“But where does the silence that neglects her begin? The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it’s silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting.”
— Cathy Park Hong, author of “Portrait of an Artist,” regarding the sexual assault and homicide of Korean-American multimedia artist, writer, photographer and scholar, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.
On Nov. 5, 1982, then 31-year-old artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was murdered by a security guard in New York City, yet there was hardly any mention of her death in the press.
In an essay honoring Cha, Park Hong wrote that the neutralizing compartmentalization of Cha’s work by academics and art curators isn’t unusual. Indeed, as in the case of those who have made indirect contact with Cha’s relatives through her work, Hong concedes that these are “valid objectives.” Compartmentalizing her work due to the wishes to see and honor the work of the deceased, alongside principled avoidance of unintentionally retraumatizing relatives, are understandably of the utmost concern.
But in Hong’s essay, which is part of her book of trenchant essays titled “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” she pinpoints what I too view as uneasy similarities between the uncertainties in the details about Cha’s life and the near-universal dismissal of her death in newspapers at the time of her murder. Despite her brilliance — Cha earned two bachelor’s degrees and two graduate degrees from the University of California, Berkeley — Cha was upsettingly referenced as an “Oriental Jane Doe.”
Yet the most startling details about her death, which arrived as veiled justification for white violence, could have been released yesterday with the relevance of this information. Hong states that court records from 1985 detail how before Cha’s murderer was finally convicted — not only for Cha’s sexual assault and murder but for the sexual assault of three women in Florida — charges filed against him for Cha’s murder were dismissed twice.
One of the reasons provided by the court records is, bizarrely but unsurprisingly, the way the perpetrator had reportedly been “polite” in the process of assaulting the women in Florida. The New York crime scene indicated that the perpetrator was vicious and persistent in his violence. Deep scratch marks etched into his face suggested Cha fought back, despite how passivity had been ascribed to her posthumously. In one instance, a white male curator supposedly labeled Cha’s alleged “passivity” as “performance art” — an allegation that itself has racialized overtones.
On March 16, 2021, a white male perpetrator drove to a part of Atlanta he claims to have visited before. Citing sex addiction and a desire to remove “temptation,” he opened fire at three massage parlors in the area. Targeting these specific locations immediately led to voices outside of the press becoming ensnared in the obviousness of how targeted the violence was. Considering that there were many other locations the shooter could have targeted, the implication of racism echoed only to be halted by an assertion from the murderer that he was trying to remove — no, to eradicate — temptation.
But something else troubling seemed to spill from the seams of every recent news article, written about the Atlanta shooting in its aftermath: a curated misrepresentation that seemed almost intentional, as if the press was already on its way to forgetting.
Asian-American and Asian voices are testifying that the violence was racially motivated like the recent spate of hate crimes committed against them. These voices have been lost repeatedly in other disturbing and violent acts this year, despite attention called to police violence and former President Donald Trump’s verbal violence against Asian-Americans when he referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” This is a collision of disturbing trends.
All of this recent violence being blended into the same mass death is a form of erasure, and one can only posit theories as to why Americans don’t discuss the distinctions. Perhaps the identification of violence as racially and sexually motivated killings — the idea that they can be both — disturbs the white viewer who wishes to distance themselves from the source of the violence.
The resulting device that journalists typically use to address mass death is the reduction and collection of “after deaths” — as if there could be no other way to honor the victims. This reductive journalism concludes the lives of the murdered upon the punctuation of national mythology.
Blanket terms, such as statements like “eight people were murdered” and “he was just having a bad day,” combine misidentification and self-justification, causing the horrific realities to fade into abstraction. Desensitization fills in the silences that follow, preparing the reader for more bad news without ever properly analyzing what really happened.
Without a pause to correctly represent the origins of the recent violence, politicians will continue to mislead citizens by proclaiming the Atlanta shootings to be a single, isolated tragedy or a murder incited by the rogue ideology of one troubled man. They will claim to “honor” the women who died by rewriting their lives into their deaths while conveniently excluding the cutting truth that we still culturally support the ideology that caused them. This is because, on the heels of decades of mass death followed by a pandemic, mass death is now more frighteningly normal than ever before. After four years of vicious anti-immigrant sentiment, we must acknowledge its iterations by name.
While FBI Director Christopher Wray concluded that race wasn’t a motivating factor, immediately after the shooting, the cultural ambience of white male desire mushroomed across the internet. I don’t want to give that any more space; I will instead produce a concise counterhistory for you here, starting with the first anti-Asian immigration law.
In 1875, U.S. Rep. Horace F. Page, R-Calif., passed the Page Act, a racially discriminatory law intended to suppress “the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.” In foreshadowing the more sweeping Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it also reproduced the idea of “immoral Chinese women,” signifying that Chinese women were, in the eyes of the law, to be incorrectly labeled on sight as hypersexualized prostitutes.
It bears repeating here that former University of Michigan President James B. Angell’s legacy, for which the storied campus building Angell Hall is named, should be known for something less savory. For one, Angell advocated for the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. This, in addition to other flagrant acts of violence like the Rock Springs Massacre, shows the pervasiveness of the anti-Asian sentiment at the roots of America’s founding.
The violent misrepresentation of Asian women by the American government didn’t end there. The picture of misrepresentation here is the problem, but what it created extended well beyond the 19th century. In fact, it still lives on today. Due to decades of colonization of the Korean Peninsula and in step with a broader tradition of racialized misogyny, hundreds of women — including but not limited to Korean and Chinese women and girls — were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery (referred to misleadingly as ‘comfort women’) for brothels operated by the Japanese military.
“Comfort stations” were known to have existed until the end of World War II, and an investigation by the Associated Press in 2007 uncovered that these stations continued to operate until 1946. The AP also discovered that during this same stretch of time, tens of thousands of American men visited these “comfort stations.”
This history has been obliterated and denied, but we can see its legacy through the actions of men like the shooter in Atlanta — a man who transformed his fantasy into a tangible threat that became violent. The shooter attached traits to women he never knew. Our culture relentlessly transmits the hypersexualization of Asian women without discussing its connection to the Page Act, in spite of how its implications can be seen in the senseless act of violence in Atlanta.
Cha herself alluded to the intergenerational trauma of the comfort women in “Dictee,” but the widespread cultural violence by America against Asian women has a history as long as America’s military presence in East Asia and the Pacific. Within that span of time, this vast trauma was encoded and embodied, for which we are still responsible in our ignorance. We must recognize how and why America’s imperialistic desires are responsible for the violent misrepresentation of the victims of recent anti-Asian hate crimes.
I’m ashamed by how the media, despite their purported efforts to rehabilitate our culture through the framing of truth-telling, has required writers and scholars to correct for the misrepresentations of the origins of this violence after the fact.
And until we fully acknowledge the dual racist-misogynistic underpinnings of the violence in Atlanta, the press will continue — inadvertently or not — to commit more of the same violence against the families whose loved ones have been taken from them.
Sierra Élise Hansen is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.