As a Han Chinese woman in Pittsburgh, I see the Atlanta massacre exposing how media, government and academia fail Asian women

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A few hundred people gathered on Saturday, March 20, in Oakland for a rally organized by social justice skater collective Thrash the State. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Six weeks after I moved to Pittsburgh to begin a graduate program, a mass shooting took place at a synagogue 2 miles from my apartment. Six weeks before my departure, another mass shooting hit close to home. 

This time, the hate crime took place in another state, but it targeted Asian women.

On March 16, eight people were gunned down at three Asian spas in the Atlanta suburbs – two Han Chinese women, four Korean women, and two white bystanders. The victims’ names are Tan Xiaojie; Feng Daoyou; Yue Yong Ae; Kim Suncha; Park Soon Chung; Hyun Jung Grant; Delaina Ashley Yaun; and Paul Andre Michels. A ninth bystander, Elcias Hernandez Ortiz, remains in the hospital.

The massacre has been infuriating on many levels, but not at all surprising to anyone who has been genuinely listening to Asians in America. In fact, a year ago, when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Pittsburgh, I wrote that it wasn’t paranoid to wonder if there would be another Vincent Chin. An American of Chinese ancestry, he was beaten brain dead in Detroit in 1982 by two white men furious about the growing Japanese dominance of the auto industry. His murder, for which his attackers were merely fined $3,000, galvanized the Asian American civil rights movement.

What is perhaps even more outrageous than the Atlanta attack itself is the tepid overall response from the federal government, local law enforcement, the mainstream news media and the general public – all who still refuse to acknowledge the violence for what it is. Asian Americans are having to continually justify why the killing spree was unambiguously a hate crime against working-class Asian women – enraging, exhausting emotional labor that only compounds the indignity and injustice they are facing in a time of exquisite crisis.

As a Han Chinese woman of Hong Kong ancestry, as a journalist with a decade of professional experience, as an international graduate student in America, and as a journalism and creative nonfiction instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, I have been numb with fury by the culture of complicit complacence toward anti-Asianism.

Following the rally, on Saturday, March 20, protesters marched down Forbes Avenue and through the Carnegie Mellon campus, chanting “No hate! No fear! Asian people are welcome here!" (Photo by Alexis Lai for PublicSource)

What it means to be an ‘Asian’ woman

I use the term “Asian” in this piece and in general to reflect an American socio-political construct, not biological or cultural realities. It’s not how people across the vast continent of Asia actually refer to themselves, nor is “Asian” even used consistently in Western countries – for example, in the U.K., it denotes people with ancestry in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other parts of geographic South Asia. But one impulse is consistent: “Asian” is a term used for othering non-white people.

Here in America, “Asian” is a homogenizing drop bucket for people with ancestry in geographic East and Southeast Asia. Moreover, it is really used to denote the demonized group du jour – the Japanese during World War II and Japan’s economic boom in the ’80s, Koreans during the Korean War in the ’50s, Vietnamese during the Vietnam War in the ’60s and ’70s, and over the last three decades, Han Chinese people during China’s ascension on the world stage. 

As I wrote last year, it would be profoundly ahistorical to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump’s racist rhetoric created anti-Chinese sentiment in America. Animus toward Chinese people has been clear and present since the late 1800s when a series of exclusionary immigration laws were enacted to shape America into a white nation-state. Han Chinese have always occupied a precarious position in this country, oscillating between the poles of the good “model minority” and the bad “yellow peril.”  The pandemic merely provided a new excuse for people to express their existing bigotry toward “Asians” or people who “look Chinese.”

The Stop AAPI Hate project, set up in March 2020 to track anti-Asian violence during the pandemic, reported nearly 3,800 incidents as of last month. Of course, this does not account for underreporting, which stems from myriad reasons ranging from lack of awareness to cultural conditioning to eat bitterness and endure in silence. There are a few incidents from this past year that linger in my mind: the stabbing of a Burmese man and his two young children in Texas, the breaking of a Japanese man’s bones in New York, the gang rape and beating that killed a Hmong woman in Wisconsin. In all cases, the victims were presumed to be Han Chinese by attackers too ignorant to distinguish between the thousands of distinct ethnicities that fall under the tenuous umbrella of Asian.

