by Norma Timbang
After hearing of the shootings in Atlanta, the first thing that rose up in my mind was the very real impact of racist, sexist, and xenophobic stereotypes upon Asian and Pacific Islander women and how those impacts can range from microaggressions to disappearances to murders. I am angry and grieving. I have known women who worked in massage parlors and the sex industry and I felt this loss deeply. I am also so very angry about the way people are reluctant to see this as a hate crime.
I also thought about all my own fears about leaving the house and being targeted by racism as an older Asian person. In addition to fear of COVID, the racist remarks, the vitriolic demonstrations of hate, violence, and harassment against Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) now seem unavoidable. The previous administration and lawmakers continued this racism in ways that instigated violence and widespread harm to the AAPI communities.
According to a study of police data in 16 of the nation’s largest cities by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, violence against Asian people has increased by 149% in the last year even though hate crimes overall have declined. Additionally, the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center indicates that almost 3,800 incidents against Asians were reported to their site in roughly one year’s time, with women reporting 2.3 times more than men. This is only a fraction of actual incidents as these are only reports actually received by Stop AAPI Hate.
And now, multiple Asian women’s lives have been taken. I find myself looking over my shoulder more than usual when I have to be outside of my home. I don’t feel safe in a city I’ve lived in almost all my life.
Saying the motivation in the Atlanta shooting was a “sex addiction” is unjust. It fails to recognize that fetishism of AAPI women is a longstanding white supremacist narrative to rationalize violence against us. I am reminded of when I was younger and white men felt entitled to touch my hair when I wore it long and tell me how my eyes made me look so exotic. (These were the same white men who called me a “gook” behind my back and threatened me, telling me to go back to where I came from.) Racist, misogynistic, and stereotypic beliefs of AAPI women continue to prevail. White supremacy assumes we will be submissive and obedient, while on the other hand it expects us to fulfill exotic and sexually seductive roles. AAPI women are often treated as objects of sexual exploitation and are vulnerable to violence and indentured servitude.
White supremacist beliefs about AAPI women have a long history in the U.S. They actually undergirded the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion and Scott Acts of the late 19th century. The acts excluded migration from Asian countries, in particular the migration of Asian women, deemed especially dangerous to the purity of white America. Unrelenting racist, sexist tropes continue to cause AAPI women to be dehumanized by people who seek to take power over us, and they place AAPI women at jeopardy of abuse and violence. For example, the shooting of Susanna Remerata at the King County Courthouse on March 3, 1995, by her abusive white husband is what activated Velma Veloria, Sutapa Basu, Emma Catague, myself, and API Women and Family Safety Center (now merged as API Chaya) to begin advocating for protections for spouses being sponsored to marry in the U.S.
AAPI women are often impacted by the struggles of migration, an unforgiving economy, and lack of access to essential needs, such as health care and employment. AAPI women are disproportionately at risk for poor pregnancy outcomes, working in toxic conditions (such as nail salons), working under minimum wage, and being deeply impacted by unemployment during COVID. They are more likely to work in care work and in service industries such as nail salons and massage parlors.
API Chaya — one of the important local organizations working to address issues of gender-based violence and to support survivors in self-determination — urges communities to consider conditions that many AAPI women might face. In response to the Atlanta murders, API Chaya wrote in their community statement: “Many immigrants and migrant Asian women work at the intersections of care services and the sex industry. Both forms of labor are devalued and stigmatized in our societies. API Chaya honors their work. We are in solidarity with all massage parlor workers and sex workers, including those who are undocumented and working class …”
Sadly, social and economic issues are only part of the challenges faced by AAPI women working in these industries. AAPI women in massage parlor work face larger systemic issues that impact their safety and well-being. Interlocking systems of State-centered interventions such as police, criminal, and legal systems have been less than responsive to the needs of AAPI women. The work of addressing the safety of AAPI women requires us to understand the historical and contemporary experiences of AAPI women.
Some of the stories of women in massage parlors identify the devastating impacts of police intervention. Emi Koyama has been coordinating work with the Massage Parlor Outreach Project (MPOP). The work of reaching out to massage parlor workers to support their safety began in 2018 as a collaboration between PARISOL (Pacific Rim Solidarity Network), CID Coalition, API Chaya, and the Coalition for Rights & Safety for People in the Sex Trade. There are many stories of people who have poor experiences with policing and criminal-legal systems, many of whom are workers in massage parlors and the sex trade. Koyama shared her thoughts on the large February 2019 raid on Seattle massage parlors by police:
“The police claimed that they ‘rescued’ 26 women from sex trafficking, but the reality was that women working at these establishments were simply displaced. None of the managers or owners of massage parlors were charged with human trafficking, and the workers lost their jobs and any housing connected to their jobs, and many had their cash savings and important papers confiscated, and they were abandoned.”
The work of addressing the safety of AAPI women requires us to understand the historical and contemporary experiences of AAPI women. Beyond that, we need to accept that each person’s story can hold the key to what is needed for safety, to uplift AAPI women’s agency and find ways to address their social and economic struggles. What are the shifts that need to happen in order to meet the needs of AAPI women in massage parlors like those in Seattle and in Atlanta? What is needed to create safety and support? How do we go beyond reforming State-centered responses and move towards distribution of resources directly to communities creating their own solutions?
I spoke with Alison Cheung from PARISOL on these questions. PARISOL is a coalition member of MPOP and known for their collaborative work towards safety in the Chinatown-International District and their activism supporting workers’ rights locally and internationally. Cheung said the negative impacts of the 2019 raid on Seattle AAPI women show the critical need for shifting our policies and practices to support women better.
“We decry the 2019 Seattle Massage Parlor raids and maintain that their only outcome was to terrorize and destabilize massage workers,” Cheung said. “To Mayor Durkan: increasing police presence in the CID will only cause more hurt to our siblings who are massage workers, sex workers, Black, unhoused, and undocumented.”
The Atlanta shootings have amplified the ongoing, larger systems and challenges we face as communities of color. Institutionalized racism and racialized sexism continue to be reinforced by harmful and inadequate frameworks of public safety. We need a social and cultural overhaul to disrupt harmful tropes, not just of AAPI women but all Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), and we need to overturn generations of punitive and violent attacks on our community. The narratives of what and why violence is need to be in the hands of BIPOC communities and not in the hands of white institutions. The solutions need to be community-centered and honor the stories of those who have been harmed and murdered because of systems that have failed us.
As an Asian grandmother of two granddaughters, I fear for their futures. They have the right to safety and to have the support needed to reach for their dreams. My hope is that communities will get the resources needed to transform harmful beliefs to values of compassion that can serve liberation for all. For this Asian grandmother, I will keep looking over my shoulder and be careful to not be in public alone for a while.
“History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories — triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectally — has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.”
Gratitude to Alison Cheung and Emi Koyama for their contributions to this article.
Featured image: A representative of MPOP (Massage Parlor Outreach Project 女工互助小组) addresses a crowd gathered at Seattle’s Hing Hay park. (Photo: Chloe Collyer)
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