“If you think about what this man did to these people, he literally reduced them to objects; he took away their humanity.”
Eight people were killed in a series of targeted attacks against three Asian-owned spas on March 16, the deadliest mass-shooting of 2021 in the US at the time. Six of the deceased included women of Asian descent who worked at the establishments.
“I was really shocked,” said Jean Li Spencer ’21, an editor-in-chief of GenerAsians, “but I wasn’t surprised because of the nature of gun violence in this country[,] and the invisibility and silence that a lot of people who are in certain positions receive from society on a daily basis.”
The shooting has not only sparked a new national conversation on gun violence, but also one on anti-Asian violence, which is at its peak since March 2020 when COVID-19 spread from the city of Wuhan, China to the United States. In 2020, violence against Asian Americans increased by over 150% in major cities, including 1,900% in New York City over an eight-week period.
According to Captain Jay Baker of the Atlanta Police Department, the suspect claimed the attacks were not racially motivated but rather because the massage parlors were a “temptation … he wanted to eliminate,”because they provided him “an outlet for his addiction to sex.”
However, the Chosun Ilbo, a major daily paper in South Korea, reported that a witness recalled hearing him shout “I’m going to kill all Asians.” Additionally, Deputy Police Chief Charles Hampton stated that the suspect had only regularly visited two of the locations, and is believed to have targeted the third because it was an Asian-owned massage parlor.
“The fact that Asian owned spas represent [temptation] to him, that’s a problem in itself and ties into the crime being racially motivated,” said Sophie Wang ’22, president of Wellesley’s Asian Student Union (ASU). “I don’t think a lot of people see these connections and nuances, especially because it’s been throughout history for so long: Asian women fetishization and then perceptions about Asian people as a whole.”
For many women of Asian descent, these perceptions are nothing new.
“The rise of the incel ideology has definitely coincided with yellow fever and fetishization of Asian women. Mainstream porn, as well as the history of comfort women, sexual assault in military bases in Asia, mail order brades, sex tourism, have all played a role in this,” Grace Fang ’23 said. “These men feel entitled not just to women but to Asian women who are stereotyped to be submissive, ‘better’ wife material. We exist only to ‘service’ them.”
“There’s a lot of objectification of our bodies. And that association [of sex addiction] is just another form of objectification,” Spencer said. “If you think about what this man did to these people, he literally reduced them to objects; he took away their humanity.”
Wang has been in Queens, New York for the past year, where she described seeing anti-Asian attacks happen as far back as half a year ago. As a result, she initially felt numb when she heard news of the shooting.
“Very little people have talked about [the attacks] initially,” Wang said.“That’s kind of where the numbing feeling stemmed from, just because I’ve been having talks with my family since the first incident of an elder woman, I believe, being pushed in Flushing.”
Like Wang, many students of Asian descent have described becoming desensitized to attacks on other Asians in the US due to their frequency.
“I don’t really think I have a reaction anymore. It’s more just, ‘oh I’m not surprised.’ It’s painful, but I also feel really detached at this point,” Fang said. “It could be a coping mechanism or that I feel really safe here at Wellesley. I just don’t really have the emotional capacity to feel intense about it anymore.”
Despite this, for students in large metropolitan areas, the attacks are an everyday fear.
“A lot of people in [my community] who are Asian … are afraid to go out by themselves,” Spencer, who is also from New York City, said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people who identify as women especially feel this way.”
Wang has had talks with her sister and mother about keeping themselves safe. She now shares her location and gives updates on her whereabouts to her family whenever she leaves the house.
Although the shooting has propelled anti-Asian violence into national news, students say that many national news publications are missing the real origin of the attacks: the deep-rooted history of racism against Asians in America.
“The manner [in which the media covers these stories] has not been okay at all,” Fang said. “They often hyperfocus on Trump and okay, Trump exacerbated xenophobic rhetoric, but it existed long beforehand. Cold War, anti-communism, red scare, yellow peril, all that. They sort of just want Trump to be the scapegoat.”
Fang believes the demonization of China in the media has contributed to the rise anti-Asian sentiment. US government officials have been among the voices propagating COVID-19 conspiracy theories, such as when former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and Chinese billionaire dissident Guo Wengui claimed on Fox News that the virus was created in a Chinese lab.
“The Chinese diaspora had a hand in spreading around [these theories],” Fang said. “So a lot of [Chinese-Americans] believe it. It’s different, of course, when non-Chinese-Americans internalize that kind of rhetoric because it gets translated into violence and hatred for us.”
In response to the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes, Wellesley cultural organizations have decided to take action to support the Asian and Asian American community. Student organizations such as Pan-Asian Council, Chinese Students Association, ASU, GenerAsians, Korean Students Association (KSA), South East Asian Students Association (SEASA) and more have all written statements on social media addressing the influx of anti-Asian hate crimes and provided a list of resources to support Asian and Asian American advocacy organizations. On March 18, Karen Shih, advisor to students of Asian descent, also hosted an event allowing Asian students to decompress and express their sentiments on anti-Asian racism in a safe, nonjudgemental space.
Spencer has also talked about a potential project for GenerAsians on gathering an open-source library for students that fall both within and outside the umbrella of the AAPI community. In order to take advantage of the innumerable connections of colleges in the Greater Boston area, Spencer is hoping to circulate the resources to Asian organizations in other Boston area schools.
“We’re hoping this can be democratically assembled, so Wellesley students at large are invited to contribute to this,” Spencer said.
Wang hopes the new influx of conversations surrounding anti-Asian hate crimes will have lasting implications toward conversations about race in the US.
“In the future, I hope that conversations about crimes against the AAPI community will not only bring about awareness for these instances, but also to allow a more active and nuanced discussion about racism and white supremacy,” Wang said. “I hope we can continue to create a space for healing, community and solidarity.”