Updated: Jun 21
Despite the growing awareness of COVID-19 and the invention of vaccines, the “virus” is still spreading in a far-reaching and deep-seated way – through racism. While dubbing COVID-19 as “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu” did divert people’s attention from the former president’s administrative impotency in dealing with the pandemic, anti-Asian racism and hate crimes also emerged as a pretext to express people’s fury and anxiety in the midst of the pandemic.
Among the hate crimes was a series of mass shootings that occurred at three spas in Atlanta on March 16, 2021, where six of eight people killed are women of Asian descent. Although the real motive is complicated, involving both racism and mental illness, the societal response is consistent: the Atlanta shootings were marked as one of the most outrageous anti-Asian violence. Why, despite the variety of motives, do people attribute the shootings to racism? Why, despite the complexity of the event, do people “single-picture” the Atlanta shootings with the narrative of racism? Apparently, this narrative seems to sacrifice objectivity for the true motive; yet, examining the cause for this sacrifice – or the necessary subjectivity in emphasizing the racist origin of the Atlanta shootings - means more than investigating the absolute truth. In short, understanding the reason behind the necessary subjectivity (in depicting the Atlanta shootings) might provide the momentum to not just correct one single crime but fundamentally alter the racist myth towards Asians and other racial minorities.
Arrested and charged with murdering eight people (six of whom are Asian women), the white 21-year-old suspect Robert Aaron Long denied that the murder was racially motivated and framed his intent as to eliminate “temptation.” Comparing Asian-owned massage parlors to “temptation,” remarked by Vox’s reporter Li Zhou, the statement reflects stereotypes of not just spa businesses but also “Asian American women who have been exoticized and fetishized as sexual partners as far back as the 1800s.” To promote imperialist campaigns in the late 1800s, English poet Rudyard Kipling coined “the White Man’s burden”, and the former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt emphasized Americans’ “manly duty” to colonize Asian countries. The rooted rhetoric of masculinity, as a result, had brewed the “male power-fantasy” to local people through rape and war. Moreover, this fetishization of Asian women, intersecting with both racism and sexism, had been cemented and carried on by popular culture. NYC-based writer Christine Liwag Dixon recalls that kids in grade school started saying “me love you long time” (a line of a Vietnamese woman prostitute herself to two American soldier in the movie Full Metal Jacket) to her, and teenage boys asked her “are you a geisha?” after Memoirs of a Geisha came out. Although many might think treating Asian women as sexually exotic is a compliment, objectifying Asian women for white men’s purposes is nothing else but racial and sexual discrimination that places Asian women as the inferior sex and race. More than a stereotype and insult, the fetishization of Asian women exaggerates their vulnerability, which stirs up more attacks on Asian women (Stop AAPI Hate finds Asian women report hate incidents around 2 times more than Asian men). As the Atlanta shootings were labeled for their racist fetishization, public opinion begins to rethink the toxicities of racial stereotypes and the potential violence brought against Asian women.
In addition to racist fetishization, labeling the Atlanta shootings with their racist motive echoes with the existing racial bias in policing. In discussing the suspect’s motivation at a press briefing, Captain Jay Baker, the deputy of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, noted the suspect is having “some issues, potentially sexual addiction” and remarked on the shootings: “yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.” This emphasis on the suspect’s mental illness seems to downplay the role of racism. Even though it has been difficult to prove the racist motive in hate crimes especially against Asian Americans. Lu-in Wang, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said that compared to anti-Asian crimes, “anti-Black or anti-Semitic or anti-gay hate crimes” is “often more clear cut.” However, Capt. Baker’s understatement of the racist motive was still believed to involve racial bias, as he was found promoting sales of anti-Asian T-shirts referring to the conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 was “an imported virus from Chy-na” on his Facebook. Writing off the racist motive, Capt. Baker’s statement was suspicious of over-sympathizing the white suspect, which sets a sharp contrast with the polices’ neglect of Asian victims and disproportional killings of black Americans. Saying that the suspect “had a bad day” also ignites people’s anger, as this exculpated excuse again contrasts with the depiction of many African American suspects involved in “gang violence” and Muslim suspect of terrorism. Thereby, tying the shootings to be anti-Asian and racist serves to express people’s longtime dissatisfaction with the racial bias in policing.
Even as the true motive of the Atlanta Shootings was long debated, investigating what coins the public opinion in favor of the racist motive still has its sociological significance. The narrative of racism might seem subjective in generalizing the complex motives – involving racism (racist fetishization of Asian women and anti-China sentiment), misogyny, mental illness, and etc. – to the single one. However, this narrative is concurrently objective in analyzing this particular hate crime in respect to the latent yet rooted reality of racial bias in American society.