An Asian American Moment: Seven Days in March

After the Atlanta shootings, the nation seemed ready to grapple with racism and misogyny directed at the AAPI community. Then came other shootings, and the moment passed.

In the immediate aftermath of the murders of six Asian American women on March 16, the country seemed to start the reckoning with last year’s pattern of violent attacks against Asian American elders and the history of Asian American exclusion in the United States. The country seemed to be at the verge of a meaningful national dialogue—one that might eventually lead to a national consensus that these violent incidents are neither new nor isolated. The nation might have seen that the rise in attacks against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities is a continuation of white supremacy and misogyny that have been present since our country’s founding and long before.

For seven days, I saw my experiences and my history reflected in popular culture. I heard non-AAPI folks talking about the fetishization of Asian women and linking anti-Asian animus to the broader fight against white supremacy. I felt seen.

For a moment, our country seemed interested in grappling with this history and its ramifications. And then it stopped. Our country was rocked by a wave of mass shootings, including in Colorado, California, South Carolina, Florida, and Indiana, and our collective attention shifted to the issue of gun violence.

The moment for the long-awaited conversation and self-reflection was lost.

Grappling with America’s history of racism and misogyny will take more than the mere seven days of headlines about the Atlanta shootings.

Seven years ago, I published an article examining the long history of discrimination against AAPI women and the modern manifestations of that exclusion. I wanted to learn about my own history and contribute intersectional AAPI experiences to the dialogue on race in America. In working on that article, I felt the void of not seeing myself reflected in American history, despite the major role that Asian Americans played in defining moments of American history.

In my primary education, I don’t remember learning about the Chinese Exclusion Act, the 442nd Regiment, Vincent Chin, Yuri Kochiyama, or about the Chinese workers that built the transcontinental railroad. I learned more about Paul Revere’s single ride than I did about the plethora of AAPI contributions to the American tapestry.

It wasn’t until my third year of law school that I learned that the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first time immigrants were barred from entering America based on their race and class.

I learned that during the 19th century, few Asian women entered the U.S. Employers preferred hiring single Asian men, and Asian laborers wanted their families to remain in Asia, partly for safety reasons. This gender imbalance led to the importation of Asian women to meet the demands for sex, resulting in the emergence of stereotypes about Asian women as ultra-feminine, subservient “lotus blossoms,” or devious, wicked “dragon ladies.”

These dehumanizing stereotypes persist today, perpetuated by two-dimensional and hyper-sexualized representations of AAPI women in mass media. This history and these enduring stereotypes seem to explain why the Atlanta shooter was motivated by both race and misogyny.

The Atlanta shooter said that his sexual frustration and religious guilt were what led him to kill eight people, six of whom were Asian women. Whatever he claimed, the fetishization of Asian women and the stereotypes about their sexuality and submissiveness underscore how racism and misogyny create a predatory environment for Asian women.

It is impossible to separate race from misogyny when analyzing the Atlanta killings. And yet, when headlines about the carnage at three spas first appeared, there was no mention of race. It wasn’t until the next day that reports began to highlight the race and gender of the victims. And it took yet another day or two before I saw outlets discuss the history of violence and sexual harassment against AAPI women.

The news cycle has moved on, but that does not mean that violence against AAPI communities will stop without a sustained dialogue. Stop AAPI Hate received nearly 3,800 reported incidents of hate from March 2020 to February 2021. AAPI Women reported 2.3 times more hate incidents than AAPI men.

To live up to our ideals of liberty, freedom, and equality, we need to examine how racism, white supremacy, and misogyny manifest to oppress, harm, and kill those who are deemed as “Other.”

To create a world where we can all live without fear, we must commit to truth-telling, and engage in reconciliation—and this takes much longer than seven days.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

Peggy Li

Peggy Li is a Berkeley Law graduate and is the Director of Chapters at the American Constitution Society.