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The Value Gap: One year after the Atlanta spa shootings, there’s increased awareness of anti-Asian hate crimes — but not enough action

The Value Gap is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, authors, policymakers and activists on reducing racial and social inequalities.

One year ago, a gunman killed eight people at three Atlanta-area massage businesses, including six women of Asian descent: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun and Paul Andre Michels. Prosecutors have argued the shooter targeted some of the victims based on racial and gender bias.

The shootings deepened fear and anxiety in many Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities already on edge about anti-Asian rhetoric and violence that have risen during the pandemic’s two years, and created greater public understanding of the interlaced racism and misogyny that AAPI women have faced throughout history.

But while the heightened focus on issues impacting Asian American women is heartening, “just having more visibility and raising awareness is not enough to stop what’s happening,” says Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), a progressive advocacy and community-organizing group.

As Choimorrow points out, harassment and violence against AAPI women has very much continued in recent months, as evidenced in part by NAPAWF’s own research: Three in four AAPI women recently surveyed by the organization said they’d experienced racism and/or discrimination in the past year, with many reporting these incidents were perpetrated by strangers and unfolded in public. 

From March 2020 through December 2021, the coalition Stop AAPI Hate documented 10,905 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, with reports of verbal harassment making up 63% of the total and physical assault making up 16%. Six in 10 reports were by women.

Meanwhile, a man was arrested and charged with hate crimes earlier this month after seven women of Asian descent were attacked in Manhattan in the span of two hours. The recent killings of Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Go in New York haven’t been labeled hate crimes by authorities, but left many Asian American women feeling angry and terrified all the same.

“There is some sadness and, frankly, anger, about the fact that a year after the Atlanta spa shooting, we haven’t even had a year’s distance from horrific murders,” Choimorrow said.

Choimorrow spoke with MarketWatch for The Value Gap about the state of anti-AAPI violence one year after the Atlanta-area shootings, what Americans have and still haven’t learned, and how to translate awareness into tangible action. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity:

MarketWatch: I wanted to start off by acknowledging that you lead an organization that focuses on Asian American and Pacific Islander women and girls; you’re also a woman of Korean descent who has written about her own experiences of racism and misogyny. How has this past year been for you on a personal level? And is there anything you’ve found helpful for coping?

Choimorrow: It’s been pretty intense. But at the same time, there’s something about being heard that’s different. … As you said, I’ve been writing and talking about misogyny and racialized misogyny experienced by Asian American women on various topics for a very long time. And often, I feel like I’m just yelling into the thin air or writing a piece that just disappears into the interweb somewhere. 

It’s really the first time people are paying attention and asking thoughtful questions and engaging. And so there’s a sense of, maybe we’re making some movement in this country around really, truly trying to understand the state of what it means to be Asian American women these days, and really actually caring about the issues that impact us.

I feel like when people talk about women’s issues in general, I’ve never heard of people proactively talking about Asian American women’s experiences in particular in that context — whether it’s on reproductive rights issues, maternal health issues, no one’s actually ever added the two cents about how it uniquely impacts Asian Americans. … It brings me hope that we’re in this place of having more public conversations. And yet the reasons why these conversations still happen are so tragic and horrific that I’d be lying if [I said] it’s not taking a toll on my mental health. 

While I don’t live in New York City, I visit often for work, and I don’t ride the subway. I try [not to be] walking around in Manhattan after late hours, especially if I’m alone. There are just things that I do now that I just never did before, that I know a lot of Asian American women are experiencing. So there is some sadness and, frankly, anger, about the fact that a year after the Atlanta spa shooting, we haven’t even had a year’s distance from horrific murders. We’ve just been talking about Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Go and others in Albuquerque. And so it’s a mix of emotions in how I’m feeling. 

What I do to cope: For me, it’s really about setting boundaries and knowing that at the end of the day, I’m grateful for the opportunity to lead an organization like NAPAWF and engage with reporters like you, but at the end of the day, my work is part of a bigger movement. It’s not just me. I know that I have collaborators and people who have gone ahead of me, who paved the way and who are going to come after me to continue to fight the fight. So I don’t try and carry this outsize burden by myself. … And then it’s taking the breaks that I need; making sure that I’m taking care of myself, my health.

MarketWatch: That is very good advice for anybody doing this kind of work. So as you mentioned, it has been a year since the Atlanta spa shootings. Does it feel to you like anything has changed?

Choimorrow: I mean, I don’t feel like too much has changed [since] even pre-Atlanta spa shooting, right? I think that often people use the Atlanta spa shooting as a marker of when violence against Asian American women really became a thing. But for me, I’ve been telling this story — even last year, when I was getting calls from reporters right around the shooting — that racialized misogyny and racialized sexual violence against Asian American women is nothing new. It’s just that we’re paying attention because there was a mass shooting. And I don’t think that there’s been enough done.

