Here We Are Again

The persistent invisibility and tokenization of Asian/Americans must be recognized

By Lynn Fujiwara 

Six Asian women were murdered in Georgia, and the world waits to see if the investigation will determine that the targeted violence was a hate crime. 

Although FBI Director Christopher Ray said, “It does not appear that the motive was racially motivated,” one thing is clear: This murderous act of violence was simultaneously racially, gendered and class motivated. That is not a question. The problem is hate-crime laws. 

Investigators will examine his social media, look for a manifesto or journal writings, talk to his friends and family, to determine whether the killer was propelled to purchase the firearms, drive to a specific Asian-owned spa in Cherokee County, shoot and kill four people, then drive 30 miles south to two other Asian-run spas and kill four more people. They need legible evidence of racial or gendered hate to connect his plans to kill six Asian women, because his actions are not enough. 

Hate-crimes law rely on narrowly defined definitions of racial or gendered animus. Authorities must see racial epithets or angry diatribes that specify a discriminatory bias toward a specific group. 

The comments by Georgia city officials reminded me of the Austin serial bombing in 2018, where Austin police described the bomber as “a troubled young man,” with no evidence of hatred. Even though the bomber targeted a largely Black and Brown community, the crime was characterized as a result of a young man’s mental instability. Having mental health issues  does not preclude one from also having racially motivated hate. Discussions of gun safety laws need to include racially motivated (all hate motivated) mass shootings. 

Here we are again. It is clear the Georgia shooter targeted Asian establishments with Asian women workers. We have heard the narrative that for this shooter it was more about his sexual addiction and his need to eliminate his temptation. We need to understand that to not see these murders as racially, gendered and class motivated, we erase the very lives and realities of the murdered Asian women. 

Cast under a pervasive model minority narrative, Asian/Americans struggle against invisibility, tokenization or resentment. Anti-Asian sentiment and violence is not new to this country. The first exclusionary American immigration law, the Page Act of 1875, targeted women from China. Why? Because of the visibility of women from China fed narratives of disease, pathology and threat to white American purity through assumptions of prostitution. Never mind that statistically there were far more sex workers from Europe, Chinese women (many wives joining their spouses) would give birth to American citizens; a threat to the white American ideal.  

In Oregon, 34 Chinese miners were murdered in 1887, sundown towns led to violent rampages against Asian laborers and the burning down of Asian communities, and Asians could not own property. 

More recently in Eugene, we saw a rash of vandalism against Asian markets (2016), and two international students from China were tasered (2009) by law enforcement in their own apartment when a neighbor called them in for suspicion of squatting. 

On the daily, Asian/Americans in Eugene experience racist epithets, microaggression “curiosity” (the proverbial “what are you?”, “your English is really good” and “where are you from?”), stinging resentment “go back to where you came from” and gobbledygook strung words like “chingchongsingsong,” sometimes with pulled eyes. In fact, one of my child’s elementary school teachers thought it was real funny to nickname my child “seaweed” because they took packs of nori (dried flavored seaweed) to school for snack.  

The most pervasive narrative of the model minority myth is that Asian/Americans are successful and wealthy. Asian/America constitutes an extremely heterogeneous group of people. 

The wealth in Asian/America is shaped by multiple factors (including expedited visas for high-skilled talent and investor visas for the super wealthy), but what is lost in this model minority story is the large proportion of those who live in poverty, are working-class and are struggling to survive. 

Global economic forces propel working class Asian/American and Asian immigrant women into the service economy, care work and the entertainment industry. There is a hyper-visible/invisible paradox of Asian women in the service economy, where their vast presence is so normalized they are rendered unseen. In stigmatized sexual and entertainment industries our language and ability to center their Asian racial identity as central to who they are and why they are there, are impeded by trafficking discourses of morality and victimization. 

Thus, we hear officials and pundits in the media ask, are these Asian nationals, are they Asian immigrants? As if that denies them racially protected status in the United States. 

The argument is made — if this was not a racially motivated crime, it was clearly a crime based on sex. Georgia’s hate-crime law includes the category “sex.” He was clearly seeking to kill those women of temptation, they just happened to be mostly Asian. This argument reduces the murdered Asian women to a “universal woman” and erases the significance of what happened to them because of their race. It negates their subject positions in a stigmatized service economy that renders them vulnerable to multiple forms of violence, including state violence. They are bound to racially and gendered Orientalist constructions of hypersexuality, submissiveness, availability and expendability. 

In this context dominant moralistic narratives disconnect these women from motherhood, family, business women and workers. Now that the murdered Asian women have been identified, media efforts to humanize them by recognizing the families who have lost them clearly indicate an immediate dehumanization.  

The recent rise in Anti-Asian violence has been challenging for progressives to discuss. Inter-racial violence and racism across communities of color is not new as well. We need to develop a stronger investment in understanding differential racializations and how they impact communities differently. The idea that we can treat race as singular and confined within narrowly defined categories denies the heterogeneity within communities as well.

In this case, understanding the multiple layers and complex positioning of Asian women in the service economy requires a broadening analytical framework that can encompass simultaneous and multiple identities that led one man to target Asian women in his murderous rampage, as well as thousands of acts of violence against Asian/Americans across the country just within the last year. It is no accident that 68 percent of the 3,800 anti-Asian incidents in the last year were reported by Asian/American women.  

The usual statements of love and solidarity with bereaved communities experiencing tragedy is not enough. The persistent invisibility and tokenization of Asian/Americans must be recognized, and our institutions must commit to a broader understanding of racial and intersectional violence. 

Lynn Fujiwara is the author of Mothers Without Citizenship: Asian Immigrant Families and the Consequences of Welfare Reform and co-editor of Asian American Feminisms and Women of Color Politics. She is a professor in the department of Indigenous, Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Oregon.