On Disposability and a “Desire for Life”

On March 16, 2021, an armed man went into three different Atlanta-area spas—Young’s Asian Massage, Gold Massage Spa, and Aromatherapy Spa—and murdered eight people, six of whom were Asian American women. The victims of these shootings are: Daoyou Feng (44), Hyun Jung Grant (51), Sun Cha Kim (69), Paul Andre Michels (54), Soon Chung Park (74), Xiaojie Tan (49, owner of two of the spas), Delaina Yaun (33), and Yong Ae Yue (63). Ten days have passed since these attacks as I write this editorial, and in that time US and Canadian media reports have shared details about the shooter, such as his relationship to his church, that he played the drums, and that he liked pizza (Berman et al.). Such reports established a fuller picture of the assailant, even humanizing him to a degree, days before all of the names of the victims were even released, presumably because the authorities were working to contact their next of kin first. During this time, the public was told that the Korean Consulate in Atlanta had been notified of these deaths, even though it was not entirely clear whether the four Korean victims were US or Korean citizens. We also heard from the Cherokee County sheriff, who explained the shooter’s attacks on the women as an attempt to eliminate temptation given his sex addiction, and that the shooter was having “a really bad day” (Brumback and Wang). FBI Director Christopher Wray also offered an initial assessment that supported the sheriff ’s office, as it similarly ascribed the shooter’s motivations to his sex addiction and stated that the crimes did not appear to be racially motivated” (Walsh). This contrasted sharply with Korean media reports which noted that eyewitnesses had heard the shooter explicitly state that his intention was to “kill all the Asians” (Song). That neither the US media nor law enforcement officials seemed to have interviewed these eyewitnesses is a stark reminder of the invisibility of non-native English speakers. The shootings and their aftermath have produced much anger, sorrow, and frustration in Asian American and Asian Canadian communities, and led to an outpouring of questions being asked on social media, in newspapers and magazines, at rallies, in private and public conversations: if the deliberate targeting of Asian-run spas and the murders of six Asian women who worked in them do not constitute a hate crime, then what does? What does this say about the law’s persistent inability to protect those who need protection? How do we understand these murders in relation to the sharply escalating cases of anti-Asian racism that have been taking place across Canada and the US during the pandemic? I want to centre these women as I reflect upon these questions. But in order to think about what it means to grieve their untimely deaths, we need to first recognize their lives. So, in the aftermath of the shootings, I find myself wrestling with the question of how we tell the stories of what happened to these women. What contexts inform our individual and collective understandings of these losses?

Of the Asian American women who died on March 16, four were Korean American and two were Chinese American. This tragedy shook Asian Canadian and Asian American communities, and many individuals have felt compelled to speak out about it at venues such as roundtables and webinars, and have expressed the need for continued resistance as we confront the many forms of anti-Asian racisms with their long histories. A week after the shooting, I had a three-hour conversation with a Korean Canadian woman who is both an esteemed colleague and friend, and we talked through some of the ways in which the murders as well as the media violence were resonating for us. Our own stories are the specific entry points into how we begin to make meaning from this moment, and grow connections with others that are increasingly expansive and caring. Given the entangled histories of migration, sex work, colonialism, war, and militarized occupation that bind Korea to countries such as Canada and the US, it was difficult to read the coverage of these shootings without thinking of the particular form of structural disposability that Korean migrant women have presented throughout history and in the current moment. And while the historical trajectories that brought Korean migrant women to North America are important to bear in mind for understanding these women’s stories and lives, I also recognize that structural disposability is a condition that is pertinent for thinking more broadly about migrant Asian women, and particularly for those who work at massage parlours, whose stories are frequently sidelined even as we work to address the intersection of race and gender.

