After Atlanta: The Crisis of Discrimination against Asian Women

By Jessica Sutton.

The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act has recently passed United States Congress, and last week was signed into law by President Biden. The spark for this piece of legislation was the mass shooting in Atlanta on 16 March 2021, which left 8 people dead. 6 of the victims were Asian women. The horrific shooting in Atlanta has also kickstarted conversations globally about discrimination and violence against Asian people, and Asian women in particular.  

What Happened in Atlanta?

The mass shooting was perpetrated by a white male. It took place at three spas/massage parlours, where the owners and workers were predominately Asian women. 6 people died at the scene. One employee who survived the shooting claimed that the gunman yelled “kill all Asians”.[1] However, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s office in Cherokee Country maintained that the attack was “not racially motivated”.

The explanation given by the attacker was that he suffered from sex addiction, and the shooting was intended to “take out that temptation”. This dehumanising statement was worsened by Captain Jay Baker’s claim that the suspect was “fed up, at the end of his rope. He had a bad day, and this is what he did”.[2] In this way, the Sheriff’s Department were bizarrely and offensively empathetic to the shooter. The shooter has been charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault.

The Legislative Response

Representative Grace Meng and Senator Mazie Hirono were responsible for introduction of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, citing an increase in xenophobic rhetoric as a driving force behind their advocacy. The Act aims to progress investigation into hate crimes committed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and facilitate better reporting pathways and public education campaigns on the issue. As he signed the Bill into law, President Biden said, “Silence is complicity and we cannot be complicit. We have to speak out. We have to act.”[3] Vice-President Kamala Harris also addressed lawmakers, saying, “Because of you, history will remember this day and this moment when our nation took action to combat hate.”[4]

Why is Anti-Asian Hate on the Rise?

A shocking increase in anti-Asian hate can be linked to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As is well established, COVID-19 originated in China. Some advocates state that Trump’s racist rhetoric, terming the deadly virus “kung flu” and “the Chinese virus” has facilitated and exacerbated discrimination against Asian-Americans linked to COVID-19.[5]

The United Nations recently released a report from the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls. The report noted that racially motivated violence and other anti-Asian discrimination has “reached an alarming level across the United States since the outbreak of COVID-19”.[6] As racist misconceptions about the source of the COVID-19 pandemic have proliferated, anti-Asian discrimination and hate crimes have significantly increased. One particular attack highlighted in the report involved a white man fatally stabbing members of an Asian family in a Texas supermarket, claiming the family were “carriers” of COVID-19.[7]

According to a report by “Stop Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate”, most of these racist incidents have been perpetrated against Asian women.[8]  These incidents were made up of verbal harassment (68.1% of incidents), shunning/deliberate avoidance (20.5% of incidents), physical assault (11.1% of incidents), civil rights violations such as discrimination in the workplace (8.5% of incidents), and online harassment (6.8% of incidents). Asian women reported 2.3 times more incidents than Asian men.

Mass events such as the shooting in Atlanta, have further added to the climate of fear Asian-American women are experiencing in the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic. But discrimination against Asian people, in particular, Asian women, is not a new phenomenon.

Asian women’s experiences of discrimination

Discrimination against Asian American women has its roots in the history between the United States and Asia. As Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociology professor at Biola University says: “the U.S. military has had many wars with Asia. And so the kind of, even rhetoric, of thinking of Asia as a place that you want to take over, to dominate. And so there is this kind of fetishization of Asia proper as a country”.[9] When American soldiers were stationed in occupied areas of Asia, they participated in the sex industry, including in camp towns that grew up around American bases. Ms Yuen suggests “…the GIs, I think, associate, you know, being in Asia with sex workers, even though Asians are not any more likely to be sex workers than any other race or culture…So, the kind of easy access and inexpensive access and continual access through those camp towns contributes to the idea that Asian women’s bodies are just for white male pleasure.”[10] Historian Robert Kramm supports this, stating that the United States’ history in Asia “reproduced racist stereotypes of the obedient and sexually available Asian woman”.[11] Asian women thus experience the intersection of racism, misogyny, and the background of a colonial history between the United States and Asia.

