Last week’s horrific mass shooting is the latest in a surge of anti-Asian violence and harassment since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It was also a reminder that anti-Asian racism is often entangled with misogyny, and that anti-Asian violence often disproportionately targets Asian women. In announcing Robert Aaron Long’s arrest in Tuesday’s killings, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Captain Jay Baker said that Long targeted the three Asian-owned spas because he was seeking to eliminate a “temptation” related to his history of sex addiction. Baker further said that Long denied any racial motivation in the attack, speculating that the businesses may have been “targets of opportunity.”
Like many, I was outraged by Baker’s initial attempt to play down the possibility of a racial motivation in Tuesday’s shootings. Long presumed that the victims — including six Asian American women — were involved in sex work, and so he allegedly turned his gun on them to eliminate the “temptation” that they posed to him and his sexuality. For me, the evidence is clear: This was a crime that played out at the intersection of both race and gender, and we cannot continue to ignore how these intertwined elements have been used for decades to rationalize violence against Asian American women.
The racism that Asian Americans face is often spoken about in broad generalities, stripped of the ways in which sexism layers atop anti-Asian racism to put Asian American women at greater risk for social inequity, racial harassment and violence. Asian American women endure a set of stereotypes that contribute to our increased vulnerability to anti-Asian violence. On the one hand, we are often presumed to be exotic, timid and docile, which can make us more vulnerable to certain kinds of violent crime — especially violent crimes of a gendered nature. There have been numerous reports of serial rapists who specifically targeted younger Asian American women. On college campuses, about one-third of Asian American female undergraduates report being sexual assaulted while at school, a statistic that probably doesn’t reflect the true prevalence of these crimes, given that Asian American women are significantly less likely to report being the victim of sexual violence. Even beyond the scope of violent crime, Asian American women — like most women of color — experience far higher rates of workplace racism and sexual harassment compared to our white colleagues.
But even as Asian American women are characterized as meek and submissive “lotus blossoms,” we are also stereotyped as hypersexual “dragon ladies” who threaten American masculinity and moral character. Many are familiar with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which denied Chinese immigrants entry to the United States because of race. Fewer know about the 1875 Page Act, introduced by Rep. Horace F. Page (R-Calif.), which sought to exclude any Chinese immigrant deemed “undesirable.” For Page, this included Chinese women, whom he and his allies thought were universally engaged in prostitution. Thus, the Page Act became the most successful of several efforts in the late-19th century to selectively target and exclude Chinese women from immigrating to the United States on the grounds that they — as possible sex workers — were a corrupting force to the nation. With the Page Act’s passage, virtually all Chinese women were selectively denied entry into the United States because of their race and gender — one of the earliest examples of legal exclusion of an immigrant population based on race and gender, and that predates the more well-known Chinese Exclusion Act by nearly a decade.
Over the next 150 years, Asian American women continued to be typecast — sometimes literally — in ways that reinforced the nation’s perception of us and our sexuality as a moral danger. Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, rose to Hollywood prominence in the 1920s. Yet, she found that most of the film and television roles available to her as an Asian American woman were of an exotic, dangerous, “dragon lady” temptress. This trend continued, with Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket” immortalizing the phrase “me love you long time” in a scene that depicts a Vietnamese prostitute soliciting American troops. Not long after, the 1999 film “Payback” featured actress Lucy Liu as a sexually aggressive dominatrix who kidnaps the film’s white male protagonist.
Together, these racist and sexist stereotypes sexualize Asian American women as either helpless victim or a perpetual threat. In combination, they form the backbone for the normalization of racialized, sexual harassment against Asian American women, and, in too many cases, an increased risk of violence. This can be particularly true for Asian American women in service industries and sex work, where these stereotypes that render Asian American women both hapless and dangerous can amplify existing workplace risks such as abusive treatment by clients and violent raids by police.
The conversation about anti-Asian violence must stop sidestepping Asian American women, and the critical ways in which racism and sexism intersect to threaten us. Moreover, we cannot ignore how racism and sexism provide necessary context for the shooter’s actions in Atlanta. This past week, the same racist and sexist stereotypes that first inspired the Page Act were once again given life in a crime whose alleged perpetrator seemingly sought to “eliminate” Asian American women for the imagined threat we supposedly pose.
Police say that Long claimed that Tuesday’s mass shooting was not racially motivated. Yet, he is charged with having killed eight people — including six Asian women — at three Asian-owned businesses. Long supposedly said he did so because he believed the very existence of these women was a danger to him and men like him. Given our history, it’s hard for Asian American women to pretend that this act has nothing to do with the intersection of race and gender. We simply have too much evidence to the contrary.