The horrific killing of six Asian and Asian American women by a white man in Atlanta last week has brought to light the violence of anti-Asian racism in this country, and how this violence is continued to be denied and disavowed. In the face of the trope of the Asian im/migrant as the model minority, and Asian complicities in anti-Indigenous and anti-Black processes in the U.S., as an Asian American Studies scholar I have been guilty of undermining the continuities and specificities of anti-Asian racism. While the trope of the model minority is shaped through white supremacy, and some Asian communities have acquired many privileges in the U.S., many Asians and Asian Americans are left out of the American dream through their varying experiences of racialization, colonization and imperialism.
There is a long history to their oppression in the U.S. and beyond the borders of the U.S., including: the exploitation of Chinese railroad workers, race riots targeting Asians (including the attack on Denver’s Chintatown in 1880 and the mob killing of one Chinese man), illegal occupation of the Philippines, anti-Asian immigration laws from the late 19th century until the 1960s (and into the present, including Trump’s Muslim ban), incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, multiple and endless U.S. imperialist wars across Asia, U.S. economic exploitation and expansion across Asia, to the ever increasing Islamophobic violence against Muslim communities since 9/11. All these processes continue to render Asians and Asian Americans as perpetual outsiders whose labor can always be exploited.
As we remember the lives of the killed Asian and Asian American women, we must remember how anti-Asian racism continues to reproduce itself primarily through racial-imperial heteropatriarchal violences on the bodies of Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander women, queer and gender non-conforming peoples. In the last year, over the pandemic, 68% of the cases of at least 3,800 reported anti-Asian incidents of violence were directed against women.
The first ever anti-immigration and xenophobic law was targeted against Chinese women in 1875. The Page Act prohibited the entry of Chinese and other Asian women as they were seen as “prostitutes” and “immoral” women and a threat to white heteronormative families.
Since then, Asian women continue to be hypersexualized for consumption and exploitation by white men, as white men see Asian women bodies as simultaneous sites of desire, hatred and dominance. We know the long history of sexual exploitation of Asian women by U.S. soldiers across Asia, from Okinawa to Saigon to Subic Bay, and the portrayal of Asian and Asian American women in U.S. media as submissive, docile and sexual.
More specifically, Asian women who are migrant/undocumented/refugee sex workers more often bear this violence through criminalization of their work, police violence and incarceration, deportation, violence through anti-trafficking policies and anti-sex work stigma prevalent in the U.S. society. These histories and processes are fundamentally connected to the killing of the six Asian women in Atlanta.
A week later, as we witness yet another brutal killing — this time here, in Boulder — we need to act now to understand gun violence as a public health crisis. At the same time, we need to be hyper vigilant about how the Boulder shooting may spark more waves of Islamophobia across the country. While Islamophobia and anti-Asian racism are seen as mutually exclusive, we need to make the connections between them more apparent in order to dismantle white supremacy. Our anger and sadness should not be mobilized to strengthen the police, carceral and deportation state. Demanding increased funding for policing and surveillance or more stringent anti-hate crime laws will invariably target Black, Indigenous, brown and im/migrant communities. Incarcerating, deporting and killing these communities is not the solution. The solutions are fairly straightforward and not impossible: decriminilization of sex work, gun control, end to U.S. military wars and abolition of ICE and the police state.
Nishant Upadhyay is an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.