For that matter, Americans also fail to make the effort to distinguish among Han Chinese people. It’s remarkable how many twins I seem to have in Pittsburgh. In the classroom or the community, I have been Vicky, Elina, Lillian and Yifei. In each instance, I was just one of two “Asian” women in the room, with a dozen or fewer people to boot.

Many attendees of the rally on Saturday, March 20, were high school and university students, while several parents also came with their young children. (Photo by Alexis Lai for PublicSource)

I identify as neither Asian nor American, but as a Han Chinese person, I am just as subject to the consequences of the label. Compounding this, as a Han Chinese woman, I am also subject to another layer of risk. Any person who embodies an Asian woman will be familiar with the perils of the hypersexualized and demonized image projected upon them by white men. 

This dehumanizing stereotype was institutionalized in the 1875 Page Act that painted East Asian women as prostitutes to prevent them from entering America. It was further shaped over decades of a brutal sexual economy between local women and American soldiers that was part and parcel of U.S. militarism in Asia during the 20th century. Films, ranging from “The World of Suzy Wong” (1960) to “Da 5 Bloods” (2020) have reified the fantasy. Even now, pornography websites often index Asian women as a category. 

The white man’s sexual fetish for dominating supposedly lithe, docile, submissive Asian women fuelled the racialized fantasies that the Atlanta attacker held toward the Asian women massage workers – whom he scapegoated as “temptation” for his “sex addiction” in an attempt to exonerate himself. 

Playing into the stereotype, the news media used the sexually loaded term “massage parlor” to characterize the businesses he attacked, and many readers leapt to the conclusion that the Asian victims were sex workers. The attacker reportedly visited at least two of the three spas previously, but there is no concrete evidence to indicate they offered more than massages. The white woman victim was a customer, while the white man was hired as a handyperson.

The racist fantasy of the Asian woman as a figure of submissive hypersexuality has been exported around the world. Any woman taken to be Han Chinese or Japanese has been nihowled or konichiwailed at and then called an expletive for not smiling in return. I’ve had men take me to be a prostitute when I’ve walked down the street in Europe. When I worked in Lebanon, I was often confused as a Filipina maid, there to provide domestic and sexual servitude. The vast majority of sexual harassment I’ve experienced in Hong Kong has been from white expats. I’ve seen time and time again in my travels how foreign men treat countries across East and Southeast Asia as sexual playgrounds. In Pittsburgh, I avoid a certain bank branch because of an employee with so-called “yellow fever.”

How the mainstream news media failed Asian Americans

Shortly before I began teaching my journalism and creative nonfiction class at noon on March 17, I checked the websites of the national newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. As exemplified by the screenshots of coverage on their homepages (and the stories themselves), all four papers either minimized or outright ignored the glaring fact that the majority of the victims were Asian women killed at three Asian spas offering massages. 

Instead, they centered and privileged the attacker’s specious rationalizations to the county police that he murdered the women to curb his “sex addiction” and it was “not racially motivated.” Even now, they also continue to repeat the police spokesman’s line that the attacker just had “a really bad day,” was “fed up,” and the spas were a “temptation he wanted to eliminate.” Is it any surprise that the sympathetic spokesman was later found to be promoting anti-Chinese COVID T-shirts on his Facebook page?

President Joe Biden set no better example, undercutting his performative support of Asian Americans by stating, “We don’t yet know the motive” in the same tweet. It’s worth noting that Vincent Chin’s attackers also claimed they had no racial motive behind beating him to death with a baseball bat.

Journalists should know better than to parrot government and law enforcement officials. In essence, they obfuscated the reality of the situation with their reluctance to state the truth. This is not “objectivity” – perhaps one of the most distorted concepts in journalism – but malpractice. To use prominent social justice reporter Wesley Lowery’s term, it smacks of a lack of moral clarity. 

Even now, the furthest newsrooms are willing to go is noting “six women of Asian descent” among the victims and juxtaposing it with a perfunctory paragraph on Asian Americans worrying about an increase in hate crimes during the pandemic. They still refuse to name the violence, adding insult to massacre.

