learned from recent personal experience that losing a loved one to gun violence involves a series of traumas from the shock of witnessing the bodily injury and death to the ensuing harms through prolonged police investigations. Because the pain and grief is so personal and intense, this can result in an avoidance of confronting why these harms happen to so many. I have Asian women friends who have worked in various adult entertainment professions. Their vulnerabilities to the intersection of racial-gendered-sexualized violence against sex workers is a concern that I have been teaching, researching and writing about for the last two decades. Yet, in the wake of the March 16, 2021, Atlanta shootings, now is not the time to assert exceptional victimhood for Asian Americans.

As a member of Asian American academic and Asian diasporic activist, feminist and queer communities, what has been notable in this moment is the magnitude and multitude of reactions to this manifestation of white-male-misogynist gun-violence as if the sky was suddenly falling now because Asian lives were taken. The slaying of six Asian women spa workers in Atlanta evinced the rising threat. After years of Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric and dog whistles which have encouraged white supremacist attacks, this upsurge of verbal and physical assaults against Asians during the pandemic comes as no surprise. The surge is a continuation of a longstanding pattern of gendered anti-BIPOC violence in which bodies of color are seen as sexualized, racial and economic threats to hetero-patriarchal white supremacy.

Some Asian American feminists have rightly pointed to the specific precarity and vulnerabilities of (im)migrant/undocumented Asian women due to the structural and convergent violence of white supremacy and anti-Asian misogyny. This recent rampage should be read through an intersectional feminist lens to problematize how gender, class, (im)migration status and the criminalization of sex work is obsfucated when this incident serves as proof of the imminent threat of anti-Asian violence writ large. The demand to recognize and legislate against anti-Asian violence risks glossing over the uneven vulnerabilities among Asian Americans rather than protecting the most marginalized [1].  

The Atlanta shooting spree constituted for many a tipping point that triggered a tsunami of Asian American voices across digital platforms, with media and news outlets calling for an end to anti-Asian violence alongside an outpouring of statements expressing empathy, outrage and concern. The vociferousness and volume of this response came from corporations, politicians and celebrities — from Nike and Coca Cola to Barack Obama and Joe Biden — and indexed the relative value and status of Asian Americans. This wake-up call is an opportunity for critical reflection by Asian Americans and BIPOC solidarity. 

White-Adjacent Entitlement To Life

While the pattern of anti-Asian violence has catalyzed more organizing to protect our community members, the dominant reaction to the Atlanta attack articulated what I argue is an Asian American Imperial entitlement to White-Life. My intention is not to dismiss the genuine outpouring of grief that has been expressed by Asian Americans and other communities. Rather, I seek to interrogate how the structural convergences of Asian Imperial entitlement to White Life reproduces gendered antiblackness as the foundational racial logic of the settler colonial republic that fuels and sustains systemic violence against all communities of color. 

This imperial entitlement is characterized by a rhetoric of exceptionalism that promotes an exclusive sensibility around Asians as “innocent victims.” New hashtags such as #StopAsianHate signify a desire for distinctive racial recognition for Asians as victims of unjust and misdirected hate. Asian American celebrities cried out. For example, Lana Condor tweeted

Wake up... your Asian friends and family are deeply scared, horrified, sick to their stomachs and wildly angry. Please please please check in on us, please please please stand with us. Please. Your Asian friends need you, even if they aren’t publicly grieving on social media.

Other politically active celebrities like George Takei,  tweeted, “The best thing you can do today is to speak out against violence toward Asians in this country, especially if you yourself are not Asian.” Takei’s tweet highlights how non-Asians are being hailed to recognize Asians-as-victims. While Takei has been a voice against racism and discrimination, such criticisms can operate as reformist inclusion within the liberal parameters of national-imperialism. [1]   

Asian American Imperial entitlement is premised on the assumption that Asians should not be attacked here on American soil, and because we are Asian Americans, we should be entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Hitherto placid, aloof, and class-privileged Asian Americans began making public pronouncements in an unprecedented manner. On April 6, 2021, the Wall Street Journal published, “Violence Spurs Many Asian-Americans to Activism for First Time” featuring Asian American Silicon Valley professionals who participated in rallies against Asian hate fearing for their families. The same Wall Street Journal article reported that an Asian American high school student was organizing rallies to “Uplift Asians.”  

