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Panelists reflect on the history of Asian American violence in light of the Atlanta spa shootings

There is a long history of discrimination and violence against Asian women in the United States, according to the five panelists of “Reckoning with the Atlanta Spa Shootings.” The panelists discussed the stereotypes and background of violence against Asian women in the United States. 

Professor Ji-Yeon Yuh, associate professor of Asian American Studies and History at Northwestern University, discussed how stereotypes that exist in the contemporary world are ingrained deeper in history. Since the 19th century, there has been the stereotype of Asian women of being “hyper feminine and hyper sexual, while men [are percieved] as asexual,” said Yuh.

She described the “dragon lady” stereotype, which depicted Asian women as being innately immoral and sexual while “possess[ing] an allure that was irresistible and would lead men to their doom.” This caused Americans to form an obsession with the sexuality of Asian women, which has formed a link between Asian women and prostitution. This obsession makes Asian women disproportionately more vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault. 

Professor Yuri Doolan (HIST/WGS), assistant professor of History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and chair of Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies at Brandeis University, continued describing the historic background of Asian sex workers and how it is linked to the United States military. Doolan began by emphasizing that the six women that were killed in the Atlanta shootings “were working in the service industry not because it was their first choice,” said Doogan. Their occupation was likely selected because their “limited English skills [and] limited resources meant this was one of the only jobs they could take,” said Doogan.  

Doogan discussed the “unknown chapter of Korean and Asian American history,” where Korean women worked in camps in Asia that served American soldiers. At these camps, Asian women workers were hypersexualized. This largely came from the connection to sex workers abroad.

Carolyn Choi, pre-doctoral fellow in sociology at Dartmouth College, discussed the harm that is done by the stereotype that Asian migrants are rich, flexible and documented. There is a large population of undocumented Asian migrants that work “off-book in the ethnic economy,” most of whom are unbanked. 

Choi emphasized the struggles of Asian workers in Los Angeles, and the way that customer service workers have been characterized as “expendable and disposable.” She focused on this issue under the lens of intersectionality, which she defined as multiple overlapping systems of oppression and exclusion that render people with multiple minority identities invisible.

By referencing many different forms of oppression, from government struggles to interpersonal issues, Choi reflected upon the “multiple layers of violence” entrenching the U.S. that “reinterpret, reproduce and reinforce” racism and violence. 

Elena Shih, Manning Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, focused on the systematic focus on the Asian American community by law enforcement and how that harms the community. Shih elaborated on the ways that Asian migrants are discriminated against through laws. 

Shih heavily referenced a Polaris report which detailed violence on this subject. The report revealed “new laws that explicitly tie the massage industry to human trafficking” as well as advocations for “harsher punishments, harsher surveillance, harsher law over an already scrutinized industry,” she said. 

The event was co-sponsored by the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department, the History department and the Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies program at Brandeis University, the Asian American Studies program at Northwestern University and the program in women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Dartmouth College. This panel was moderated by Dr. Sumi Pendakur, DEI strategist and consultant.

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