The recent attacks on people of Asian descent in the United States prompted the following statement from The Program in East Asian Studies (EAS), the Program in Racism, Immigration and Citizenship (RIC), and the Program for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality (WGS) at Johns Hopkins University. The faculty and staff of Film and Media Studies strongly endorse this statement:
The Program in East Asian Studies, the Program in Racism, Immigration and Citizenship, and the Program for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality mourn the victims of the Atlanta mass shooting, which targeted Asian-run massage businesses and resulted in the deaths of 8 people, 6 of whom are women of Asian descent. With grief and rage, we stand in solidarity with their families, affected communities in Atlanta, and AAPI communities in the U.S. who have been subjected to escalating anti-Asian violence. Asian and Asian American women, in particular, have been targeted by this rise in violence. We view the killings in Atlanta as an expression of intertwined racism and misogyny. We condemn this violence, as well as its erasure by mainstream media and law enforcement. We also join the call for transformative justice and coalition-building to confront and put an end to the gendered violence of white supremacy.
In the past year, we’ve suffered anti-China rhetoric from across the political spectrum. The former president of the United States and his allies used phrases such as “China virus” and “Kung Flu” in reference to Covid-19. This served as part of the U.S.’s broadly insufficient public health response to the global pandemic. Those and related sentiments also fueled anti-Asian hate and led to verbal and physical attacks against Asians of all ages and genders in communities coast to coast.
The association of Asians with disease and inhumanity has a long and terrible history in the United States. Such notions have fanned the annexing of lands in the Pacific Rim and the mass murder of Asian civilians in wartime. They’ve led to the residential confinement of Asians and Asian Americans in camps and racially segregated neighborhoods in the United States. This history includes feminizing, under patriarchy, all labor Asian people perform, barring people of Asian descent from U.S. citizenship, and even curtailing their right to enter the United States. To this day, political rhetoric and policy continue to reproduce the idea that Asians are immutably foreign, only fit for token inclusion and other forms of labor exploitation. The killings in Atlanta force us to face the sexism, racism, extraction and violence at the heart of white supremacy and U.S. Empire.
We stand in solidarity with women across the AAPI community who in particular continue to experience the burden of this history in the present. The first immigration restriction legislation, the Page Act of 1875, targeted Chinese women, construing them as “immoral” women and “prostitutes”. Over the past century, the U.S. military presence in Asia and the Pacific expanded both illicit and legalized forms of sex work around bases. This encouraged a pervasive lack of accountability for U.S. soldiers who directed racial-sexual violence toward Asian women. It expanded on the use of rape and sexual violence as weapons of war in Asia (for example, the systematic sexual enslavement of “comfort women” by the Japanese imperial army). It contributed to the dominant portrayal of Asian women in the U.S. public sphere as servile and hypersexual.
This history informs the violence against Asian women that we see today. The fact that the mainstream media latched onto “massage parlor” as a site of sex work and fueled the notion that the gunman had a “sexual addiction” blatantly shows how it set the stage for the sexualization of the victims, while denying the misogynistic racism that propelled their murders. It also reveals how sex work is stigmatized and how sex workers’ lives are made disposable, even as the massage businesses that were targeted may or may not have involved sex work.
The women who work in the massage businesses in Atlanta also show us another dimension of this violence – economic and legal precarity. Asian migrants who work in massage businesses are low-income workers and some may be undocumented. As low-income migrants, their economic struggles are largely concealed, due in part to the myth of Asians as a “model minority.”. But Asians and Asian Americans have had to deal with the challenges of chronic poverty, unemployment, and inferior schooling that others in low-income neighborhoods — overrepresented by Black and brown communities — have faced for decades. The AAPI community is hugely diverse.
We therefore call for greater attention to and solidarity with those within this diverse community who are in positions of precarious labor, who are undocumented, who do not speak English, and who are refugees.
We also urge caution with regard to the calls for redressing anti-Asian violence by strengthening hate crimes legislation, pursuing prosecution, and demanding increased policing in AAPI communities. Focusing only on hate crimes legislation misses the deeper, more pervasive roots of racial and gender violence in society. Anti-trafficking measures and the criminalization of sex work already make women vulnerable to violence and deportation while endowing government and non-governmental agencies (such as ICE) with excessive and largely unaccountable police powers. These, too, represent legacies of U.S. Empire.
Within the context of Baltimore City, where there are already tensions between the university and policed communities of color, we urge our university community to think carefully on how to respond to anti-Asian violence. Using acts of violence against Asian and Asian American students, staff and faculty to justify policing of other minority groups in our community – particularly the Black community – only drives a wedge between the AAPI and Black communities. It draws from the pernicious use of the model minority myth to justify racial hierarchies; and, ultimately, it makes no one safer. We urge university members to build anti-racism coalitions to dismantle white supremacy. More policing is not the answer to anti-Asian violence; strengthening anti-racism and anti-sexism solidarity is.
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