Like many Asian women living in the United States, Melody Karmana is afraid to venture out.
“I can’t even explain like what it feels to be walking outside and not knowing whether someone is going to hit you,” said the law student, who has been opting to bike or Uber instead of using the subway. It’s “so frustrating to look at yourself in the mirror and realize that’s literally the only reason why people are targeting you.”
Last year, attacks against Asian Americans soared, and one-third of the community reported fearing threats, physical attacks and violence, according to the Pew Research Center. Since the start of the pandemic, horrific attacks against Asian elders, as well as Asian-owned businesses, have been reported throughout the country.
But for many Asian and Asian American women, the shootings on March 16, 2021 — in which eight people, including six Asian women, were fatally shot at three Atlanta-area spas — was an inflection point. The incident reignited conversations about the racist and sexist stereotypes that have long led to the hyper-sexualization and marginalization of Asian women.
Since then, anti-Asian attacks have continued to make headlines — and have disproportionately targeted women. In January, 40-year-old Michelle Go was fatally pushed onto the train tracks at the Times Square station. A month later, 35-year-old Christina Yuna Lee was followed into her New York apartment and killed. Earlier this month, a man punched and elbowed seven Asian women in the face in a matter of two hours in Manhattan. And just last week, a 67-year-old Asian woman was punched more than 125 times in the neighboring city of Yonkers.
“We are being hunted,” journalist Lisa Ling wrote on Instagram in response to the recent attacks.
The morning after the Atlanta-area shootings last March, Dorothy told her 7-year-old daughter about what happened.
“She didn’t seem to me to internalize it very much,” said Dorothy, a 39-year-old Korean American mom from Atlanta, who is being identified by her first name because she fears for her family’s safety. But days after that conversation, Dorothy said, her daughter drew a picture of herself with blond hair.
“That just really broke my husband’s heart, because she’s never done that before,” Dorothy said. “She always drew herself with black hair, and I would always praise the Asian traits about her so that she would she wouldn’t feel different.”
After the shootings, Dorothy said, “We realized she knows on a certain level that it’s safer and easier to be White.”
Indeed, the violence has not only generated fear in the community, but also led some to examine their own identities: They are taking safety classes and arming themselves, and some are even trying to obscure their Asian-ness as a safeguard.
Karmana, originally from Jakarta, Indonesia, has taken to donning sunglasses to feel some semblance of safety.
But at the same time, she says, it makes her “incredibly sad to hide.”
Isabella Paragas, a 16-year-old living in Sacramento, worried about her mom after reading news of the Atlanta shootings a year ago. When her parents didn’t take her warnings seriously, she started accompanying her mom on errands, she said.
“Obviously, if something did happen, I wouldn’t, like, superhero my way through it,” said Paragas, who noted that she is 5’2” and that her mom is 4’11”. “But it just made me feel a little better knowing that someone was with her, because when a lot of things happened to those people, like no one came to help.”
An Asian American woman in the national spotlight, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) said she has received racist voice mails after her COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act passed in the House last May. She still feels a similar fear to Karmana when she ventures outside — she said she sometimes covers her black hair to avoid attacks.
“I’m scared to go outside,” said Meng, the mother of two boys. “I try not to walk around by myself. I try not to walk in isolated areas. If my kids or my parents are going somewhere, I try to drive them there so I can do everything to make sure they’re safe.”
In addition to pushing for the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which investigates and supports agencies responding to such attacks, Meng also introduced legislation to teach Asian American Pacific Islander history in schools last year.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, has had similar experiences. The 40-year-old Chicago resident said she has weathered multiple racist incidents — from racial slurs yelled in her face at the airport to rocks hurled at her while running through the park at the beginning of the pandemic. While throwing rocks, the small group also screamed at her “to stay home, that I’m spreading the virus,” Choimorrow said.
“Not a single person stepped in to ask me how I was, if I was okay or to stop the person from doing it,” she added.
In a survey of more than 2,000 community members, her organization found that many Asian American and Pacific Islander women reported experiencing racism and discrimination in the past year. For Choimorrow, this widespread anti-Asian sentiment has been exacerbated by prominent figures — including former president Donald Trump — perpetuating stereotypes.
“We’re being targeted because of the stereotypes about us, that we won’t stand up for ourselves, that we’re submissive,” Choimorrow said. “We are typically seen as easier targets, less likely to fight back. These stereotypes and the realities of how gender bias and racism work have created an environment where AAPI women are not only disproportionately being targeted ... but also, we’re seeing incidents that are happening in public places.”
