A conversation between Frontiers co-editors Kimberly M. Jew and Darius Bost in the aftermath of the March 16, 2021 Atlanta shootings that left 8 people dead, 6 of them Asian women.
The recent anti-Asian violence in Atlanta has reminded me of the issue of invisibility that has shaped the lives of Asian Americans throughout the centuries in the U.S. I'm thinking of the historical moment of the joining of the railroads in the 19th century, at a site not far from us here in Salt Lake City. Chinese laborers - who worked, suffered, and died for the railroad - were not permitted visual representation in the celebratory photograph. A hundred years later, my mother (a third generation Chinese American) chose to go into laboratory science in part because of the lack of opportunities for Asian Americans at the time. During the mid-twentieth century, no one wanted to "see" Asian faces – not in department stores, nor even as teachers - so they had to choose work where they were less visible from the public eye. The recent tragedy in Atlanta has shed light on the diverse forms of invisibility that have continued to plague the Asian American community. Ironically, one of the greatest forms of invisibility has been the lack of public awareness about the direct and active forms of racism and sexism that many Asian Americans still grapple with on a daily basis. The invisibility of Asian American labor also comes to mind.
Thanks for beginning the conversation. Yes, the United States has yet to reckon with the historical and ongoing forms of violence that set the stage for the tragic killings of six Asian Americans, and Asian American women in particular, in Atlanta on March 16, 2021. These tragic events are the culmination of centuries of U.S. imperialism, state neglect, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and as you mention, coercive forms of labor. Histories of racism and U.S. empire have devalued Asian American bodies such that their experiences of trauma and violence, both spectacular and quotidian, remain largely invisible in the U.S. public sphere. Increased media attention to anti-Asian violence in the wake of former President Trump's racist and xenophobic constructions of the coronavirus pandemic have forced a reckoning with these longer histories of exclusion and exploitation. It is shameful, however, that this forced reckoning only comes in the wake of tragedy. While the recent visibility of these issues is significant, I believe it is also important to interrogate the moments when previously neglected populations come into the broader public consciousness. This tragedy has brought to the fore the gendered and sexualized dimensions of racial and national trauma, as it was six Asian American women, spa workers, who were targeted by a white male suspect who rationalized this targeted violence as an attempt to exorcise his addiction to sex. Two of the targeted spas had been under police investigation for sexual solicitation over the past decade, linking the murders to broader conversations about Asian Americans and labor in general, and Asian American women and sexual labor in particular. The suspect's claims have been interpreted as an attempt to detract attention away from allegations of racial hatred connected to the pandemic, which could result in a hate crime charge. The suspect's acknowledgement of the gendered and sexualized dimensions of these crimes speaks to its racial dimensions. Allegations of sexual deviance have often marked women, racial minority, and working-class and poor communities beyond the pale of victimhood. The national attention given to these murders, including flying the national flag at half-mast at the request of President Biden, is distinct in that it centers some of the most marginal members of the Asian American community within the domain of national victimhood. I suspect that the inclusion of alleged sex workers within the U.S. national narrative emerges from movements for social justice — feminist, queer, transgender, and anti-AIDS activism - that have rejected the politics of respectability, which often requires an innocent victim for political mobilization. I also believe that the uptick in violence against Asian Americans amid the pandemic has made this violence recognizable. Moreover, the frequency of mass murders in the United States, and social movements against gun violence, also made this violence intelligible to the wider public. These overlapping structures of oppression suggest that we need a broad frame of analysis, political mobilization, and legislation to ensure that this never happens again. At the same time, I remain concerned about why anti-Asian racism in the U.S. only comes into public view in the aftermath of mass murder. Why must these women's experiences of racism, sexism, and xenophobia come into public view at the moment of their disappearance? My hope is that a broader reckoning with the gendered and sexualized forms of anti-Asian violence in the U.S. will emerge out of this tragedy. I am encouraged by the multi-racial coalitions that have formed in defense of Asian American lives, solidarity that was already evident in the Movement for Black Lives and coalitional struggles against voter suppression in recent elections.
