GEORGIA – Like many Virginians of Asian descent, Petula Moy followed last week’s news from Georgia with a mix of grief, frustration and fear of what could come next.
Eight people, six of them Asian women, were shot dead by a white gunman who targeted three spas Tuesday evening in the Atlanta area. A law enforcement official said that in the killer’s words, his actions were “not racially motivated” but caused by his “sexual addiction.”
That framing, Moy said, was dangerous.
“So are you going to investigate whether it’s racially motivated or do you already know it’s not racially motivated and you’re just going to stop there?” she said in a phone call, voicing concern that investigators seemingly absolved the shooter of bigotry and accused his victims of having ties to sex work without any evidence.
“It’s demeaning,” said Moy, the founder and president of the Asian American Alliance, a nonprofit community outreach group based in Virginia Beach. “For the Asian community to hear that, you know, it’s not comforting.”
Racism against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders is complex and has remained historically invisible, according to guidance from the Asian American Journalists Association. It includes a long history of hypersexualization of Asian women rooted in Westernized and colonial perceptions of Asia.
Attacks against people of Asian descent have spiked after the Trump administration repeatedly emphasized China’s connection to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A report released Tuesday — the same day of the attacks — revealed nearly 3,800 hate incidents reported against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders nationwide over the last year, according to the California-based nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate. Women of Asian descent have reported 2.3 times more incidents of violence than men of Asian descent.
Stop AAPI Hate was created to prevent discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic. The group collects data on hate and harassment incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.
“Everybody is emphasizing the shooting, but there are tons and tons of everyday incidents where people are facing harassment and so forth,” said Professor Deenesh Sohoni, director of the Asian Pacific Islander American studies program at the College of William & Mary. “That everyday thing also needs to be given weight. This is something that is happening regularly during this time period.”
Professor Qiu Jin, the director of Old Dominion University’s Institute of Asian Studies, said even before the pandemic, she had been used to slurs, funny looks and laughter from strangers. Now, she fears for her safety every time she leaves home.
“My husband kept telling me, ‘No, don’t go out by yourself. Do not go out by yourself or even drive by yourself,’” Jin said. “More people need to be aware that this kind of discrimination against Asian Americans exists in the United States.”
Jin said she hopes people in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community will grow louder about the racism they endure so people will better understand “the pain and the suffering of this group.” She stressed that journalists and politicians have a duty to faithfully tell their stories and avoid inflammatory rhetoric, such as former President Donald Trump’s characterization of COVID-19 as “the China virus.”
“We need to keep raising awareness while at the same time condemning the violence which continues to be directed toward AAPI bodies and bodies of color,” Luisa Igloria, an ODU professor who specializes in Filipino American literature, wrote in an email. “I’m angry that the Atlanta incident (and others like it in the past) continues to be portrayed in the media as merely a result of the shooter’s ‘having a bad day;’ and as a result of his having some kind of ‘sex addiction’ (this latter — is practically the same thing as blaming the victims).”
Across Virginia, public officials of Asian descent have denounced the attacks.
“My Grandfather often endured discrimination and hate because he was Filipino, even though he served this country in the military. He told me about a time when it was common to see signs that said ‘No Dogs or Filipinos,’ and I always thought that I would never see this kind of hate in my life,” Virginia Beach Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, a Democrat, said in a prepared statement. “No one should live in fear for who they are, or where they come from.”
Former Williamsburg city council member Benny Zhang — the city’s first Asian American elected to office — shared his condolences and condemned xenophobia targeting Asian Americans.
“The alarming trends of the rising violence against the Asian Pacific American community has propagated fear and heightened awareness in all corners of our country,” Zhang wrote in an email. “We all have a responsibility to make sure our neighbors are safe and to stand together against all forms of injustice.”
Former Newport News council member Rob Coleman echoed those concerns and said he is “deeply saddened and angered” by the attacks.
“The shootings in Atlanta are a shocking act of gun violence but also appear to be an act of hate,” Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott tweeted on Wednesday. “While my heart goes out to the victims’ loved ones, I join in the chorus of voices standing with the AAPI community. We must condemn hate and bigotry in all forms. #StopAsianHate”