Throughout the Atlanta area, six Asian migrant women were murdered at massage parlors by a white gunman. The rampage brought even greater attention to the spike of Asian-targeted violence since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The shootings rightfully sparked outrage across Asian-American communities and beyond, with dozens of street protests taking place in major cities across the country in the days following.
According to a local county official, the white gunman that murdered eight people—six of whom were Asian women—struggles with “sex addiction” and sought to “eliminate” his temptation. Many people have identified the violence as rooted in dehumanizing stereotypes about Asian women. The way the gunman viewed Asian women as the object of his temptation falls in line with fetishizing tropes that have long been used to justify war and domination in Asia.
The Atlanta shootings and the countless other attacks against Asian-Americans follow a legacy of historical violence and intervention. The U.S. empire has incited wars that have killed millions and caused massive displacement. From environmental contamination in Okinawa, to the lasting impact of chemical warfare in Vietnam, Laos, and Korea, to gender-based violence perpetrated by U.S. soldiers, the American government continues to devastate the lives of Asians across the world. Today, the U.S. continues to spend billions to maintain a military presence throughout Asia and the Pacific.
The U.S. has a long, bloody history of dehumanizing Asian migrants domestically, too. From discriminatory legislation to white mob attacks on ethnic neighborhoods, racialized violence against Asians is anything but new in the scope of U.S. history.
According to a piece in The Nation written by organizers Christine Ahn and Kathleen Richard with Terry K. Park, a lecturer of Asian-American studies, this violence would not be possible without harmful stereotypes and attitudes that ultimately deem Asian people inferior. Fetishizing notions that Asian women are either inherently submissive and sexual “lotus blossoms” or conniving “dragon ladies” fueled the Atlanta murderer’s rampage—and continue to perpetuate violence in those victims’ homelands.
As far back as the late 1800s, white men fetishized Asian women’s bodies. French author Pierre Loti’s 1887 novel Madame Chrysanthème popularized the image of Asian women as “doll-like, subservient objects of lust.” The dueling archetypes of Asian women as wanton sexual creatures and exotic femme fatales would persist through early Hollywood all the way to many of the roles Lucy Liu was given in the ‘90s and early 2000s. Although these depictions of Asian women in popular media are less widespread today, their lasting impact continues to perpetuate serious harm.
In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, “#StopAsianHate” circulated in large numbers on social media with non-profits, corporations, and individuals alike uplifting the slogan. Pastel Canva graphics about the recent attacks populated my friends’ Instagram Stories, explaining what you, the user, can do to #StopAsianHate. Although these efforts are made with good intentions, the hashtag and the discussions under it ignore the roots of Asian-targeted violence in U.S. imperialism.
“‘Hate’ implies interpersonal feelings and individuals,” remarks user @haileyych in a TikTok that has garnered over 1.7 million views; in the video, she notes that #StopAsianHate’s palatability is in its emptiness. The phrase falls into the neoliberal trap of individualizing racist violence instead of identifying its role in the system of oppression.
The word “hate” fails to recognize the root causes of Asian-targeted violence: U.S. imperialism and white supremacy. Many of the attitudes and stereotypes that contributed to the killing of the six Asian migrant women in Atlanta aren’t necessarily encompassed by the word “hate,” either. You don’t need to hate Asian people to fetishize their bodies and cultures. You don’t need to hate Asian migrant workers to view them as disposable. Racist and misogynistic violence isn’t fueled by hate, but a commitment to intersecting hierarchies of race, gender, and class.
By Sarah Mae Dizon