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Atlanta shooting victim’s biracial sons seek to unite Black, Asian communities in shared fight against hate

Robert Peterson sits for a portrait outside of the home of his late mother, Yong Ae Yue, in Norcross, Ga. Yue was shot and killed in an Atlanta-area spa earlier this year. (Melissa Alexander for The Washington Post)

NORCROSS, Ga. — In the months after his mother was shot and killed at an Atlanta-area spa, Robert Peterson was contacted by Young Bae, a celebrity tattoo artist whose son, like Peterson and his brother, is half-Black and half-Korean. She offered him a free tattoo to memorialize his mom.

Peterson, 39, opted for something positive and a little silly, just like his mom: a boiling stone pot of kimchi jjigae, or kimchi stew, alongside her name: Yong Ae Yue.

"My mother would laugh at that and say it's stupid, but that's the first dish she taught me how to make. That's my favorite dish. And it's Korean," he said. "She lived for 63 freaking years, you know? I just wanted that day out of my head."

Yue was one of eight people, mostly Asian women, killed March 16 in a rampage spanning three spas in neighboring counties. The alleged shooter, Robert Aaron Long, is White. He pleaded guilty in late July to four murder charges and is due in court again later this month to answer charges stemming from the other deaths, including Yue's.

Peterson has searched for purpose in his grief. Before the tragedy, he had participated in Black Lives Matter demonstrations to protest racial injustice and demand change. Now, inspired by Yue's slaying and the support his family has received from the Black and Asian communities, he is determined to help both groups converge in their fights for greater equity.

The Petersons' biracial identity has resonated with activists and policymakers alike. Young Bae, for example, has been active in both the Stop AAPI Hate and Black Lives Matter movements and often uses her TV show and social media to speak against racism. The Asian Pacific American and Black caucuses in Congress both have invited Peterson to speak about his experience contending with violence against both communities.

"She knew who we were, and our identity, and the duality of our identities. She loved both sides of that for us," he said of his mother. "And to see us embraced by these different communities, for her, she would have loved that."

Atlanta spa shooting victims highlight struggles for Asian and Asian American immigrant women in low-wage jobs

Yue was born in 1957 and grew up in South Korea. She met an American soldier there, married him and they moved together to Fort Benning, Ga., around 1980.

She respected the U.S. military. She loved America for the opportunities it afforded her, including working at a grocery store and selling ice cream. She taught herself to read and write in English. And as a naturalized U.S. citizen, she felt that voting was the way she was heard in her adoptive country.

Yue and her husband divorced around 1984, and she left for Texas. Mindful that her sons looked more Black than Asian, she agreed to give him full custody so they could live with their father, Peterson said. Her boys would be better off growing up with others who looked like them and could understand their experiences as Black men in America, she thought.

“It wasn’t an easy choice for her at all. She said her thinking at the time, being a young woman, a foreigner in the States . . . that she thought we would have a better chance succeeding if we lived with a stable military man, we had a father figure in our life for two boys,” said Elliott Peterson, Robert’s brother, who lives in Japan.

Their father declined to be interviewed.

Elliott, 43, recalled his father teaching the two boys the value of responsibility and discipline, and he believes Yue made the right decision: “When I look at it now, it worked out as the best case scenario.”

What we know about the victims of the Atlanta shootings

Yue eventually moved back to Georgia, after Elliott had joined the Army and while Robert was still in high school. Every time Elliott came home, she planned a huge dinner with all of his favorite foods.

“It was like the first time I’m coming home, every single time,” Elliott said, recalling “her seeing me as a young child still, her baby.”

She loved to cook Korean food for her family. When she visited Robert at his freshman dormitory at Morehouse College, a historically Black all-male school in Atlanta, she brought so much kimchi that the hallway smelled like it after she left, he recalled.

A grandmother of eight and orphaned as a child, Yue cherished her children and grandchildren, Robert said. She would team with her sons to bet against her grandkids during poker nights at her house, only to turn around and give the youngsters the money she won.

Yue loved to work, her sons said. When, during the coronavirus pandemic, she lost her job cleaning and cooking at a spa, she took a similar job at Aromatherapy Spa where she also did other tasks such as monitoring security cameras and opening the door for customers, Robert said.

Long, the alleged assailant, took Yue’s life with a single gunshot to her head. She was the only Asian victim with biracial children. The district attorney in Fulton County has said she intends to seek the death penalty along with a hate-crime sentence enhancement.

For Atlanta spa shooting victim Suncha Kim, America was always where she felt she belonged

Yue rarely shared her struggles, Robert said, always projecting a happy face with her signature “V for victory” hand gesture despite her financial worries and being in pain from persistent eczema on her hands. Since her death, the Petersons have sought to fill in the gaps they hadn’t thought about much while she was alive.

What was her childhood like in Korea?

How did she live after she sent her sons to live with their dad?

Robert, who has a doctorate in medical sociology, has been looking for a job since becoming unemployed during the pandemic. He has moved into his mother’s home here in Norcross, an Atlanta suburb, tending to her plants — the same ones he gifted her as bulbs years ago, since she preferred plants over flowers ­— and caring for her calico cat, Yoya. He sorts through her belongings, making the difficult choice to donate items or to pack them away. He celebrated her birthday last month by gathering his friends and cooking her favorite dishes, including kimchi jjigae, and buying new plants for the house.

As with other victims’ families, Robert is searching for meaning. “We are the news,” he said. “Didn’t ask for it. Didn’t want it. Wouldn’t want for anyone to seek it. So now it’s about finding purpose in this context. What is she trying to tell me?”

'Allyship and solidarity'

The Atlanta spa killings represented a galvanizing moment in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) civil rights activism — a movement long shaped by the community’s response to tragedies stemming from xenophobia, dating to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

Black and AAPI activists have joined forces throughout key moments in American history — from Frederick Douglass’s denouncement of Chinese exclusion in 1869 to the civil rights movements during the 1950s and 1960s, when the two communities fought together for voting and immigrant rights.

But there also have been moments of mistrust and violence between them.

One notable flash point came in 1992 in Los Angeles. Rising tension between the Black and Korean American communities culminated in fiery riots that left Koreatown in ashes, sparked by the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old Black girl by a Korean grocer, and widespread outrage over the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers observed on video beating Rodney King.

Experts say racist stereotypes have long been used as a cudgel between the Black and Asian American communities, fueling tensions — including the “model minority” myth that inaccurately portrays all Asian Americans as well-educated and successful as well as racist depictions of Black Americans as violent and poor.

Civil rights leaders and activists from both communities are working to challenge those narratives, which they say fuel resentment and divert attention from the pervasive racism and bias that have shaped those stereotypes.

“These narratives . . . are so painful and so harmful, and are really designed to keep us scrabbling for the scraps against one another,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Race in America: Allyship with NAACP LDF President & Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill & AAJC President John C. Yang

Last year’s murder of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police and the ensuing racial-justice movement has energized Asian American civil rights activism and sparked a desire to acknowledge and move past the tension between the Black and Asian American communities.

“I do see the Asian Americans really confronted this in a different way last summer, in a good way. And it forced us to have difficult conversations,” said John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC.

In the aftermath of the Atlanta shootings, Stop AAPI Hate activists marched alongside Black Lives Matter activists in demonstrations held in cities across the country, inspiring calls for solidarity across marginalized communities to harness each other’s shared pain and to promote lasting change.

“I think that’s the key to understanding this allyship and solidarity, is that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder in opposition to white supremacy,” Ifill said. “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder in furtherance of equality — the full equality, citizenship and dignity of every person — and that’s what unites us.”

'My sons are Black'

For Yue, this was a reality of daily life.

Her son, Robert, was 19 when he got his only other tattoo, which adorns his neck. He wore a suit and tie that day, a pragmatic act of rebellion by a studious teen who wanted to make sure the choice wouldn’t jeopardize future job opportunities. Nonetheless, his mother was furious — a symptom of her perpetual worry about the stereotypes and perceptions her sons may face as Black men. “People are going to think you’re a bad guy,” he recalls her telling him.

