When eight people, six of them Asian and Asian American women, were killed in a mass shooting at three massage parlors in the Atlanta, Georgia, area last week, we learned that a white man targeted these parlors to get rid of a “temptation.” His reasoning made transparent the disregard for the lives he took.
“He made human beings — mothers, sisters, daughters — into something less than human,” said Kai Zhang of the Asian Pacific American Taskforce in New York and co-founder of Red Canary Song during a vigil to mourn lives lost.
We know so little about these women. Information is passed in trickles and spurts, heavy with silences, unknowns. In the days following the attack, we slowly learned some of their names. However, we don’t know many of the stories that their lives hold. There are things we’ll likely never know, nor should we have access.
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An act of spectacular violence brought these six women into our collective awareness and exposed many other everyday forms of violence that often go unnoticed: the moments of rupture, war and geopolitical upheaval that prompted their migration; the harassment and vitriol that service workers face daily; the compounded indignities brought about by housing insecurity and precarious immigration status.
Exceptional Forms of Violence Rely Upon and Coexist With Non-Exceptional Forms.
The targeted killing of Asian American women in a claimed attempt to eliminate sexual temptation is bound up in politics of race, gender and sexuality. Asian American women and femmes being killed and attacked because of toxic masculinity, which is a form of racist, classist and heterosexist entitlement that brings together white supremacy and rape culture, is not new.
The long history of U.S. racism and imperialism creates forms of violence that draw people in and out in different ways.
The U.S. permanent war and military occupation in Asia at different points in history — including the Philippine-American War, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War, to ongoing geopolitical tensions with China in the present — is connected to long-standing violence against Asian women. The targeting of Asia as a foreign threat and an enemy to be eliminated alongside U.S. desires for dominance over Asia work in tandem with the imagination of Asian women as submissive fantasies to be conquered.
Military encounters were often “first encounters” U.S. soldiers had with Asian women. Local sex industries were created through military occupation. Soldiers presumed sexual access to women’s bodies.
The desires for Asian submissiveness are also connected to fears of Asian women as dangerous and deviant with regard to the norms of white society. The regulation of race, gender and sexuality through restrictive immigration measures creates ongoing precarities and vulnerabilities for Asian working-class migrant women.
For example, the Page Act of 1875 was introduced to target Chinese women as sex workers and prohibit entry of immigrants deemed to be undesirable. Or, while many migrants from Asia were formally barred from entering the United States, policies such as the War Brides Act enabled women to migrate with U.S. soldiers. Later, the 1965 Hart-Celler Act would allow large numbers of Asian migrants into the United States, primarily through family reunification provisions and sponsorships.
However, these conditions of migration created economic vulnerability and dependency, often exposing women to abuse and violence. Roadblocks to naturalization, such as two-year waiting periods and the loss of immigration status for separating from U.S. citizen spouses enabled and incentivized — and continues to enable and incentivize — intimate partner violence by criminalizing attempts to leave. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s lack of adequate social safety nets, such as aid for food and housing, forecloses possibilities for migrant women to independently sustain access to care and safety.
The collapse of social safety nets and the expansion of carceral systems have worked in tandem to expose working-class Asian migrant women to everyday violence.
In 1996, the passage of three federal laws further criminalized working-class migrants: the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA); the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA); and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). First came AEDPA, which expanded local law enforcement’s authority to make arrests for immigration law violations and expedited processes of detention and deportation. It has been devastating to Southeast Asian communities — just a week prior to the murders in Georgia, 33 Vietnamese community members were deported. AEDPA also extends U.S. “counterterrorism” measures by giving the FBI more jurisdiction to surveil organizations.
Later, PRWORA passed, further repealing welfare provisions with a sweeping $54 billion in budget cuts, almost half of which came out of denying benefits to immigrants. This included cutting off undocumented immigrants from federal funding and barring immigrants from benefits during their first five years. Paired with the 1994 Crime Control Act and expanded criminalization of drugs, this also removed benefits for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense. (Notably, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is included as part of the 1994 Crime Bill, effectively linking mainstream feminist anti-violence movements with law enforcement. VAWA affirms law enforcement as the default response to gender-based violence.)
Additionally, IIRIRA worked to curtail family migration by raising the minimum income guidelines for sponsors as a barrier to petitioning. It also limited immigrant access to temporary public assistance. IIRIRA has also been devastating in its expansion of detention and deportation.
With reforms to welfare, migration and policing, technologies of surveillance and punishment once applied to domestic welfare recipients also became routinely leveraged against migrants, with the double threats of deportation and detention close at hand.
Death is deployed through different systems of racialized, gendered and sexualized difference. Feminist scholar Grace Kyungwon Hong reminds us that under our current “structures of disavowal,” existing forms of protecting and preserving life, such as access to benefits, care and safety, coexist with the dispersal of death.
As We Grieve, We Need to Have Responses to Violence That Don’t Rely on More Violence.
The U.S. use of military force globally, the militarism of policing and white supremacist attacks on people of color are all intertwined. Thus, police are not the solution for safety from anti-Asian violence. In the wake of the Georgia murders, some cities are deploying specialized police forces and increasing patrols into Asian American communities. However, the presence of heightened policing in Asian American communities has long been tied to ongoing violence against Asians, especially massage parlor workers and other working-class Asian migrants, who have been harassed and targeted by police, and has also resulted in deadly raids.
In their public statement, members of Red Canary Song, a New York City-based collective of Asian and migrant sex workers, emphasize, “The criminalization and demonization of sex work has hurt and killed countless people — many at the hands of the police both directly and indirectly.”
We must direct our energy away from systems of police and punishment and toward alternatives to what justice can be. While it may seem we have limited options to respond in moments of loss, grief and tragedy, we can work more expansively and creatively to change our systems to prevent future forms of violence.
We need ongoing feminist solidarities to address the intertwining of movements for abolition, demilitarization and sex worker rights. This means continuing to work toward ongoing efforts to end policing; for the decriminalization of sex work; for safe and accessible housing; and for building stronger social safety nets. If the Biden-Harris administration means to make good on its promise that “hate can have no safe harbor in America,” it must begin by dismantling the carceral and punitive system that undergirds our immigration policies, many of which they are responsible for.
As Yves Tong Nguyen of Red Canary Song says, “I want you to care when people are still alive.”
Note: As of publication on Tuesday, March 23, we are not publishing a full list of the women’s names to respect families’ and loved ones’ wishes. This may change in the future as we get updated accounts from those on the ground. Readers who wish to support families can donate directly.