Mainstream news outlets also initially privileged in their reporting the two white victims and the Hispanic survivor. For example, The New York Times, in its piece on “what we know about the victims”, initially profiled everyone except for any of the Chinese or Korean women. It’s not that this information was not available – local Korean-language media has been far ahead of the game – which is a further implication of the dire lack of diversity in American newsrooms. 

The silencing of clear and present anti-Asian intent is a damning indictment of American journalism. It shows that the country’s most well-resourced newsrooms are staffed with people who are utterly unequipped to enter into an educated discourse on the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, nationality, and empire. An unwillingness or inability to acknowledge racism is racist itself -- a softer, everyday form that continually renders Asian Americans invisible in the Black-white binary that largely defines the national conversation on race.

How the ivory tower is not a progressive haven

Academia, of any sphere, should be most capable of grappling with these complex issues, yet my three-year tenure at Pitt has shown me time and time and time again how it is utterly unwilling to confront the virulent racism and xenophobia toward Asians and Asian Americans on its campus. Faculty are responsible for setting and managing the tone of a course, yet I’ve had professors in multiple graduate seminars assign texts containing anti-Chinese bigotry.

I’ve had to listen to a podcast produced by a mixed-race American woman condemning her working-class Taiwanese immigrant mother, from her foreign-accented English to her stoicism wrought by the trauma of being sold into child slavery. It offered insights ranging from Taiwanese opera sounding “embarrassing” to “everyone in Taiwan yells.” The white professor asked me to explain my pre-class comments on the online discussion board, while everyone tensed in hostility, exchanging looks and shooting glares at me. A white student finally snapped: “Well, maybe it was produced for Americans,” as if I had sullied her entertainment. Well, isn’t that precisely my point?

The broken English trope was rehashed in a Pulitzer-winning novel that obsessively caricatured a Chinese immigrant’s language skills for a full chapter, even after he had spent decades in America. Another chapter invoked stereotypes of Gujarati people, from paan chewing to Hanuman worship. I had confirmed my sense by checking with a doctoral student from India, who concurred upon reading the first page. Yet the classroom was rife with gushes over the lyrical prose. When I brought up the issue of racism, everyone froze in discomfort. A white student charged with leading the discussion suddenly claimed she had noticed the heavy-handed caricatures, too. A Hispanic student was silent, despite having privately admitted that he’d picked up on it. A Black student shifted the subject to anti-Blackness in literature, which undeniably exists, but wasn’t the topic at hand. An Asian student said nothing.

A few hundred people gathered on Saturday, March 20, in Oakland for a rally organized by social justice skater collective Thrash the State. (Photo by Alexis Lai for PublicSource)

Last year during the pandemic, a white professor asked me if wearing face masks was specific to Hong Kong or all Asian countries. Perhaps it’s specific to people who have common sense. The same professor also commented that Hong Kong, which has managed to keep COVID-19 case numbers very low, had “draconian” quarantine requirements. In fact, the Cayman Islands has the same protocol, yet I suspect her characterization might be closer to “paradisaical.” 

She was baffled by the dog whistling against Asian Americans I pointed out in an assigned text, leading me to have to explain to her what the model minority myth is. Only one of the three other Han Chinese students in the classroom spoke up in support.

When the sole Asian American professor in my program visited campus last year for her job interview, a senior member of the department casually commented that she’d be perceived as low on the hierarchy of Asians as Vietnamese, but at least she wasn’t Hmong. She still thinks about this jibe every day.

These are but a few and not the most egregious examples of aggressions and microaggressions that could fill a book – and I have not even discussed bigotry toward other minority groups. But my concerns have all too often been ignored by the people who exercise any authority over the program. It is all too easy to dismiss them in order to evade responsibility for holding faculty and students accountable for their behavior. It is all too convenient to instead frame me as “difficult” and “ungrateful” – too much of a dangerous dragon lady than docile lotus blossom for their American comfort.

“…The white professor and members of the class will begin to feel antipathy toward the student of color making the critique,” David Mura writes in “The Stranger’s Journey.” “...[She] will be deemed a troublemaker, someone who is overly sensitive, paranoid, or overly aggressive…” Minority scholars like Mura have laid out how harmful the Iowa writer’s workshop model -- universally upheld in creative writing programs -- can be to non-white writers with a political conscience. But their pedagogical texts aren’t the ones that white faculty pay attention to. “…If the student of color persists and graduates, she will have fought a literary, psychological, and political battle that none of her white counterparts have had to face,” he concludes. “The price of the student’s ticket is not the same as theirs; the toll she has paid is far higher.”

