Police ignored the role of race and gender in the Georgia shootings. Here's what Asian advocates in Atlanta are saying about it

  • Georgia activists have mobilized to help the families of six Asian women killed on March 16.  
  • The attack has forced a conversation over misogyny and hypersexualization directed at Asian women.
  • Georgia officials came under fire for accepting the alleged shooter’s narrative of the attack. 
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

E. Lim had little time to process the brutal attack that claimed the lives of six Asian women and two others at three Metro-Atlanta spas. 

As the organizing and civic engagement director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, Lim—like many of their colleagues—was in response mode. Atlanta born and raised and a local organizer since 2015, Lim told Insider their initial reaction was to detach from the killings. 

“I’ve had to dissociate so hard, because I know people in similar situations,” said Lim referring to the common experience of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace. 

The horrific violence that unfolded on Tuesday night in Atlanta has forced a national conversation over the long history of anti-Asian violence and discrimination, as well as the misogyny and hypersexualization directed at Asian women in this country. 

The official narrative of what happened, which seemed to accept the explanation given by the assailant, has also galvanized Asian-American activists and organizers in Georgia to turn this into a teachable moment. 

“It is racialized,” said Lim. “When you talk about ‘massage parlors’ and then talk about how sex work might be involved, you’re talking about race.”

A statement condemning systemic racism and gender-based violence had 180 signatories from state and national organizations, said Stephanie Cho, director of the AAAJ-Atlanta. The group is fundraising to support the families of those killed.

“White supremacy is literally killing us,” said Cho. “Asian American communities have been under the radar on this issue, but honestly, this is a time for us to really come together, be in solidarity, and really have those tough conversations community conversations around policy.

“YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT RACE” 

Beginning at around 5pm on Tuesday night, a gunman attacked a massage parlor north of Atlanta, and then two other massage parlors in metro Atlanta, killing six Asian women and two others. 

The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department identified the four people killed at Young’s Asian Massage as Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44. Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, was also injured in the shooting. As of Thursday morning, the Atlanta Police Department had not released the names of the four people killed at the two spas in Atlanta.Sent from my iPhone

Around 6% of the population in metro Atlanta identifies as Asian, according to Atlanta Regional Commission’s 2020 estimates. Cherokee County, where the first attack occurred, is around 2% Asian.

Almost immediately, the narrative of what had happened put forward by Georgia officials downplayed a “racial motivation” for the killings and relied on what the alleged killer had told police. Jay Baker, the spokesman for the Cherokee County Sheriff, said at a news conference that the suspect had had “a really bad day,” was “kind of at the end of his rope,” and had told police that he considers himself a “sex addict.”  

But community leaders in Atlanta had a clear message: The racism and misogyny impacting Asian women must not be ignored. And even if sex work was involved, the lives of these women were no less valuable than any other. 

The killings also hit home hard for Wei Jia, a local organizer, who lives about a mile from one of the spas. Echoing others, Jia told Insider that the focus on whether the perpetrator was a sex addict fit into an old trope of a Jack the Ripper like character with no real interrogation of history.

“The sheriff sympathizing with the gunman, like saying that he just had a ‘bad day’ speaks volumes,” said Jia. “He didn’t mention anything about the women that were killed. Didn’t mention anything about their families, about their lives.”

Jia pointed to the long history of dehumanizing and sexualizing Asian women: Prior to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, The United States banned the immigration of Chinese Women in the Page Act of 1875 under the guise of preventing sex work. 

“That a white male murdered Asian women in the United States is part of a very long history of white supremacist violence against anybody who wasn’t white,” Jia said.

Blaming an alleged sexual addiction as the motive in the killing of six Asian women and two others is itself racist, while taking the perpetrator at his word further victimized the victims and denied them their humanity, said Bentley Hudgins, a queer organizer based in Atlanta. “They’re so ready to distance themselves from calling this racist and misogyny and trying to downplay this as just like a white incel who was mad he didn’t get off that they’re missing the point entirely,” Hudgins said in an interview. 

Hudgins and Jia’s comment came just hours before Buzzfeed News reported that Baker, the sheriff’s department spokesperson, posted racist anti-Asian shirts on Facebook last April that blamed China for the Covid-19 pandemic. 

According to the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center, which tracks xenophobic hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, 3,795 incidents have been reported between last March 19 and Feb. 28 of this year. Close to 70% of the incidents were against women. In a recent survey, NAPAWF found that nearly half of Asian American and Pacific Islander women have been affected by anti-Asian racism in the past two years.

THROUGH TRAGEDY, A TEACHABLE MOMENT 

Community advocates in Atlanta say they are prioritizing support for the victims’ families and the community at large, and they explained those efforts at a press conference on Wednesday. 

“Much of our focus is back towards the victims and their families and really what our communities need,” Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, executive director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund adding that legal services, mental health, and language support were needed. 

Instead of allowing a sympathetic narrative toward the perpetrator to dominate coverage, attention should focus on reporting stories from the community  and about how this attack impacted the community, she said. “We continue to bring the focus back to who are the most vulnerable in our communities, and working towards making sure that we can provide safety and security for us all.” 

The intersection of race, gender, and class colors the response and underlying assumption made about the worth of those killed, the organizers said, while the killing of six women in the course of their work also underscores the vulnerability of those in low-wage jobs. 

“This is a gender and race based violence that happened to our community,” said Leng Leng Chancey, Executive Director for 9to5, an organization focused on increasing economic security as well as political power and participation of working women.  

She pointed to the challenges of dealing with sexual harassment and assault along with other institutional barriers. “Low-wage workers already faced multiple hurdles and systemic racism every day,” Chancey said. “I mean, who can you really report this to?”

Organizers said the events of this week, horrific as they were, can serve as teachable moments for how to discuss and cover violent attacks on marginalized communities, and the importance of listening to individuals from those communities. 

Shortly after the attacks, the Asian American Journalists Association issued a guidance saying the use of “massage parlor” as a descriptor to describe the business establishments is outdated and reinforces negative stereotypes that hypersexualize and dehumanize Asian women. 

The guidance also stressed the need to study the context within which Asian communities are experiencing and receiving this latest news, while acknowledging the diversity within the “Asian community.” 

“The media needs to understand that the Asian community is not a monolith,” Sarah Park, the president of the Atlanta chapter of the Korean American Coalition, said at Wednesday’s press conference. 

“We speak over hundreds of different languages. We practice different cultural religions, we are all different individuals.” 

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