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Living with the sting and fear of racial hate

Hundreds gathered at Union Square on Friday to protest the rise in Asian hate crimes and mourn the six women of Asian descent murdered in Atlanta.

Violent racial hate crimes are something I am, unfortunately, abundantly familiar with. Not just with the neverending news cycle of horrors and mutiny and atrocities we see splashed on the screens of our televisions, our phones, our laptops. I am intimately acquainted with the painful sting of physical and verbal racialized hatred, the internal gasp of shock when someone hurls a racial slur, a broken beer bottle, their own spit. I know the bitterly acrid taste of fear when someone walks menacingly towards you, hands outstretched as if to tear your very identity from your flesh. 

At 4:50 pm at Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, G.A. Delaina Ashley Yuan, Paul Andre Mitchels, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng were murdered. At 5:47 pm at  Atlanta, G.A’s Gold Massage Spa Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Kim, Suncha Kim and Yong Ae Yue were similarly massacred. Of the eight murder victims, six were of Asian decent – four were Korean. Like me.

It is impossible not to grieve. If you are a human being, any loss of life, even a stranger’s, and especially any loss caused by violence is heartbreaking. But the coverage of this particular atrocity was as predictable as ever. Reasonable questions are always asked; how could this have happened? Why did this happen?i Who did this? But then – inevitably – come the other questions. The ones that humanize the perpetrator. The questions that attempt to remind us that once (or maybe still) this young man had value, was important, was loved. Like the eight people he slaughtered weren’t. 

Eight lives were blasted off this planet, and all because they could have been affiliated with sex work – which somehow makes their murders more publicly palatable. And all while his name, his age, his potential motivations are blasted on the cover of every single noteworthy publication or broadcast – news anchors struggle to pronounce the names of the very victims he made. Erasing them further. Cloaking them in further obscurity or anonymity. 

The shooter had assumed that the Asian-affiliated massage parlors he attacked were inexplicably linked with sex work and that justified his masacre. This is a common popular culture belief. While it is true that some Asian-affiliated massage parlors or spas are also covertly used for sex work, it does not diminish the lives or experiences of those who work in these facilities and it certainly does not give agency to anybody to kill these workers simply because they were consumed with sexual “temptation”.

Asian women in particular have historically been sexualized. The assumption that Asian women have been sexual commodities stems from the fetisization of them and their race. Because Asian women can be seen as simultaneously hyper-sexual and also hyper-docile and submissive, we face unique and overt violences and violations simply because of inaccurate and degrading racist assumptions based on pop culture depictions.

The mass shooting addresses many of the fears in this country that Asian and Asian American individuals face today, particularly those who identify as women and those who are sex workers. According to a study by Stop AAPI Hate, since the COVID-19 pandemic began nearly 3,800 instances of discrimination, violence and harrasment have been reported in this country. “Probably more,” said Jeehae Fischer, the executive director at the Korean American Family Service Center in Queens, N.Y. “People are afraid to come forward to even say ‘hey something happened to me and I’m scared’’.

When I lived in Tübingen, in southern Germany for a year, I was the victim of numerous verbal and physical hate crimes. The area is more conservative than neighboring states, but I still experienced hatred and othering in nearly every town I visited throughout the country. Ranging from a hollered slur out the back of a car window speeding by, to beer bottles being thrown at my legs (resulting in scarring), to waking up one day to plastered graphic images of Holocaust victims covering the common area in my dormitory. I had many bad days there. But never once did I use those experiences, those bad days to harm a German individual physically or verbally. Not even those who were repeatedly perpetrating crimes against myself and my peers. I didn’t report every instance, but the ones I did were met with less than lukewarm responses. I could have done more to advocate for myself, but I was scared.

Today, and every day, I think about the beautiful people whose lives have been taken away from us through violence. Through selfish acts of cowardice, ignorance and falsely-perceived superiority. I’m thinking about Hyun Jung Kim and her life as a single mother, wondering if we both liked jjajangmyeon or if it was too salty for her. I’m thinking about Xiaojie Tan, who was only two days away from her birthday. I’m thinking about all of them. Wondering if they had anything they were looking forward to that day. Wondering if they were tired of this pandemic just like me. Wondering if they were scared.