I really appreciate your commentary about how marginalized groups shift between states of visibility - and that these transitions may depend on the publicized moments of victimhood, violence, and disappearance (death and its many forms). I've been struck by a similar elasticity in regards to the social designations of Chinese Americans, how Asian Americans as a group are "hailed" as you referenced in an earlier conversation. I've been heartbroken to hear of violence against individuals who are simply perceived to be "something like a Chinese individual." I myself was yelled at after the 911 attacks - I was called "Ali" by passing cars on two occasions, and I am neither Middle Eastern nor a cis-gendered male! At the heart of this phenomena is "otherness" and a patterning of which groups, and which individuals, shift between those shades of perceived difference in moments of public tragedy or chaos. On the positive side, I am heartened by an energy of solidarity in response to the Atlanta violence. I sense a willingness to accept the complexity of lesser-known social spaces that may shift between legitimacy and illegitimacy such as Asian-run massage parlors. A willingness to refrain from simplistic thinking about Asian and Asian American females, their bodies, and labor - and to join forces across ethnic and citizenship lines to advocate against violence, period.
Your experience of racial misrecognition and othering post-911 reminds me of Leti Volpp's claims that, in the context of the so-called War on Terror, it became commonsense that Middle Eastern, Arab, and Islamic citizens were the enemy, justifying discrimination and violence as acts of patriotism and crimes of passion on behalf of a citizenry wounded by terrorist injury to the nation [citation].[i] Former President Trump's repeated claims that the coronavirus was an 'invisible enemy' with epidemiological origins in China racialized U.S. citizens of Asian descent as visible signs of an otherwise invisible enemy. This links the racialization of the coronavirus pandemic to late 19th century media and public health discourses that marked Chinese Americans in San Francisco's Chinatown as carriers of disease, and thus unassimilable as U.S. citizens.[ii] Moreover, framing these acts of violence in relation to the War on Terror brings to mind how contemporary activists have tried to reframe the Atlanta killings as acts of white supremacist violence. The recent white supremacist-led attacks on the U.S. Capitol Building have posed hard questions for federal legislators and law enforcement agents regarding the racialization of terror in the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security’s 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment named white supremacist domestic terror as the dominant interior threat to the U.S. nation-state.[iii] However, whiteness has prohibited the recognition of these individual acts as evidence of broader systemic issues. The proliferation of white supremacist organizations in the aftermath of the Vietnam War has not fostered a common sense understanding of white male perpetrators of violence as the enemy of the state as it did for Middle Eastern, Arab, Islamic, and, by your account, Asian descendent citizens after 9/11.[iv] One of the privileges of whiteness is that it escapes racialization—the collective (mis)recognition and racial profiling—that Asian and Asian American communities are facing now, despite the alleged national specificity of the pandemic's epidemiological origins. But this is how othering works: it depends on forms of projection and fixity that collapse variously othered bodies into a single category of difference (in this case, as scapegoats for perceived acts of biological terror at the hands of 'foreign enemies' both inside and outside the U.S. nation-state). Activist calls to reframe the Atlanta murders as acts of racialized, domestic terror are an attempt to link the killings to a broader system of racial terror in the U.S., wherein ordinary actors use violence to reinforce whiteness as the proper domain of U.S. citizenship.
I’ve noticed the recent posting a number of personal online essays by individuals adopted from Asian countries, Asian Americans who have grown up in white families, in predominantly white communities, who had felt a layer of protection and anonymity from the privilege of whiteness as you have described it. But in this active moment, these writers are sharing that perhaps for the first time, they are feeling the real, tangible and negative burdens of being identified as Asian – they are realizing the instability of meaning for their bodies of color. In a similar vein, greater attention and critique is being drawn to the myths of the model minority. The amazing economic and cultural diversity among Asian Americans is coming to light, as well as the direct questioning of the safety net – the escape from racialization - that capitalism may provide those Asian Americans who have been economically successful.
[i] Leti Volpp, ‘The Citizen and the Terrorist,’ UCLA Law Review 49 (2002): 1575-1600.
[ii] Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
[iii] Department of Homeland Security (2020) Homeland Threat Assessment. District of Columbia: Department of Homeland Security (17-20).
[iv] Kathleen Belew, Bringing the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019).
Further Reading from the Frontiers Archive
Chu, Judy. “Asian American Women’s Studies Courses: A Look Back at Our Beginnings.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 8, no. 3 (1986): 96-101.
Annelise Heinz. “Performing Mahjong in the 1920s: White Women, Chinese Americans, and the Fear of Cultural Seduction.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 37, no. 1 (2016): 32-65.
Chatterjee, Piya. “De/Colonizing the Exotic: Teaching “Asian Women” in a U.S. Classroom.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 21, no. 1/2 (2000): 87-110.
Afary, Janet. “Seeking a Feminist Politics for the Middle East after September 11.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25, no. 1 (2004): 128-37.