This need for specificity is crucial because, as Asian American and Asian Canadian scholars know, the category of Asian is a capacious one that has long struggled with problems of difference and representation. But again, the historical specificity of various Asian diasporic populations matters if we are to understand how their experiences as racialized peoples differ. As Hae Yeon Choo noted during a roundtable on the Atlanta tragedy composed of Toronto-based Korean diasporic scholars, her experiences of being attacked during the pandemic gave her a small window of insight into how it must feel to be the target of Islamophobia. To be seen as a South Asian body that is feared is a very different experience than to be seen as an inconsequential Korean or Chinese body, even though both of these are forms of hatred directed towards Asian bodies. Similarly, to be a Filipinx body seen only in terms of care work is an experience distinct from that of being a Vietnamese or Cambodian body seen through the lens of the refugee even as these are also forms of hatred. And while intellectually we have always known that these differences exist, what Choo speaks about is the experience of also feeling those different racializations.

In an article written in the immediate aftermath of the Atlanta shootings, Min Hyoung Song reflects upon how Feng, Grant, Kim, Park, Tan, and Yue were represented in the media. He writes,

I’ve been puzzled by how many rushed to claim that the Korean American and Chinese American women who were killed in the Atlanta massacre were sex workers. Even now, a few days after the event, and with the help of numerous news accounts of the women who were its victims, I’m not sure how involved in sex work they were, or how they themselves would have characterized their jobs. (Song)

Song’s question about how the Asian American victims of the Atlanta shooting are being read can be productively considered alongside one that Laura Kang poses in her study of Asian women and anti-trafficking discourses, namely, “how did the privileging of spectacularly and especially sexually violated Asian female bodies foreclose other terms and conditions for making ‘Asian women’ intelligible?” (16). These questions are key to keep in mind when we note that in media reports published a week or so after the shooting, we were told that Soon Chung Park prepared food for Gold Spa employees, that Xiaojie Tan and Yong Ae Yue were registered massage therapists, and that many of the deceased women were older women with children and grandchildren. I make this point not to disavow sex workers or to try to recuperate the women through a middle-class respectability, but rather to draw attention to questions of how these women located their labour and themselves in the world, and the legibility of their experiences given how age, class, race, and gender intersect in their stories. I am also interested in the more material question of what the specific circumstances were that made their workplaces more dangerous than many others. Elene Lam, founder of Butterfly, an Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network based in Toronto, argues that migrant sex workers in Canada are endangered by laws that conflate trafficking and sex work as this conflation is “informed by racism, xenophobia, and myths of the migrant worker” (2-3). While these anti-trafficking policies may be intended to protect workers from exploitation, they actually make workplaces less safe and prevent workers from reporting threats or violence (Lam 3). Even those massage parlours that do not offer sexual services but are suspected of doing so are at risk of being subjected to repeated inspections or police raids. Laws passed under the Harper government against prostitution even criminalize “those who gain material benefit from sex work (e.g., security, drivers, receptionists, agency owners)” (Lam 10). Thus even though not all of the women who worked at the spas were sex workers, they were made more vulnerable because they were migrant women employed at massage parlours; moreover, as Lam reminds us, while the murders of the women in Atlanta were tragic, they were not exceptional, as migrant women who work at massage parlours across Canada and the US are murdered every year (see Women and Gender Studies Institute).

To think about the lives of Feng, Grant, Kim, Park, Tan, and Yue requires an intersectional approach to social justice, one that takes into account the complexities of race, gender, sexuality, class, age, relationship to the English language, and migration. As Kimberlé Crenshaw argued more than thirty years ago, new and nuanced approaches are needed to understand the range of ways in which oppression is experienced:

I argue that Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender. These problems of exclusion cannot be solved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure. Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated. (140)

Crenshaw gave us the term intersectionality in 1989, and it was invaluable for naming the experiences that women of colour had been sharing in Canada and the US long before that. In anthologies such as This Bridge Called My Back (1981) and Telling It (1990), women of colour told deeply personal stories about how they moved through the world in bodies that were racialized, gendered, and queer, and about the forms of violence they were met with. The stakes of this work were described by Cherríe Moraga as being “about intimacy, a desire for life between all of us, not settling for less than freedom even in the most private aspects of our lives. A total vision” (1). And this, I think, is the goal we must keep in mind if we are to honour the memories of all of those individuals that have been taken too early.

