At first glance, I did not think twice about the roles that the slain inhabited. They were mostly women, mostly Korean, and “massage parlour” workers. I had imagined that they were middle-aged women looking to make a living by ironing out the knots in the backs and shoulders of others. I imagined that, being Korean, they would go home to their families over meals of banchan and gimbap. The thought that they were sex workers– or at least, the thought that they might be– never crossed my mind.
But as reports surface about the perpetrator’s possible state of mind– that he is a “sex addict” and that he was planning other murders at pornography production sites in Florida– made me think again about the forces that shaped such a heinous action. First, of course, is fear of Asian people stoked by the pandemic. But this is made even more complex by the mention of the man as a “sex addict” who was a patron of “Asian massage parlours.”
Fetishism of Asian women is nothing new. It has its roots in the exoticizing orientalisms of colonizing powers and has become engrained through repetitions in literature, film, Broadway musicals and in the positive (not in tone, only in escalation) reinforcements of group behaviour over time (i.e., non-Asian men trading opinions of Asian women’s bodies.) As evidence, I present to you how former teammates of mine would interrogate me about Asian women’s bodies and whether what they had heard was “true.” Even if I managed to shake off the shock of their ignorance, I’m fairly positive that my communicating my limited understanding of women’s bodies in general and Asian women’s bodies in particular did not alleviate the fantasy they had of them.
Or what of the time when my next door neighbour in Hong Kong– a fellow teacher at the “Christian” school we worked at– opened the door one school morning to let out multiple Southeast Asian sex workers? (It was their chatter in the normally silent corridor that caused me to look through my door’s peephole while I was tying my tie.) What of him and the fetish that he, white and British, had hopes of indulging once he moved to the “World of Suzie Wong?” Does it make it any better that I hear he eventually married an Asian woman?
If indicated that their fantasies may be racist, they would surely have replied that I’m “too sensitive” and may imply in the vein of that Seinfeldian apologetic, “how can appreciation be racist?”
It can be racist because there are harmful assumptions about Asian women that are so deeply embedded that even though they may not have directly led to the murderer opening fire, they just as surely form part of the background that leads into the hatred that undergirds massacre. And what are the threads of this that it’s excusable to kill people who represent the intersection of “perpetual foreigners” (and therefore perpetually “othered”, especially in a time when there appears to be an identifiable threat from “them”), women (sexual temptresses and the “weaker sex” that are not equals and therefore will not fight back), sex workers (to be used and forgotten), and Asian (inscrutable, unhygienic, perilous, and ultimately immoral.) As you may imagine, all of these form the impression that this is someone whose life does not matter.
Fetishism is racist because it does not behold the person as person with particular traits, but rather, it objectifies the traits before the person as though these traits define them. There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that those who look for “Asian” before “woman” are not merely enamoured with the tropes of “long raven hair” or “almond-shaped eyes”, but are also affected by white supremacist wishes that also included are submissiveness and sexual ecstasy without the troublesome “independent-mindedness” of Western women.
So even as police apologists in Atlanta say that the killer had “a bad day” and so begin to excuse this essentially “good (ol’) boy” from “bad behaviour”, I implore you not to overlook the identities of those he shot and murdered. It is not a coincidence that women are often chosen as victims of violence. And it is not a “sexual addiction” that made this man choose Asian-owned and operated places of business as targets of fear and rage.
No more. If you care about ending anti-Asian racism and violence, you must not distract people or paper over the ethnicity of the victims. This was violence committed against female Asian sex workers, a trifold intersection of disempowerment and an exercise of white supremacy and toxic masculinity if ever there was one. You must keep that squarely in mind and heart, and grieve our world for its frequent awfulness.