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Atlanta spa shooting suspect's 'bad day' defense, and America's sexualized racism problem

Contrary to the insinuations and assumptions made by Georgia law enforcement officials, I can't remember ever experiencing racism separate from sexism.
Image: Deadly shootings at three spas in Georgia
A makeshift memorial of flowers and a poster outside Gold Spa in Atlanta, on March 17, 2021.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

The only time I was ever in Atlanta, where six Asian women were shot dead on Tuesday, a young white man shouted "Me so horny" to me at the airport. And as the only Asian woman in the space, I knew he was talking to me. I locked eyes with him for a second and then rushed off to catch my flight back to Los Angeles. I was in Atlanta to attend the annual meeting of the Association of Asian American Studies, presenting a paper there for the first time. It was a big deal for me professionally. But what I remember most about that trip were a white man's racist, sexist words.

The only time I was ever in Atlanta, Ga., a young white man shouted "Me so horny" to me at the airport.

Tuesday's killings occurred at three spas in the Atlanta area. Two other victims, a white man and a white woman, were also killed. Investigators said the white male suspect told them that he has a "sex addiction" and targeted the spas to "take out that temptation."

"He was fed up, at the end of his rope," Cherokee County sheriff's Capt. Jay Baker said. "He had a bad day, and this is what he did."

Based on the reported statement, investigators have so far concluded that the attacks did not appear to have been motivated by race. As an Asian American woman who has endured sexualized racism all of my life, such ignorance enrages me.

Asian women, along with Black and Indigenous women and other women of color, endure racism and sexism in intersectional ways constantly, and they have throughout history. As lawyer Jaemin Kim argued in 2009, prosecutors and police may be even less likely to add "hate crime" charges in cases of rapes and sexual assaults targeting Asian women.

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In 1875, Chinese women were targeted by a federal immigration law called the Page Act. This law effectively banned the immigration of Chinese women to the United States based on a morals clause that considered all of them prostitutes at the time. There were apparently specific racist and sexist concerns that Chinese "prostitutes" would bring in "especially virulent strains of venereal diseases ... and entice young white boys to a life of sin." Sound familiar?

The multiple wars with, and various occupations of, Asian countries have contributed to the exploitation and fetishization of Asian women.

Furthermore, the multiple wars with, and various occupations of, Asian countries have long contributed to the exploitation and fetishization of Asian women. In World War II, the unknown numbers of so-called Asian comfort women kidnapped by Japanese soldiers from China, Korea and the Philippines were transferred not to freedom but to the U.S. military. To this day, sex work in "camptowns" around U.S. military bases throughout Asia gives "U.S. GIs the illusion of access and perennial permission to Asian women's bodies," Jane Hong, an associate professor of history at Occidental College, told me.

Too many Asian American women have endured strangers' yelling "me so horny" and "love you long time" at them thanks to American pop culture. Perhaps the worst offender is the 1987 film "Full Metal Jacket," which imagines a Vietnamese prostitute approaching two white American soldiers and saying: "Me so horny. Me love you long time. Me sucky sucky." The casual racism of this scene has haunted Asian American women for decades.

As writer and musician Christine Liwag Dixon noted in response to the Atlanta shootings: "The hypersexualization of Asian women plays a HUGE part in the violence we face. I've been cornered on the street as men say 'me love you long time.' I've been offered money for a 'happy ending massage.' I've been hit on because I'm Asian and told it's a 'compliment.'"

"Full Metal Jacket" is just one part of a long history of popular cultural depictions of Asian women as prostitutes, from "Shanghai Express" (1932) and "The World of Suzy Wong" (1960) to beloved Broadway musicals like "Miss Saigon," among many others. Disturbingly, Asian women often die at the end of these stories. Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, whose career spanned 1919 to 1960, said: "When I die, my epitaph should be: I died a thousand deaths."

Indeed, contrary to the insinuations and assumptions made by Georgia law enforcement officials, I can't remember ever having experienced racism separate from sexism. When I turn into a lane too slowly on the streets of Los Angeles, I am not surprised if someone rolls down the window to call me a "c---- b-----." When I reject or ignore sexual propositions from white men, some come back at me with racial slurs and even threats. Even the perception that I will not fight back if I am attacked racially is a form of racism intersecting with sexism.

This is the lived reality for too many Asian American women.

Since the pandemic began, Asian American women are 2.3 times more likely to report hate incidents than men, according to data compiled by the reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate. In total, the organization received nearly 3,800 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents from March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28.

The mass shootings in Georgia seem to be part of a nationwide pattern of Asian women's being disproportionately targeted in hate incidents. We are more vulnerable to attack precisely because of the intersection of racism and sexism. And to immediately remove racism from the equation neglects how racism has always intersected with sexism for Asian American women in this country.