not achieving these goals, please let us know. We are here to serve those with whom we stand in solidarity.
The Michigan in Color team can be reached at email@example.com.