The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has been grappling with the recent killings in Atlanta, Georgia, and the rapid rise of anti-Asian attacks nationwide.
On March 16, eight people, six of whom were Asian and seven of whom were women, were shot to death at three different Georgia massage parlors in the Atlanta area. Robert Aaron Long, who confessed to the shootings, has been arrested and charged eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault.
The Georgia shooting intensified conversations about the rapid rise of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S., which began last spring in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stop AAPI Hate, an organization that tracks reports of violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, has received reports of over 3,700 hate incidents in the United States since the beginning of the pandemic. These incidents range from violent attacks and verbal abuse to vandalization of Asian businesses.
Virginia Tech is not isolated from this problem; Virginia Tech Asian students have encountered forms of anti-Asian sentiment within the past school year.
“People have come to me, they have told me they and their classmates were experiencing, not necessarily violence, but discrimination in their classes, especially at the onset of the pandemic,” said Jessica Nguyen, president of the Asian American Student Union.
Stop AAPI Hate has also found Asian American women reported 2.3 times more hate incidents than men.
Authorities have declared it is too early to determine the Georgia shootings as a hate crime, instead saying the gunman's motivation was, in the gunman’s words, driven by a sex addiction. It was found Long visited two of the three massage parlors he attacked for sex when he relapsed from celibacy.
However, Asian American women have proclaimed that racism and sexism have been inseparable in their personal experience and throughout the recent rise of attacks, especially in regards to the Georgia shootings.
“Before there was even discussion about whether Asian American women were targeted, we knew that (fetishization of Asian and Asian American women) had a role in this,” Nguyen said. “Once it was publicized that the perpetrator had a sex addiction, we were like, ‘This definitely has to do with (the) fetishization of Asian and Asian American women.’ America has a very deep history of fetishizing Asian women.”
Nyguen cites Afong Moy, who is believed to have been one of the first Chinese women to come to the United States, as an example of historical American fetishism of Asian women. Moy was sold to sit center stage of an American exhibit selling the “Oriental” experience to the American people: showing off her bound feet, having her eat from chopsticks, showcasing Chinese goods and more.
The fetishization of Asian women has also been seen through policy. The Page Act of 1875 banned women from “China, Japan and other oriental” countries for “lewd and immoral purposes” or “the importation of women for the purposes of prostitution.” In practice, it aimed to bar Chinese women from migrating to the United States. Individuals would have to face discriminatory and embarrassing medical exams and their entry depended on the Consul-General at port cities.
“From the get-go, you are already fetishizing Asian women as this otherly figure, as this figure you don’t encompass as your culture and community,” Nguyen said.
President Tim Sands and Vice President Menah Pratt-Clarke released a statement on March 4 condemning the recent rise of anti-Asian hate.
“At Virginia Tech, in solidarity with the Asian American Student Union (AASU) and the APIDA Caucus, we condemn this racially fueled brutality as abhorrent and reaffirm our unwavering support of the APIDA community — on our campus and beyond,” the statement said. “We must also recognize the continued psychological toll and trauma the APIDA community is experiencing.”
AASU and APIDA felt that the letter wasn’t comprehensive when it came to addressing the severity of the violence and expressed these grievances to Pratt-Clarke in a meeting.
However, the groups feel as if the Virginia Tech administration has been receptive to their expressions of grief and criticism. After the Georgia shootings, AASU and APIDA were pleased to find that the statement was updated on March 18 with a section on how the Georgia shootings were tied into anti-Asian violence.
“What we think they did really well is that they attached resources specifically to the Asian Cultural Engagement Center, they credited the AASU for working toward this and they credited the APIDA Caucus, so we’re grateful for that,” Nguyen said.
From candlelight vigils and student organization leaders stepping up to AASU hosting mental health sessions for the APIDA population, Nguyen has seen an increase in collective action and advocacy in aims to educate, spread awareness of anti-Asian violence and advocate for justice at Virginia Tech.
“In the past, the APIDA population here has had trouble getting interest for social advocacy, social justice work and anything involving politics,” Nguyen said. “It’s really nice to see that student leaders are showing up, bringing ideas to the table, really offering their support for the community. I’m really proud of our constituency for that.”
Outside of Virginia Tech, the intercollegiate APIDA coalition, made out of collegiate Asian American student organizations, was formed to bring awareness of the anti-Asian sentiment happening locally, nationally and on their college campuses. The coalition’s main goal is to call out universities and get them to denounce anti-Asian violence. The group has listed demands such as hiring more Asian faculty well-versed in Asian American history, hiring mental health professionals who are culturally competent in the Asian American experience and more. Over 90 organizations from over 35 schools have co-signed on these demands, including Virginia Tech’s AASU.
“As devastating as it is, (the pandemic) definitely did bring our community closer,” Nguyen said. “We all care about this community here; it's special. (With) the gradual publicization of these attacks, we increasingly grew angry. We can’t just stand idly by.”
To keep the momentum of the current movement, AASU leaders plan to continue to network and work with student organizations within and outside of Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech’s Asian Cultural Engagement Center is hosting various events and features many resources for those interested in educating themselves more about anti-Asian hate and the Asian experience.