In addition to the shootings in Atlanta, many other things are unfolding as we assemble this issue. We are now over a year into the global pandemic; the City of Minnesota has just negotiated a civil settlement with George Floyd’s family, and Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for killing Floyd is to begin at the end of March; the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP has released its report on the investigation into the death of Colten Boushie and found, among other things, that the RCMP had racially discriminated against Boushie’s family; the protests against the military coup in Myanmar continue as do the farmer protests in India; and Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Harry aired at the beginning of March. These are a range of media stories that draw our attention to how matters of social justice pertain to Indigenous, Black, and Asian lives, to local and global contexts, and to how matters of racialization connect the North American working class and British royalty. In this general issue, we have six articles: one focuses on temporality in Rilla of Ingleside, one examines Indigenous comics and their female protagonists, and the other four articles examine Asian Canadian texts by Anita Rau Badami, Roy Kiyooka, Roy Miki, and Rita Wong. We also have a forum that examines two autobiographical texts, Eternity Martis’ They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up and Samra Habib’s We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir. Collectively, they present a different analytic for thinking about our contemporary moment. And while I am buoyed in many ways by the current efforts to draw attention to anti-Asian racism and particular intersections of migration, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and race, I cannot help but wonder what this attention to marginalized Asian women will look like a year from now. Or whether this tragedy will even still be remembered by the time this issue comes out.

Works Cited

Berman, Mark, Brittany Shammas, Teo Armus, and Marc Fisher. “The Atlanta Spa Shooting Suspect’s Life Before Attacks.” The Washington Post, 19 Mar. 2021, washingtonpost.com/national/atlanta-shooting-suspect-robert-aaron-long/2021/03/19/9397cdca-87fe-11eb8a8b-5cf82c3dffe4_story.html. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.

Brumback, Kate, and Angie Wang. “Man Charged with Killing 8 People at Georgia Massage Parlors.” AP News, The Associated Press, 17 Mar. 2021, apnews.com/article/georgia-massage-parlor-shootings-leave-8-dead-f3841a8e0215d3ab3d1f23d489b7af81. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.

Choo, Hae Yeon, panellist. Question and answer session. Virtual Roundtable: What Does the Atlanta Tragedy Mean? Korean Diaspora Speaks. 24 Mar. 2021, hosted by the Centre for the Study of Korea at the University of Toronto, the Korean Office for Research and Education at York University, the Resource Centre for Public Sociology at York University, and WIND-Toronto Korean Feminist Group, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto Mississauga, Hope21: Korean-Canadian Progressive Network— Toronto, Toronto, ON.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 1989, no. 1, pp. 139-67.

Kang, Laura Hyun Yi. Traffic in Asian Women. Duke UP, 2020.

Lam, Elene. Behind the Rescue: How Anti-Trafficking Investigations and Policies Harm Migrant Sex Workers. E-book, Butterfly Print, 2018.

Moraga, Cherríe L. “Preface, 1981.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. 3rd ed., edited by Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Third Woman, 2002.

Song, Min Hyoung. “No Witness: ‘Warrior’ and the Histories of Anti-Asian Violence.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 22 Mar. 2021, lareviewofbooks.org/article/no-witness- warrior-and-the-histories-of-anti-asian-violence/. Accessed 27 Mar. 2021.

Walsh, Joe. “FBI Director Says Atlanta Shooting ‘Does Not Appear’ Racially Motivated.” Forbes, 18 Mar. 2021, forbes.com/sites/joewalsh/2021/03/18/fbi-director-says-atlanta-shooting-does-not-appear-racially-motivated/?sh=118781f71a0d. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.

Women and Gender Studies Institute and the Department of Sociology, University of Toronto. “Anti-Asian Racism and Intersectional Violence.” YouTube, uploaded by Gender Studies, 26 Mar. 2021, youtube.com/watch?v=GVbEGgSFESY. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.

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