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This statement was written as an intervention into already-emerging narratives after the Atlanta murders around anti-Asian racisms, U.S. state violence, vigilantism and “sex addiction,” policing, service labor and sex work, drawing on the scholarship and activism of many individuals and organizations. A list of these organizations and individuals is in footnote ii. Our departments in particular hold deep knowledge about the histories that have erupted over and again, sometimes lethally, as state-sanctioned and vigilante violence against Black, Latinx, Asian, and indigenous peoples, Muslims, poor and undocumented migrants, queer and transgender persons, and all those deemed “Others.” We have made a practice of releasing such statements to offer analytical and historical frames for grasping what is unfolding, and to demonstrate our commitment to the communities which our students, staff, and faculty come from, and who are affected by continuing injustice. Of course, the landscape is now saturated with statements after tragedy, massacre, or disaster; and some statements might also reveal the extent to which some institutions, disciplines, or fields of study do not hold or honor such knowledge. Failures to name specific violence, or to commit to redistributing resources to meet the needs of the moment, give us the opportunity to hold accountable institutions, disciplines, or fields of study, and to direct ourselves to transform them.
We publish this statement as the first in a series of reflections on anti-Asian violence in North America. More interventions and reflections from AAPI scholars of Asian-America are forthcoming in the next weeks.
ith heavy hearts, the Departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign send strength and love to the eight victims, including six Asian women, murdered at three massage parlors and spas outside Atlanta, Georgia, and to their loved ones near and far. We also send the same to all Asians and Asian Americans who have experienced gendered racial violence and racialized sexual violence, and who might be feeling targeted, scared, sad, and angry, for their elders, friends, families, communities, and themselves.
The recent rise in anti-Asian violence against all ages and genders in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic has a deep-seated history in US culture, white supremacy, and harmful stereotypes about Asian migrants as carriers of disease and contagion. The former president fueled this hatred by repeatedly calling the coronavirus the “China virus,” and “kung flu,” and his words are echoed by millions of Americans even as reported anti-Asian violence rose 150% in 2020. But this latest incident of violence demands that we account for the specific vulnerabilities of Asian migrants who are targeted while working at massage parlors and spas; Asian migrants who are often poor and sometimes undocumented; Asian migrants who are subject to sexualized violence whether or not they trade sex because of an enduring animus toward sex workers, Asian women, and immigrants.
After all, the fantasized figure of the migrant Asian sex worker is the foundation of US anti-immigration law. The first immigration restriction legislation, the Page Act of 1875, prohibited the migration of all Chinese women, described as “lewd” and “immoral,” on the assumption that all Chinese women engaged in prostitution and sexual “deviance.” A century of U.S. military operations in Asia and the Pacific oversaw the expansion of sex trades around bases, and reinforced the non-accountability for U.S. soldiers’ racialized sexual violence toward all Asian women, from Okinawa to Saigon to Manila. Asian and Asian immigrant women have been particularly vulnerable to multiple forms of violence within these longer histories of U.S. militarism and law.
For this reason, we caution that the answer to anti-Asian violence is not more policing. (Indeed, a Georgia sheriff official sympathetically said at a press briefing that the man accused of killing six Asian women and two others at spas had a “bad day.”) As the Page Act of 1875 illustrates so well, the criminalization of sex work is central to the criminalization of migrant movements. Anti-sex trafficking measures already make migrants, whether or not they trade sex, vulnerable to all sorts of violence –from the murders in Atlanta to the everyday stigma and harassment massage workers face daily— while also facilitating the militarization of the police and the authorization of other legal and extralegal agencies (such as ICE and also non-profit anti-trafficking organizations) with police powers. Anti-sex trafficking measures, which are also anti-immigration measures, do nothing to address structural impoverishment or labor abuses, and instead criminalize the movements of those who perform labor deemed illicit or unlawful. Increased policing would therefore only result in more racial profiling and surveillance, arrests, deportations, and other forms of racialized and gendered violence against Asian women, migrants, sex workers, massage workers, and trafficking survivors.
We mourn the lives of those so senselessly and brutally taken by such anti-Asian violence. We also call for the decriminalization of migration, and for labor rights for all workers, in order to protect Asian women and femmes and bring about migrant and racial justice. You can learn more about some of these movements from Butterfly (Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network) and Red Canary Song, among other organizations working to decriminalize, decarcerate, and destigmatize migrants and anyone criminalized for their labor and survival.[ii]
[i] I wrote this statement on behalf of these departments, with the support of both GWS and AAS faculty. This is published as it was originally released on March 18, 2021, with minor copy edits.
[ii] Among the scholars from whom I have learned are Elena Shih, Elizabeth Bernstein, Kimberly Pendleton, and Lyndsey Beutin, and among the organizations are Butterfly Network, Empower Foundation, COYOTE, and Red Canary Song. I am additionally grateful to have been a participant in the 2018 conference, “Whitewashing Abolition: Race, Displacement, and Combating Human Trafficking,” held at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, at Brown University. Last but not at all least, I have also learned from friends and strangers in my circles who have been or are sex workers, dancers, performers, or massage workers, and who are each fierce advocates for their own thriving.
Mimi Thi Nguyen is Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her first book, called The Gift of Freedom, focuses on the promise of “giving” freedom concurrent and contingent with waging war (Duke University Press, 2012). Her following project is called The Promise of Beauty. She has also published in Signs, Camera Obscura, Women & Performance, positions, Radical History Review, The Funambulist, and ArtForum.