Many past generations experienced similar racist acts — but were perhaps less likely to talk about such incidents, said Menaka Chandurkar, who works with Asian Family Support Services of Austin.
“Racism was just kind of the immigrant tax, the price of admission for making a life in the U.S.,” Chandurkar said, adding that the general mind-set was to “put your head down and work hard.”
Chandurkar doesn’t personally blame her parents for that thinking, she said: “They did what they had to do to make their lives, and they didn’t have the backup that we have now.”
But, she added, “I never imagined when I had my daughter that I’d be having the exact same conversations that I wanted to have at her age.”
The increased threat of violence has driven many Asian American women to arm themselves. On Sunday, more than a thousand people waited two hours for free pepper spray and personal alarms in New York, according to Soar Over Hate, the nonprofit behind the event. The organization added that it has given out more than 25,000 personal alarms, whistles and pepper sprays across New York and California since March 2021.
When 66-year-old Grace Young, a cookbook author who also lives in New York, recently met up with friends, they were showing each other what they now routinely carry for protection: pepper spray, a tactical pen, a personal security alarm, even a club.
“It makes me sad that this is ‘the new abnormal,’ but it’s also empowering that we are doing what we have to do to remain safe,” said Young, who recently partnered with Asian Americans for Equality on a fundraiser to buy personal security alarms for Chinatown residents and workers. “For the first time in all the years I’ve lived in New York City, I’m acutely aware I need to be super streetwise and alert to everyone around me.”
Like many other Asian American women, Sara Blanchard, a 44-year-old Denver resident, looks at her surroundings differently now. After a mass shooting happened in her home city after the Atlanta shootings, she decided to start creating safety plans.
“I remember walking through Target with my eyes peeled in such a different way and at every corner just being like, okay, if a shooter tries to shoot us here, I’m going to protect my daughter this way, or here’s the way to the exit,” said Blanchard, a biracial Japanese and White co-author of the book and podcast “Dear White Women.” “And then I saw an Asian family, and I remember having another thought being like, ‘I want them to be safe. How are we all going to stay safe?’ ”
Organizations are trying to help, but they “can’t do safety training fast enough,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation: “We’re all in such a tremendous state of despair. ... I worry about people who have to go to work, down the subways and the buses, to put food on the table.”
Just watching the news can be tough, too. Rona Hu, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, says she can’t handle the waves of news of attacks at once; she clips them out and reads them later when she is in the right mind-set.
The effect of this trauma can be far-reaching, Hu added. She advises her own patients that hearing about the violence is like dealing with grief — rolling through “outcry, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance and action,” as well as “allowing other people around you to go through different stages.”
And it can be healing to open up to others, said Iona Cheng, a cancer epidemiologist who was tackled to the ground, punched and burglarized in December 2020 in Oakland, Calif. Her attackers were later arrested.
“Sharing my story has been really good on a lot of fronts,” the 49-year-old said. “It’s been baby steps. ... At first, I wasn’t going out alone. And then it was slowly, I can just go one block and I can go there fast, I can just run over there and run back.”
These days, Cheng said, she is “pretty cautious,” but “not as fearful as I was.” Still, she added, there’s frustration of “not feeling comfortable in my neighborhood.”
Many of these women, including Hu, note that sticking out, being catcalled, harassed or even assaulted is nothing new. But since the Atlanta shootings, more people are talking about it.
“If there’s anything that can bring some small amount of meaning or solace to their deaths is to learn something from it, which is that we’re not imagining this,” Hu said. “And that it’s not OK.”
Some in the younger generation, like Kayla Ha, say that despite the violence, they don’t want to hide in any way. While working on a school project on racism, she “ironically” went through it, she said: The 17-year-old was asking for help finding supplies at a store in her hometown of Sacramento when the worker swore at her, saying she was going to give them covid, she recounted.
“I don’t think it necessarily changes how I act, because I’m personally very proud to be Asian,” Ha said of the racism she’s experienced. “I don’t want to hide my identity from that or stay away from that.”
That kind of attitude may be what’s needed to move forward, other Asian American women say. Blanchard, the author and podcast host, worries that society thinks the worst may be over.
“We don’t want people to feel like they can opt out,” she said. “Because I think once you see the world in a way, once you understand the history and then you know people’s stories, you can’t un-see that.”
Editing by Lena Felton. Photo editing by Monique Woo. Design editing by Rachel Orr.