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On March 16, 2021, Robert Aaron Long – a twenty-one-year-old white male evangelical Christian – massacred six Asian American women while they were working at three Asian-owned Atlanta-area spas: Daoyou Feng (44), Hyunjung Grant (51), Suncha Kim (69), Soon Chung Park (74), Xiaojie Tan (49), and Yong Ae Yue (63).
Police captain Jay Baker reported that Long claimed to have murdered the women not out of racial animus, but out of a self-declared “sex addiction;” Baker added that a further motive to kill was Mr. Long’s “really bad day.” (After backlash over this gaffe and over anti-Chinese sentiments on his Facebook page, Baker was replaced as the police spokesman on the case.)
Recent reporting has suggested that Mr. Long had not been able to conform to the strict dictates of the evangelical church he belonged to. (The church expelled Long from its congregation on Sunday March 21st, declaring he is no longer considered a “regenerate believer in Jesus Christ.”)
At the same time, anyone who lives in a society structured by white supremacy and misogyny is not immune to the “controlling images” of race and sex. That six of his victims were East Asian American women fits into a sad pattern of sexually objectifying women of Asian descent and stereotyping them as meek.
In addition to these images, we should consider the age-old perception of Asian-descent women as a race, gender, and sexual threat. Reflecting what esteemed women of color scholars have long taught us by way of intersectionality, white (male) America has reserved the power of self-definition for itself, withholding such power from women and men of color.
Accordingly, Asian American women writ large did not choose to be symbols of sexual or political danger since the time of US arrival, just as they did not choose to be racially erased model minorities or erotic, exotic fetishes. Long grew up in a society that, for centuries, has painted women who looked like Feng, Grant, Kim, Park, Tan, and Yue in this manner. We also know that Long had been a patron at some of the Asian spas he targeted, businesses that have come to be associated with Asian American women, and that are a stereotypic punchline in “happy ending” jokes. This is the context in which Long concluded that the only way to eliminate the temptation was to eliminate the “temptress.”
Notions of the Asian female temptress first emerged in the wake of Europe’s Opium Wars, as colonizers’ control of Asia (especially China and Japan) became associated with control over the bodies of Asian women. “Oriental” women thus came to represent, in part, a sexualized Yellow Peril danger.
It’s no surprise, then, that the first US race-based exclusion act was the 1875 Page law, which banned Chinese women from the country on the premise that they were prostitutes who posed a moral and disease threat to God-fearing and pure white America. Because the assumption was that all Chinese women were (opium-addicted) prostitutes, no woman who resembled Chinese ethnics was safe from exclusion or from racialized and sexualized harassment in the United States.
In the early twentieth century, actress Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American to break into Hollywood and gain global attention, became famous for portraying, in part, a “dragon lady” who coldly emasculated white and other men. The masculine and feminine elements of this nonwhite femme fatale, as well as the emphasis on sexual malice, are what make the dragon lady trope unique, powerful, and consequential.
For instance, the Euro-American sexual conquest of women in China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam that continues in some of these nations to this day, represents a desire to overpower the national threat that Asian “temptresses” have personified.
Furthermore, as gender scholars have long established, sexual violence is not solely about men satisfying their “natural” urges; it is also about men satisfying their need for power over women. For instance, the sexual assault and rape of (East) Asian American women stems from “China Doll” objectifications as well as the view that the power of the dragon lady must be vanquished, taken away.
Before the pandemic, the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence reported that 21 to 55 percent of Asian American women reported being victimized by intimate physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetimes. In addition, numerous reports reveal that serial rapists have sought out younger Asian American women as their targets.
While studying at college, about one-third of Asian undergraduate women have reported sexual assaults against them, most likely an undercount as Asian-descent women are significantly less willing to come forward. Psychologists studying sexual harassment have found that most women of color experience far higher rates of sexual harassment at work than White women do. As an example, Connie Chung noted that in the early part of her career as only the second woman to anchor a national nightly news broadcast (and the first for CBS), she experienced so much sexual harassment that when asked how often it happened, she replied, “Every day.” Yet when Asian American women go up against their employers in court, they often meet the same fate as Ellen Pao, who had sued venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins for widespread sexual harassment and workplace retaliation, but lost.
When Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal in Olympic figure skating in 1992, she was perceived by some as a “yellow foreigner,” an alien who looked nothing like America’s white ice princesses, from Peggy Fleming to Dorothy Hamill to Nancy Kerrigan. Not only did shock jocks rail against her “slanted” “Oriental” eyes on the Wheaties box, but other US companies refused her the multimillion-dollar endorsements that they had long showered upon white gold medalists like Fleming and Hamill.
Trump’s scapegoating of China for the covid-19 pandemic is in part responsible for the recent uptick in hate crimes against Asian-Americans. Stop AAPI Hate reports that women have reported 68% of the nearly 3800 incidents of hate violence, a rate almost 2.5 times higher than that of their male counterparts. Trump’s references to “kung flu” were eerily similar to the depictions in the 1870s of Chinese immigrant women as virus threats, and seem to have led to similar acts of violence against Asian American women, including Long’s massacre. One way to grasp this gendered racism is to take a long hard look at controlling images of Asian ethnic women as everything from a “Lotus flower” whisper to a dragon lady hiss. As we have witnessed, their consequences may be deadly.
Nadia Y. Kim is professor of sociology at Loyola Marymount University, and the author of the award-winning Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA and the forthcoming book Refusing Death: Immigrant Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice in LA (Stanford Press, Spring 2021).