Online photographs of the slogans upheld by what appeared to be exclusively Asian Americans at these rallies were striking for how the slogans emphasized recognition and Asian American-ness as deserving of the American Dream. The imperative to ‘Stop Asian Hate’ juxtaposed with the image of a US flag would appear to indicate that the protestor assumes that American patriotism would reduce racist violence. 

AP Photo by Kyodo
AP Photo by Kyodo
AP Photo by Kyodo
AP Photo by Kyodo

This Imperial entitlement is characterized by American exceptionalism and demands that anti-Asian racial violence be recognized as “hate crimes” along with calls for greater protection, tougher legislation and more policing. 

Hate Crimes, Policing & State Protection 

In response to the Atlanta shootings, comedian Margaret Cho tweeted,

It is a hate crime. When you kill [six] Asian women, it’s a hate crime. I don’t know why that’s even a question. This is terrorism, and this is a hate crime. Stop killing us.

Such demands for these acts to be categorized and recognized as ‘hate crimes’ versus everyday historical, structural and systemic racial-gendered violence is indicative of an Asian American investment in the criminal legal system along with a demand to be treated as equals with white citizenry. The above tweets and slogans to “Uplift Asians” express an exclusivist sense of entitlement that Asian Americans should be protected from the quotidian forms of anti-Black-Brown-Indigenous violence that this nation was founded on and continues to practice as fundamental to its statecraft. Asian Americans (and especially those with greater degrees of class-privilege) have become accustomed to not having to live with the same racial terror and precarity that Black, Brown, Indigenous, gender-non-conforming and undocumented persons are forced to survive as their banal conditions of daily life. 

The continual killing of Black and Brown folx murdered by antiblack lynchings and border patrols have not seen a commensurate level of outrage or collective grief among Asian Americans. Former Deporter-in-Chief Obama tweeted about the “alarming rise in Anti-Asian hate that must end,” an exhortation that follows his Administration expelling 3 million darker “(im)migrants” from the land of the free. This is but one example of the state-sanctioned targeted elimination of the darker races that many Asian Americans have not been nearly as vocal against despite the policy of family separation, detention and deportation that intensified under Trump. The racialized logics of scapegoating and incarceration should connect our movements, which is how activists with Tsuru for Solidarity connect the history of internment to demand that Biden end policies of family separation and deportation. 

In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, on April 5, 2020, Reuters reported “Across the United States, law enforcement agencies are scrambling to better protect Asian communities amid a wave of violence targeting them.” This same article stated Paul Luu, chief executive officer of the Chinese American Service League, welcomed the “revved up” police presence in Chicago’s Chinatown” indicating that many Asian Americans do not have a critique of how policing harms other communities of color.

This Asian American entitlement to more state protection is symbolized in the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act that was proposed by Democrat Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawai’i and Congresswoman Grace Meng of New York.  The bill will provide a for “a point person at the Department of Justice (DOJ) to expedite the review of COVID-19-related hate crimes” and provide “support for state and local law enforcement agencies to respond to these hate crimes.” But rather than allocating more funding for law enforcement after the harm has been committed, we should invest in programs that will educate about how antiblackness and anti-Asian violence are both interlinked and historically distinct as part of the work needed to end all forms of systemic racism.

A tell-tale sign of this Asian Imperial entitlement is a willful refusal and disavowal of our complicities with the state’s white nationalist domestic warfare (Rodriguez 2021) because we consider ourselves among the upper ranks of a white supremacist racial order.

Die Hard Model Minority and Chicken Little 

The cold war construction of the model minority myth has functioned to divide people of color. 