When he went to Black Lives Matter protests last year, his mother worried for his safety, troubled by footage of rioting. She warned her son about the police: “They don’t care that you have a doctorate in sociology,” she counseled.

“She knew that I was a Black man going to march for people who looked like me, but she just didn’t want me to get hurt,” he said. “She didn’t like the Black men being killed. She didn’t want that to be me.”

Yue fearlessly denounced racism, her son Elliott said, and even cut friends out of her life because of their racism toward Black people. He thinks about the courage it took for a Korean woman in her 20s to marry and uproot her life to create a family with a Black man during a time when interracial relationships were neither common nor tolerated.

“I’m very proud to be mixed. I’m very proud that when she was young, in Korea, that she gave my father a chance,” Elliott said. “Back then, it was probably even more prejudice and more racist [to be] with anyone not Korean. She didn’t see it then, and she didn’t see it now, so I’m very thankful to her for that.”

The coronavirus and the long history of using diseases to justify xenophobia

With the rise in anti-Asian rhetoric and violence stemming from the coronavirus pandemic’s origin in China, Yue and Robert would discuss the hatred and bias toward people who looked like her, he said. Their conversations about race and racism often centered on the prejudice they faced from those who did not know they were a mixed-race family — she among her Korean friends and he among his non-Asian friends.

“She talked about being in the presence of other Asians and sometimes bias against Blacks would be spoken of, or derogatory terms would be used. And she always talked about how . . . she would speak up: ‘Hey, look, don’t talk about Black people like that. My sons are Black. My ex-husband is Black,’ ” Robert recalled.

“I, too, am quick to say, ‘Hey, hey, hey, we can’t talk like that. My mother’s Korean. Even though you don’t know her, when you talk in general terms about Koreans or Asians … my mother is included in that,’ ” he said.

At the reception following Yue’s funeral, Robert arranged for a large buffet of Korean food: meats, noodles, dumplings, savory pancakes and more. He knew that most of the guests would be Black, and he wanted to share the food of his mother’s culture. He urged everyone to eat as much as they could, reminding guests it’s what Yue would have wanted.

‘This could have been me’: Asian American women across the country reflect on the Atlanta shootings

As he navigates his grief and reflects on the shooting, Robert sees an opportunity to educate both Black and Asian Americans about the two communities’ shared objectives. He wants to be a bridge between them. For now, he’s volunteering with civic engagement groups representing both communities and speaking to groups that invite him, and eventually he wants to do more, maybe even start a foundation.

“That’s how me and my brother are trying to make the best out of this,” he said. “It’s bigger than my mother.”

“Maybe you don’t relate to the Asian community . . .but maybe you feel connected to me as a Black man, or as a Black person, or a biracial person,” Robert said. “. . . That’s what it’s about: seeing ourselves reflected in one another.”

For his brother Elliott, the past five months have been blurry. Rocky. There are okay days, but no good days. Whenever he hears about tragedy, whether another shooting or a natural disaster, it resonates in ways he doesn’t wish upon others. After years of living abroad because of his job in the Army, he is now considering moving back to the United States. He feels guilty that Robert was left with all the logistics in Georgia.

Elliott, the more stoic brother, said he just wants to cry and let it out, but he hasn’t been able to. Robert can’t stop crying. Each wishes he could trade places with the other in their grieving process.

The Peterson brothers thanked the public for their support since the shooting. Robert ordered thank you cards featuring photos of his mother, both alone and with her sons, and the inscription “#StopAsianHate.”

They hope that their tragedy can lead to lasting progress for all communities.

“Let’s use these bad, catastrophic things that are happening . . . and learn from them,” Elliott said. “Black lives’ voices were unheard and now we’re hearing them. Asian lives’ voices were being unheard, and now we’re hearing them. We all want the same thing. We really do.”