Pitt’s lackluster institutional response to the Atlanta massacre has only compounded my fury. In the week since the killings, I’ve only received a brief generic statement on anti-Asianism in my inbox, attributed to the vice provost for global affairs, that did not even allude to the Atlanta massacre – yet another silencing of the hate crime and its victims. A colleague later alerted me to more specific yet superficial statements from top university administrators that she had uncovered from what was essentially a press release. In the past year, Pitt has been capable of e-mailing all members of campus when it comes to the university’s positions on Black Lives Matter and the pandemic. There's no excuse why Asians and Asian Americans have had to go looking for a response. Perhaps what was even more offensive was the stock image of an Asian woman in a red cheongsam that topped the press release — precisely the kind of everyday racist exoticization that fuelled the Atlanta attack. 

What anti-racism as an everyday practice means 

My experiences living and studying in Pittsburgh have directly informed how I concurrently teach journalism and creative nonfiction alongside my degree. This leads me to recall that as a non-U.S. citizen, I have been asked by my department to attest that my English is strong enough to teach undergraduate students. On the other hand, off-campus, I have been congratulated on how well I speak English, including by educated people like UPMC doctors.

In my own classroom, I aim not only to avoid replicating the harm inflicted upon me, but to equip my students with the skills to navigate the world with moral clarity and political conscience. Being genuinely committed to anti-racism does not mean waiting for a police officer to kneel on the neck of a Black man or for a misogynistic Christian extremist to shoot Asian women in the head to spur you to consider diversity and inclusiveness on your syllabus. It is infuriating that it took a massacre for Asians to gain a foothold into starting a national conversation on the centuries-long problem of anti-Asianism.

A few hundred people gathered on Saturday, March 20, in Oakland for a rally organized by social justice skater collective Thrash the State. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

From the outset, I decenter the United States as the arbiter of the news media and publishing, comparing and contrasting work by American and non-American authors about ‘Asia’ and the ‘Middle East.’ Understanding racism and xenophobia necessitates paying attention to the world beyond America’s borders and interrogating the white supremacist logic underlying the tentacles of the U.S. empire. It means recognizing that there is no ‘relief’ under Biden and the ‘normalcy’ of beating the war drums in China and North Korea have deadly impacts on Asian Americans.

We situate American literary practices as a particular, not universal set of cultural expectations. We not only look at the place from where an author writes, but also from where the audience reads. We ask whose perspectives are privileged and whose are silenced. We question how the creative writing adage of “write what you know” holds up when someone does not occupy the dominant positionality in the Anglophone world. To me, teaching journalism is just as much about critical thinking as writing. 

A few weeks ago, a student who identifies as Black and queer stayed after class. “I really appreciate this course,” they told me. Inspired by class discussions, they had spent hours reading on their own initiative about Palestine and how the forces of empire and colonialism had shaped the Middle East. They wanted to talk more about how to combat their own biases, if, as one of my undergraduate professors taught me, the greatest prejudice is to think you have none.

To be anti-racist is to never be complacent. It means that engaging in self-examination is not a one-time exercise, but an active ongoing process to uncover your blind spots and biases. It means having the courage and conscience to show up and speak up every time you see something, especially when it targets people who don’t look like you. It means walking the talk and putting yourself on the line rather than making expedient gestures.

Seemingly banal tropes about “Asian eyes” or “hard-working Asians” are as harmful as “Jewish noses” or “Black welfare queens.” Like the Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Muslim and white allies who showed up and spoke up at the rally and vigil in Pittsburgh over the weekend, being anti-racist means forming solidarity with minorities and recognizing your oppression and liberation are tied up with theirs. 

It will be a relief to leave America in five weeks. I will gladly “go back,” no matter how difficult Hong Kong’s political situation, because there has never been anything in this country that compels me to stay. And that means that the burden is yours to bear. Is eight dead people enough to get you to start speaking up?

Alexis Lai is an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches journalism and creative nonfiction. She previously worked as a journalist in Hong Kong and Beirut. She can be reached at alexislai@protonmail.com.

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