We did a survey of 2,400 AANHPI [Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander] women in the United States, and 40% said that they feel less safe today than they did a year ago. So statistically, if anything has changed, it’s probably changed for the worst, which is really unfortunate. Seventy-four percent of our respondents said that they had experienced some sort of discrimination or harassment in the last 12 months. 

People are more aware of these issues that impact our community, yet the rates of incidence are going up. So to me, just having more visibility and raising awareness is not enough to stop what’s happening.

“‘I think people have become much more courageous in stepping up and speaking out, and I hope that that sticks with us.’”

MarketWatch: To that end, on the awareness part — which, as you just said, is not enough to keep it from happening: The police in the spa shooting case got heavily criticized for saying these attacks weren’t racially motivated, that they were driven by a sexual addiction potentially. Do you think that the American public as a whole has become more aware and educated about the complexity of this issue — how anti-Asian racism can intersect with misogyny and hypersexualization?

Choimorrow: I think the short of it is no. I wish I could say yes. But a year later, I’m still being asked to talk about my analysis on the arc of history and context of why Asian American women have been hypersexualized and objectified. And I’m still met with fresh, “Oh my goodness, I’m learning something new,” as I was met with last year. 

You’re talking about educating a population that’s never heard of Afong Moy [the first known Chinese immigrant woman in the U.S., brought over in 1834 by American merchants who put her on display] and the Page Act [the 1875 immigration law used to bar East Asian women from coming to the U.S. based on the presumption that they were prostitutes] all of a sudden hearing these names. And it’s not going to stick, and I think it’s going to take time and repetition.

MarketWatch: It has been almost 40 years since Vincent Chin’s killing, which inspired a generation of Asian Americans to get involved in activism. Do you see a similar political awakening happening right now, with the increased attention to this kind of violence?

Choimorrow: I hope so. I definitely know that after the Atlanta spa shooting, particularly Asian American women, we felt like our stories were being heard and taken seriously. And I know that encouraged more people to speak up. I remember hearing from Asian American women all over the country saying, “I heard you on the radio on my drive home from work, and what you shared, your story, resonates so much with me — and thank you for speaking up and helping people understand my story.”

So I think [Asian American women have] sort of had this watershed moment where we want to speak up, and not tolerate and just adapt and do what we can to survive. I think people have become much more courageous in stepping up and speaking out, and I hope that that sticks with us. 

“‘We need people to not only remember our stories and our struggles when it’s an anniversary or horrific event or someone else’s murder, but to understand that these issues show up in our lives on a daily basis .’”

MarketWatch: As I know you’re aware, last year President Biden signed into law this anti-hate crimes legislation around COVID; he also established the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. What other kinds of policy change do you and other folks in the AAPI community want to see? And what do you think is still missing in the response to these kinds of hate incidents?

Choimorrow: I think what’s missing is long-term significant investment in making sure that AAPIs are included in all the decisions that are made, whether it’s in infrastructure or social services that would support our community. There’s been a lot of these one-off, like, “We’ll appoint someone, we’ll create an initiative, we’ll define hate crimes to include Asian Americans.” But there hasn’t been a real look at how to reassess the current systems and decision-making channels to actually include Asian Americans and our interests. That’s really what I would like to see.

MarketWatch: Yeah, to your point, AAPIs sort of get left out of things — I’m going to guess that part of it is the model minority myth and the aggregated data that suggests there isn’t much to do. [Editor’s note: The model minority myth, based on the perception that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are all high-achieving immigrants, inaccurately flattens the experiences of distinct AAPI populations into a monolith and ignores that income inequality in the U.S. is actually highest among Asians.]

Choimorrow: Exactly. So the big things we’re asking for are collecting large enough samples so you can disaggregate our data, and at the federal government [level] at least, we’re asking for them to make all services accessible linguistically, and that government contracts require their contractors to include Asian languages to make it accessible to our communities.

MarketWatch: What do you want regular people — people who don’t work in government or have the power to effect policy change — to be doing and thinking about as we approach the one-year mark of this tragedy? What can people do to get involved in their community to take action on an individual basis?

Choimorrow: One, if you see someone being harassed or bullied, say something. Do something. It’s just heartbreaking to me — you see all these stories, and I’ve personally experienced encounters where people just stood around and watched; nobody wanted to intervene. I think that’s really sad. 

And I think we need people to not only remember our stories and our struggles when it’s an anniversary or horrific event or someone else’s murder, but to understand that these issues show up in our lives on a daily basis — [that] even if it doesn’t lead to murder, we are being affected by it. So how do we constantly be engaging in thoughtful ways to change the trajectory of this country and how it perceives Asian American women, so that we can live safer and more meaningful lives?

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