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A Century Of Objectifying Asian Women: How Race Played A Role In Atlanta Shootings

An activist holds a sign during a rally in response to the Atlanta, Georgia spa shootings that left eight people dead, including six Asian women. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
An activist holds a sign during a rally in response to the Atlanta, Georgia spa shootings that left eight people dead, including six Asian women. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Nearly a week after shootings at Atlanta-area massage parlors, authorities are not calling the deaths, including those of six Asian women, a hate crime.

Many activists, academics and legal experts are outraged. They argue that more than a century of sexualizing, objectifying and fetishizing Asian women has resulted in a culture of violence.

The statement by the accused shooter’s that his motive was to eliminate temptation as he battled sex addiction is further evidence, they say, of someone who has bought into harmful stereotypes of Asian women.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum, agrees. She says it’s impossible to exclude race as a motive for the brutal killings.

Since Asian women first came to the U.S., they’ve been “sexualized and objectified,” she says. She says the Page Act of 1875, passed by Congress, essentially stopped East Asian women from entering the U.S. because they were seen as prostitutes.

“So from the get-go, we’ve always been seen as temptresses and sexual objects,” she says. “And so the fact that those were the words used by the killer to describe Asian American women cannot be separated from these historical contexts from which we come from.”

These harmful perspectives were compounded and shaped further during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War when the U.S. military’s presence spiked the demand for Asian sex workers, she says.

Choimorrow, an immigrant from Korea, remembers seeing this sexualization by U.S. military personnel at a young age. When she came to the U.S., she says she “received very specifically racialized sexual harassment because of my Korean background.”

In the aftermath of the shootings, Asian and Asian American women have been sharing disturbing stories of men detailing their fantasy-type feelings or projecting their sexual preferences. These unsolicited and uncomfortable conversations have happened to Choimorrow many times, she says.

“Acquaintances feel the need to tell me how much they love Asian women or they use that as a pick-up line to indicate that I’m the type that they like,” she says.

Street harassment is also common, she says. For instance, she’s encountered a similar scenario multiple times: Someone will stop her on the sidewalk, ask if she’s Korean, then proceed to ramble about their military service in Korea and “how I remind them of some girlfriend they had,” she says. “And then they will say something really sexually inappropriate.”

She’s figured out ways to avoid these conversations from happening at all, she says, usually by avoiding talking to any passersby on the street.

“Women are publicly harassed all the time,” she says. “But for Asian American women, it is really also racialized. It’s not just because we’re women.”

The shootings happened at massage parlors, both of which Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms says are “legally operating businesses” that were not on the police department’s radar for trafficking or prostitution.

Experts estimate there are more than 9,000 U.S. businesses acting as fronts for prostitution, the New York Times reports. Many of them house women who are trafficked or pimped, while others have chosen sex work for a variety of reasons.

Since society often cares less about these women because people adhere to assumptions and stereotypes, Choimorrow says these workplaces aren’t regulated properly and the safety of women isn’t prioritized.

Instead, these women — often women of color — are penalized and become targets of sexual violence, she says.

“We need to protect people’s work no matter what they do as work and provide rights and dignity,” she says. “Because at the end of the day, when they don’t have protection, they’re more vulnerable and susceptible to violence.”

The shootings came at a time of heightened acts of violence against Asian Americans, who were also at the center of former President Donald Trump’s use of racial slurs to describe the coronavirus.

While Choimorrow says she’s “relieved” that fruitful conversations are finally happening around the lived experiences of the Asian American community, it’s come at a deadly cost.

Moving forward, she says people of all identities need to actively and critically consider how they “uphold the dignity of Asian American women as human beings” — from rethinking the ways in which American culture objectifies Asian heritage to putting a full stop on racist Halloween costumes.

It also means centering the conversation on both race and gender.

“I hope we, for once as a nation, can walk and chew gum at the same time where we can talk about race and gender,” she says.


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.