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This essay is part of a series of reflections in our forum on anti-Asian violence. More interventions and reflections from AAPI scholars of Asian-America are linked at the bottom of this article and forthcoming in the next weeks.
ast Tuesday, I received texts from a group chat referring to Atlanta and offering whatever support would be helpful. I was in the middle of several hours of meetings, so I didn’t look at them until later and didn’t think too much of it. I asked my spouse what happened in Atlanta. He hadn’t seen the news either. I heard him say mass shooting and Asian. I walked out of the kitchen and into the bathroom. I gave myself a minute then washed the tears and snot off my face.
I’d already been feeling off and having a rough few months. Probably something to do with a full year in a forlorn, quasi-lockdown that has mitigated almost nothing. Probably more to do with 500,000+ people dead from the pandemic in the U.S. alone and millions more mourning these irretrievable losses.
Already feeling beat down and a little desperate, I could not deal with this news. Something dark began rising inside from the bottom of my lungs. It terrifies me. If I let myself feel all of it, I’ll plunge into an abyss I’ll never be able to claw my way out of without drowning first. So, I push it back down, crushing it hard. I visualize it turning into a hard marble with tightly bound, strong edges that could lock up what threatens to consume me from the inside out. (I know in my head this is stupid strategy.) I end up making an amorphous blob with no real edges whatsoever. Those terrifying feelings keep oozing out, spreading through my chest, catching in my throat, sinking down through my lower organs, seeping out of my eyes.
I am a professor of Asian American studies, feminist studies, and critical ethnic studies. I just wrote a book on the long history of racist criminalization of migrants and immigrants. I should have had more to say about this mass murder. I should remark how its violence is both white supremacist and patriarchal, targeting Asian American women—historically and presently cast as exotic, hypersexualized bodies made available for sexual consumption. I should say something about the 1875 Page Act, one of the earliest U.S. immigration bans, which prohibited the entry of Chinese women, all deemed “lewd and immoral” women trying to enter the country as sex workers. I should say this gender-, class-, and race-based ban also speaks to the U.S. approach to immigrants overall—wanting immigrant labor, but not immigrant lives. I should contextualize how the U.S. has long characterized foreign-born people as threats to public health, pinning disease as always coming from somewhere else and deploying the language of public health to exclude immigrants and subject immigrant communities to surveillance and violent control. I should also highlight how anti-Asian violence does not start in the U.S., but in our imperial economic and military ventures in Asia. I should say that it is only possible to unleash nuclear bombs, DDT, land mines, and other weapons of mass death by first dehumanizing the people whose lives we decimate, because they do not really count as lives at all. I should also point out that the U.S. military has long used Asian women’s bodies to service its members while waging war or occupying bases and that this history, too, draws a straight line to Atlanta. I should say that calling it a “hate crime” committed by a lone actor who was “having a bad day” absolves us all of thinking through the deep, structural roots of this mass murder, the rise in anti-Asian violence under COVID, and our own collective accountability for this racist and patriarchal terror.
But I have spoken to no one about Atlanta. When people ask if I’m ok, I say “no, but thank you for asking,” and change the subject. Talking or writing about it would require thinking about it. And thinking about it would require killing a small part of myself to salvage the rest. I feel that way right now.
I know with absolute certainty that I am not alone in feeling this way. I am not comforted by this fact.
What comfort is there in knowing that millions of other Asians in the U.S. feel devastating grief for the victims and their families, as well as terror at what could happen to them, their families, and their neighbors? Or in knowing that millions of Jewish people share this overwhelming anguish in the wake of the Tree of Life massacre that robbed us of 11 people in their place of worship? Or the millions of Latinx people who grieve the El Paso massacre of 22 people, the slaughter committed by a white man who sought to kill “as many Mexicans as possible.” Or the millions of Muslim people globally forced to bear the burden of constant racist targeting in the U.S. and elsewhere—from vandalism to stabbings to car attacks to mosque bombings to mass shootings like those that slayed fifty-one people in Christchurch, New Zealand. Or the Indigenous nations in the U.S. and Canada whose members search endlessly for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) because no one else will. These murders and disappearances leave only the faintest mark on national consciousness. They lack the explosive impact of a mass shooting, even as their losses shatter families and communities. Or the millions of Black people who endure the never-ending assault on their lives from all corners. What reprieve can they feel in the moments between the the murders of the Charleston Nine or Trayvon Martin or Ahmaud Arbery, all slain by white supremacist vigilantes, or of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tony McDade, Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd and so many others slain by the state-sanctioned terror of policing and the carceral state? As the people who bear the weight of this catastrophe know, none of these “events” are discrete. They exploded out of an enduring structure of white supremacy and patriarchy on which this nation was founded.
I find no comfort in knowing that white supremacist patriarchy permeates our social world so pervasively that tens of millions must live with its wreckage.
I also know that the exhaustion and weight that I’m feeling is one of the ways white supremacy and patriarchy gain ground—draining people of the energy needed to struggle. In trying to reboot my flipping-tables vibe, I’m finding inspiration in the organizing of people working for racial and gender justice, especially in the movements of sex workers, who have long known that the state has never been here for them (or for the rest of us) and who refuse any political project that demands perfect victims or leaves people behind. The organizers of Red Canary Song, a transnational “collective of Asian and migrant sex workers,” refuse to use Atlanta or violent harm against sex workers as an excuse to call for more policing, which they correctly identify as “agents of white supremacy.” You cannot solve white supremacist patriarchal violence by turning to a state agency of white supremacist patriarchal violence. Indeed, Red Canary Song started after police murdered a massage worker during a raid. Unlike carceral feminists who advocate for more policing, border regimes, and punitive measures that criminalize migrants, including trafficking survivors, these organizers have been innovating anti-violence strategies, like transformative justice and mutual aid practices, precisely because their bodies and behavior have been made illegal by state laws criminalizing sex work, drug use, undocumented status, and being unhoused. And even as I find no comfort in knowing that so many people and communities bear the weight of white supremacy and patriarchy in their many violent permutations, I also know that we are connected in our grief for those lives taken, cut short, subjected to oppression and violence by these structural forces. I hope and will work to thicken those lines of solidarity and build a future where no one has to feel they have to suppress or kill off parts of themselves just to make it through the day.
A. Naomi Paik is the author of Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary: Understanding U.S. Immigration for the 21st Century and Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II, as well as articles in a range of academic and public-facing venues. She has co-edited three special issues of the Radical History Review—“Militarism and Capitalism (Winter 2019), “Radical Histories of Sanctuary” (Fall 2019), and “Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination” (Spring 2020), as well as the “Borderlands” section of Public Books. She is the HRI-Mellon Faculty Fellow in Legal Humanities and an associate professor of Asian American studies with appointments in Gender & Women’s Studies and History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign .