Michelle Lee is a resident physician, writer and community activist based in Manhattan.
Hate crime or not, these unprovoked, disturbing attacks are examples of the violence that has skyrocketed against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in recent years, as these communities have been scapegoated for the covid-19 pandemic. In December, the New York Police Department said the number of anti-Asian hate crimes reported in the city had risen 361 percent from the previous year. AAPI women make up a disproportionate number of anti-Asian hate-crime victims (nearly two-thirds). And many of these episodes have occurred in public streets, sidewalks and businesses.
Despite being born and raised in New York City, I now worry for my physical safety more when taking public transportation than I have while working in a hospital during the pandemic. In the past two years, I’ve been publicly spat on, harassed, stalked off the R train and, on a subway platform in my native Queens, verbally threatened with rape. In all these unprovoked instances, I was surrounded by other New Yorkers but was the only East Asian woman around.
As I commute to and from the hospital, especially after evening shifts, my heart pounds as I glance behind me, my keys between my knuckles. Like many other AAPIs, I worry daily about a racially or gender-motivated attack.
Just this past week, I was followed while moving between L subway cars until a concerned bystander alerted me that there was a man deliberately trailing me. A few months ago, on the M15 bus, a large man blocked me into my corner seat; when I stood to leave, he allowed me to do so only over his spread legs. Bystanders called on him to stop, and he shoved my back as I ran off the bus.
Acts of harassment are everyday occurrences for women of color, but they often go unreported because of language barriers, distrust or sheer exhaustion with the system. And the horrific slayings of Lee and Go underscore a particular fear among Asian American women — that we are easily targeted, our stories ignored, our violent experiences dismissed as “freak incidents.”
For women of Asian descent, racial bias is often intricately tied to misogyny. To the Americans who fixate on them, Asian women are perceived as “submissive,” as “quiet,” as fetishized objects, as victims less likely to report violence. Our tormentors are sometimes written off as mentally ill (which they might be). But this doesn’t mean the violence doesn’t spring from deeply entrenched xenophobia or racism.
It should be noted that viral images of Black male perpetrators committing violence against Asians misrepresent the full story. Increased crime and violence across New York City disproportionately affects all communities of color, but Black New Yorkers make up the largest racial demographic of victims of homicides, shootings, felony assault and rape. Black Americans have also experienced significant discrimination during the pandemic, not to mention disproportionately poorer health outcomes and economic hardship.
Not acknowledged well enough by authorities or the media are the combined rallies and true Black-Asian solidarity across the nation. We must not give in to harmful stereotypes of Black and Asian people in conflict, which have caused historical misunderstanding and destruction. This wedging of communities has been used to distract us from addressing the larger confluence of systemic racial, legal and social failures that for decades have affected people of color. Instead, we often get Band-Aids.
For instance, in response to public safety concerns, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York Mayor Eric Adams this month revealed an aggressive plan to remove unhoused individuals sheltering in the subway, and to provide more mental health services. But this will not end the violence — racially motivated or otherwise. The vast majority of mentally ill and unhoused individuals are not violent, nor are they responsible for the totality of violence against AAPIs.
Michelle Go, a manager at Deloitte, also volunteered and advocated for the homeless. Christina Yuna Lee, a creative producer at the digital music platform Splice, helped lead diversity and inclusion causes at her company. These women believed in change and the compassionate treatment of other minority and vulnerable communities.
We should embrace these same principles when demanding better. And all Americans need to acknowledge the escalating violence toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, especially women — to speak up when you see us attacked for simply being who we are.