Despite the internal disparities among AAPIs, there remains a reluctance to fully exorcise the model minority status because it provides relative protection compared to the “yellow peril” that has been continually invoked by Trump and his kind of xenophobic racism. But even attempts to deny the model minority myth in this moment have betrayed a widely embraced disposition of Asian Americans that is captured in the words of Texas State Rep. Gene Wu. Wu described how he was raised by his Chinese immigrant parents: “‘Hey, as long as we’re quiet and we work hard, and we’re the good minority, then we will be protected...’” Wu states that “Asian-Americans thought that achieving financial success, coupled with staying under the radar, would shield them from racism.” But since the pandemic, “people have realized that quietly pursuing the American dream won’t necessarily ward off violence.” Wu embodies an East Asian model minority as a prosecutor before becoming a politician. While he engaged in progressive community work and supported more funding for public education, he underscores the “limited resources” for law enforcement describing their budgets as “stretched thin” and supports prioritizing “victims.” Wu models this reformist prosecutor-cum-politician who upholds the injustice of the criminal carceral system despite decades of research and community resistance that has demonstrated its undeniable antiblack and antibrown racism.

Professor Russel Jeong of San Francisco University stated “We have a centuries-long cultural trait, some of us, to avoid sticking out in order to avoid facing more trouble and more problems,” in an April 6, 2021 Wall Street Journal news video. Regardless of an alleged rejection of the model minority myth, these responses to anti-Asian violence reinscribe representations of Asians as those who try to quietly assimilate, thus reinforcing the status of “innocent victims.” Any rejection of the model minority status must reckon with how Asian Americans have performed this role and been complicit in its historical antiblack function. 

This sense of entitlement to state protection comes with an unspoken Asian American self-recognition of (our) white-adjacent-entitlement to White Life that is simultaneously based on a widely assumed Asian antiblackness. In theorizing the global reach of antiblackness, João Costa Vargas writes, “antiblackness determines life and death chances, and structures the field of racialized and gender positionalities, in distinct formations of empire-state in the Americas.” (Costa Vargas 2018, 147). I have learned from Costa Vargas that we will never be able to end systemic racism – or anti-Asian violence – until the “full dimensions of structural and foundational antiblackness are engaged.” (Costa Vargas 2018, 253, emphasis added)

It’s time for Asian Americans to divest from their long-time identification, proximity and investment in their white-adjacent racial-class status and just as vociferously renounce our desire for protected inclusion in the multicultural empire. Rather than clamoring to be treated and recognized as white-adjacent  – which reinforces white supremacy and antiblackness – more than ever this crisis is an invitation for Asian Americans and other POC to go all in to act in solidarity to dismantle all the national-imperial systems that divide people of color and perpetuate global harm. 

Rather than focusing on the exceptional victimhood of Asians at this juncture, this could be a tipping point where Asian Americans commit to mobilizing sustained actions that will abolish the structures of racialized-gendered class privilege that have afforded Asian Americans their (un)spoken entitlements and relative investments in US Imperial white supremacy. In the face of atrocities of greater magnitude that are integral to the American way of life, it is time for Asian Americans (and other people of color) to shatter our sense of entitlement and reconsider how reforming systems in the name of “diversity, equity and inclusion” works to sustains US imperialism. Why should we be seeking equality and inclusion in a nation that is the world leader in perpetuating global domination and destruction at an unprecedented scale?  

The manifest rise of Anti-Asian violence can thus serve as a call for Asian Americans to act on our shared-differential conditions of racial-gendered violence as grounds of solidarity with other BIPOC movements. Let’s stop the outcry against exclusively anti-Asian violence. The sky is not falling on only Asian Americans so let’s not act like Chicken Little. Systemic racism rooted in antiblackness and Indigenous genocide is the blood soaked ground on which we live. Now is the time to work together to abolish racial-capitalism’s domestic-global hierarchy of White-defined-Human-Life. Let’s do whatever we can to hasten the twilight of US empire and get ready, because the chickens are coming home to roost.  

[1] For the purpose of this essay, I use the term Asian Americans versus Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) because Pacific Islanders have a closer proximity to Indigeneity and Brownness. I am primarily referring to Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, as Asian Americans and Asians in the U.S. communities who have a greater level of representation due to their relative size, immigration history and class.

Setsu Shigematsu is an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She is the Director of Re-Visions of Abolition: From Critical Resistance to a New Way of Life (2011/ 2021). She is co-producing a new documentary #Abolish ICE: Abolish Adelanto and All Border-Prisons and is a member of UCFTP, UCRFTP, and Critical Resistance Abolitionist Educators Collective. She thanks Charmaine Chua, Jolie Chea, Tei Okamoto and Donatella Galella for their comments. setsus@ucr.edu, visionsofaboliton.org, setsushigematsu.com