Shruti Mukkamala and Karen Syemoto wrote in the Asian American Journal of Psychology that Asian American women continue to experience discrimination in different ways and to a different extent than Asian American men.[12] The respondents to the study stated that they experienced six key stereotypes or assumptions:

  1. Being termed “exotic” and generally sexualised
  2. Being assumed to be submissive
  3. Being assumed to be a follower rather than a leader
  4. Being stereotyped as “cute”, “small”, and “delicate”
  5. Being assumed to be in a typically low-paying, gendered job such as in a nail salon
  6. Feeling invisible and ignored, both individually and as part of the Asian-American community.

These stereotypes result in Asian women experiencing sexism and misogyny differently from other women. Specific manifestations of racism and misogyny radically impact their experiences of the world, resulting in them being hyper-sexualised and infantilised by men and media, including in pornography. Then, in atrocities such as the Atlanta shooting, these stereotypes are relied on by perpetrators, law enforcement and others to excuse violence against Asian women. As Amanda Nguyen, founder of the Rise civil rights organisation said, “They have made us a scapegoat to enact their violence”.[13]

Is Hate Crime Legislation the Answer?

Legislation may make some difference to racism and misogyny targeting Asian American women. Hate crime legislation tends to garner a significant amount of media attention, partly due to the legal challenges of implementing such laws. Raising public awareness of anti-Asian hate allows advocates and survivors to unite in solidarity and put pressure on governments to deliver justice.  But, ultimately there needs to be a cultural shift to ensure that Asian women are treated with the full respect and dignity they deserve. These attacks need to be seen not as isolated incidents, but as attacks on community identity. As Frederick M Lawrence, author of Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes Under American Law states, “The victim’s entire community understands what happened: It was an attack on all of them.”[14] 

The victims of the Atlanta attack deserved to live full, happy lives.

Delaina Ashley Yaun was a newly married mother of two. She leaves behind a heartbroken partner, a teenage son and an 8-month-old daughter. She was 33 years old.

Xiaojie Tan was the owner of multiple businesses and a loving mother. She was killed one day before her 50th birthday.

Daoyou Feng was described as “kind and quiet” and a hard worker. She was 44 years old.

Hyun Jung Grant was a hardworking single mother and former school-teacher. She leaves behind two sons. She was 51 years old.

Soon Chung Park was a loving mother and a highly skilled cook. She was 74 years old.

Suncha Kim was a grandmother, working two to three jobs to provide for her family. She is described as a “fighter”. She was 69 years old.

Yong Ae Yue was a hard worker and a loving mother to two children, with a passion for karaoke and traditional Korean food. She was 63 years old.

We must remember their names.


[1] https://twitter.com/StricklandforWA/status/1372198085535875079

[2] https://news.sky.com/story/atlanta-spa-shootings-suspect-had-sex-addiction-and-was-attempting-to-take-out-temptation-police-say-12249026

[3] https://www.reuters.com/world/us/biden-saying-silence-is-complicity-signs-covid-hate-crimes-bill-into-law-2021-05-20/

[4] https://www.reuters.com/world/us/biden-saying-silence-is-complicity-signs-covid-hate-crimes-bill-into-law-2021-05-20/

[5] https://www.npr.org/2020/06/22/881810671/white-house-defends-trumps-use-of-racist-term-to-describe-coronavirus

[6] https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=25476

[7] At page 2.

[8] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/there-were-3-800-anti-asian-racist-incidents-mostly-against-n1261257

[9] https://www.npr.org/2021/03/19/979336512/for-asian-american-women-misogyny-and-racism-are-inseparable-sociologist-says

[10] https://www.npr.org/2021/03/19/979336512/for-asian-american-women-misogyny-and-racism-are-inseparable-sociologist-says

[11] https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520295971/sanitized-sex

[12] https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Faap0000104

[13] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-56218684

[14] https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/03/are-the-atlanta-spa-shootings-a-hate-crime.html


Photo by @thiszun (follow me on IG, FB) from Pexels

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