For the six Asian women who were killed on March 16

For the six Asian women who worked at Young’s Asian Massage, Gold Spa, and Aroma Therapy Spa in Cherokee and Fulton Counties, Georgia, and who were killed on the evening of Tuesday, March 16:

I want to know who they are: their names, favorite foods to eat, least liked TV shows, funniest childhood memories, how they spent their time, what their families are like, where they liked to hang out, what they liked to read, favorite songs, etc.

It is still early, and yet the mainstream media has reverted to time-honored practices of misattributing racist and misogynist violence committed by white men against people of color.

For a moment longer, I hope that we can resist those efforts that are populating our phones and email accounts.  Instead, let’s focus on who is being harmed by and forced to do the collective emotional and political work of responding to this latest attack.

There is mourning, as the women’s families, friends, coworkers, and the communities to which they have belonged mark the violent ways they have been taken from us during an already difficult time.

There is rage, as Asian American women—and many racialized women of color—wake up this morning to what has now become a routine response to assaults on our collective lives: media coverage driven by the “what could have caused this?” question; a show of force by police and state prosecutors; the “thoughts and prayers” mantra from politicians; and organized protests, vigils, and statements of solidarity and support.

There will be calls for [more, better, expansive, another adjective] legislation about hate crimes, assault rifle bans, and surveillance.

There will be also be increased demands for organizations that serve people of color and scholars who study racism and racial identities to spend their time providing answers/training/education/support when really, what they want to be doing is—really, anything but that.

As in every other instance where there has been assault on a marginalized group—e.g. Arab Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, LGBT folks—Asian Americans are about to spend weeks and months explaining and reminding what has already been written, taught, protested, televised, broadcast, lectured, painted, performed ad nauseam for decades: violence against Asian-descent women is not new and is certainly not “un-American.”   If only we would pay attention.

What is always startling and shocking is how many people still need to be convinced that anti-Asian racism and antipathy is a fundamental part of the architecture of this country. [It is.]

The first immigration laws enacted in this country targeted Chinese women.  The recent uptick in racist violence that accompanied the pandemic was registered on the bodies of Asian women—elderly, young, and middle-aged.  Only yesterday, the Stop AAPI Hate campaign released its report documenting that violence against Asian Americans in the past year has disproportionately targeted women.

In between the then of the 19th century and the 21st century now, the U.S. has championed, accommodated, and been the source of much violence against Asian peoples: wars; military occupations; discriminatory labor, education, immigration, and citizenship policies; and all manner of representational tactics that treat Asian-descent women as persistently foreign, naturally compliant, and always sexualized objects contained by the white heteropatriarchal gaze.

Alongside Native Americans and African Americans, assimilation projects targeted at Asian Americans span the entire history of the making of U.S. national identity.  A key—and shared—dimension of those projects has been violence (from interpersonal to structural) targeted at women. Our attention to the broader phenomenon of anti-Asian violence needs to recognize the specifically gendered ways that Asian women are targeted for violence at the same time that their experiences of such are ignored or treated as insufficient evidence of racist violence.

It is also not an accident that the killer chose to go to spaces where they know that Asian women work.  Indeed, as Asian and Asian American feminist scholars and activists have documented for so long, the workplace—whether it is a private household, university department, factory, film studio, massage parlor, military base, nail salon, hospital—creates opportunities for distinct forms of harm to be visited on Asian American women.  When I think of sexual harassment in workplaces, including here at UIC, I am thinking of a profoundly racialized experience that hits differently, but no less harmfully, for Asian American women.   And so, I am mindful of the silencing that is emerging in these early moments—the weight of the things we are uncomfortable talking about, of what we choose to emphasize because of familiarity and complicity.

Of course, our UIC students—past and present—who have enrolled in courses offered by faculty in the Gender & Women’s Studies and Global Asian Studies Programs know much of this.  Indeed, UIC faculty and students have had to fight for UIC’s Global Asian Studies to become an academic major (a battle recently won) and are involved in the push to have Asian American history taught in Illinois schools.  What we learn from the years and hours of work involved is that we cannot take for granted that interdisciplinary knowledge about Asian American identities—in all of the diverse forms and histories—will automatically be given the space that is needed to shape conversations about racial equity and justice.  Anna Guevarra’s essay on the role of Ethnic Studies in shaping her intellectual and political trajectory is a welcome read.

Only a few days ago, acclaimed law professor and scholar-activist Mari Matsuda had to pause her regularly scheduled day to respond to the ludicrous assertion in Newsweek magazine that Asian Americans have been excluded from and are deeply suspicious of the Critical Race Theory movement.  Yes, the very movement that Mari Matsuda helped to found.  I had planned to write about her response this week but in a different way.  For today, I will follow her lead and point to a few spaces that can be helpful in responding to violence against Asian American women, and where solidarity and support are always necessary, not just in the immediate aftermath of media stories of the violence, but in the quiet days in between the big stories.

  • Mitsuye Yamada’s “Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster: Reflections of an Asian American Woman,” which was published in the This Bridge Called My Back anthology in 1981. The essay remains a touchpoint in Asian American feminism.  The anthology is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
  • UIC’s Asian American Resource and Cultural Center (AARCC) has provided a list of tools and resources to respond to anti-Asian violence.
  • Learn about the proposed bill, HB 376/SB 648: “Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act,” and support
  • KAN-WIN and Apna Ghar are two Chicago-based organizations that focus on issues related to Asian American women and with whom WLRC and CAN have worked in partnership over the years.

WLRC will continue to hold space for students, faculty, staff, and community members who want to talk, commiserate, and plan for ways to center critical analysis and engaged work that highlights the diverse experiences of Asian American women and gender nonconforming people.  In the days and weeks ahead, the staff will certainly talk about and figure out what is possible in terms of programming, as well as share resources and continue to press for conversations and actions that move beyond representation and begin to talk about equity and justice.

Please take care of yourselves and each other,

Natalie Bennett