The Dark Truths Behind the Atlanta Shooting

On March 16, Aaron Long entered three Asian spas in Atlanta with the intent to kill. Opening fire with a legally purchased 9-millimeter gun, Long murdered eight people, six of whom were Asian women. Georgia Sheriff Spokesman Jay Baker refused to categorize the shootings as an act of hate crime, instead supporting Long’s claim of having a “sex addiction” that he wished to overcome. Long’s crimes as well as the police response reflects the hyper-sexualization of Asian women and the perpetuation of the model minority myth.

The Atlanta spa killings are only one of the several other anti-Asian hate crimes that have devastated the Asian community, with violence against Asian Americans increasing by 150 percent in 2020. But unlike the attacks against the Asian elderly that have been discussed on social media, the Atlanta shootings reflect a long history of fetishization of Asian women. The fact that Long’s killing spree of six Asian women can be written off as a sex addiction speaks for itself. The history of Asian fetishization begins with the Page Act of 1875, an immigration law that prohibited Asian women from entering the U.S. under “lewd and immoral purposes,” namely, prostitution. Around the same time, the portrayal of Asian women began to reach mainstream media, but in an overly sexual manner. Popular dramas such as The Good Woman of Szechuan (1943) and Miss Saigon (based on the 1904 play Madama Butterfly) featured Asian women who were excessively sexual towards, and dependent on, their white male love interests. As the only representation at the time, these movies established overly sexual stereotypes that are applied to Asian women to this day. Such prejudice is evident in how the Atlanta shootings were reported. Many news media outlets, such as the New York Times, claimed that Long had opened fire in massage parlors. Yet the crimes occurred at spas, not at massage parlors, which have long been used as a euphemism for brothels. Unknowingly, we have already attached a sexual connotation to the spas and the victims. If Aaron Long had really been suffering from a “sex addiction,” why would he target Asian women? Because to him, all Asian women, even the middle-aged spa workers, are objects of sexualization.

The ease with which law enforcement brushed off the shootings is frightening. Jay Baker, the official spokesman for the Cherokee County Office, excused Long’s murders by stating that Long was having a “bad day.” Such dismissive behavior can be attributed to the model minority myth that still seems to define the Asian American community. The model minority myth pushes all Asian Americans forward as idealized success stories, doctors and financial analysts whose wealth protects them from any social injustice. However, this myth could not be more fallacious. Asian-Americans have the largest income disparity of any other racial minority. The income of the top ten percent is over ten times that of the bottom ten percent; and this bottom ten percent is perpetually ignored and underrepresented. The misconception that all Asian Americans are successful leads people to underestimate the severity and importance of racially charged attacks against the Asian community. Even when acts of violence against Asians occur, they are seen as chance encounters and unrelated to the race of the victims. The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes is only now gaining attention, even though this has been a reality since 2020 and throughout American history. Despite former President Trump’s frequent usage of the term “China virus” or the several videos recording assault against the Asian elderly, it took a mass shooting for the ongoing plight of Asian Americans to be properly recognized.

Although the fetishization of Asian women and the “model minority” myth seem to contradict each other, they work in tandem. Both make Asian people, particularly women, seem like easy targets to violence. The sexual undertones of being an Asian woman, combined with the widespread idea that anti-Asian crimes are not serious, allow people like Aaron Long to have a “bad day” and kill innocent Asian women without being immediately accused of committing a hate crime.

The first step towards solving any problem is acknowledging that it exists in the first place. Long’s actions must be labeled as a hate crime. The police and the media cannot continue to excuse or mislabel anti-Asian violence. As a consequence, they are perpetuating the belief that the Asian American community’s suffering is unimportant or nonexistent.

Unfortunately, there are no immediate solutions to racial injustice. Stereotypes that have been so ingrained into our thinking are difficult to remove. However, one way we can work to counteract anti-Asian violence is increasing Asian representation in the media. By representing a more diverse and accurate portion of the Asian community and by implementing strong female Asian leads, we could begin to chip away at the misconceptions that continue to harm our community.

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