Content warning: Anti-Asian racism and violence, anti-Black racism and violence, xenophobia, specific examples of violence against Asian Americans, historical context of racism and anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, COVID-19, wartime brutality
By JoAnn Yao
Eight people have been shot, and I cannot reach my family.
I am refreshing Twitter, watching for any new information. I text. I call. No answer. I hear nothing from my parents or my youngest sister, who still live in Georgia.
There are five confirmed deaths. Most are presumed to be Asian people.
There are five people in my immediate family: Mom, Dad, my sisters, and me. I think of how visible we have always been, one of the few Asian families in my hometown.
I have no other means of reaching them. My middle sister is across the country. I am in New York. Unvaccinated, unable to travel during a pandemic, uncertain of anything, I wait.
Finally, I think to contact my youngest sister via iMessage, remembering that she’s often on her computer but away from her phone.
She tells me instantly—she’s safe. My parents are safe. This isn’t their week to go grocery-shopping in Atlanta.
It’s only then that I allow myself to start crying.
“I apologize for the late reply” —
A man smashed in the face of a Japanese American woman with a rock in Seattle this week.
“Things have been very busy” —
A young man knocked an 84-year-old Thai man to the ground with such force that he died from his injuries in Oakland.
“I somehow missed this” —
A fellow subway rider slashed open a Filipino man’s face in New York. No one helped him.
“I’m so sorry” —
My inbox, filled to the brim with unanswered emails, waits for me as I fail to compose myself.
It has been like this every week for over a year.
We know now that on March 16, 2021, a white man murdered six Asian women and two white people, as well as injuring one Latino man, in three separate locations around the metro Atlanta area. Before opening fire, the shooter yelled that he was going to kill all of the Asians.
The coverage of his crime has focused overwhelmingly on his humanity. I will not devote any more words to him.
Instead, I am thinking of:
Xiaojie Tan, who should have celebrated her birthday this past week. I am thinking of the many countries she’d jotted down on her retirement wishlist of places to visit, of her excitedly researching, asking people for recommendations, assembling sample itineraries. I think of the clothes in her drawers, unworn, tags still attached. Her daily routine of calling her sister and mother in Nanning, China on her way to work. The wedding that her daughter Jami will now plan without the mother with whom she was so close. In another time, if we’d known each other, I might have gently ribbed Jami for being a Georgia Bulldog since I’m a Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket.
Hyun Jung Grant, who loved karaoke, clubbing, and her two sons. I think of her putting on disco music to do chores around the house, moonwalking while vacuuming. Of her spending what were most likely precious days off taking her boys to the mall and the aquarium. Making her own kimchi jjigae. Encouraging her sons to go out and partake of life more, listening to their dreams and girl troubles alike.
Yong Ae Yue, who had been laid off during the pandemic and had just begun working again. I think of how she would insist on feeding everyone who came to her house, a form of maternal care with which I am so familiar, of the small kindnesses she would perform for others in the form of flowers or money to pay rent. I wonder which soap operas she watched, which books she read.
Soon Chung Park, who had planned to move back in with her daughter and son-in-law, with whom she was close. I think of her as a woman in perpetual motion: Moving to be nearer to friends, working for its own sake, preparing meals for the employees she managed, staying active to maintain her health. She lived in New York before moving to Atlanta; I wonder if she might have loved the same places in both cities that I do.
Sun Cha Kim, who had been married for over 50 years, wanted to grow old with her husband, and enjoyed line-dancing. I think of her tenacity alongside her tenderness, of the children and grandchildren she loved so dearly.
Daoyou Feng, who had only just begun working at Young’s Asian Massage. I think of how little I can find about her life, of the blank space I wish did not exist, but which suggests a life of isolation, of being far from loved ones, of perhaps not even having anyone to bury and mourn her. A regular customer described her as “kind and quiet,” and I think of how a language barrier can make someone withdraw. How my own fiery grandmother would become the proverbial church mouse when she had to use her limited English where we lived. I think of how living so far from any community where you see yourself reflected in your surroundings can drastically reshape a person.
Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, who had been married for less than a year and gave birth to her daughter in the middle of a pandemic. I think of her warmth and happiness, of how she opened her home to those who needed it.
Paul Andre Michels, who was a contractor, veteran, and family man. Who had also been proud to support a president who referred to COVID-19 as “kung flu” and the “China virus”. His love for his family existed alongside his support for a man who boldly punches down at anyone who isn’t like him. I think about how white supremacy still did not spare him.
Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, who is the lone survivor of the attacks. I think of his young daughter and wife in the United States. His parents in Guatemala. I think about the sheer force of his optimism when his wife recalls how he told her “that nothing and no one could make him fall apart or take him down.”
Less than two percent of the people in Cherokee County, where half of the shooting victims died, are Asian. Less than five percent of Atlanta’s population, where the other half of the victims died, is Asian.
Asian American reporters fluent in Korean and familiar with the city ask to cover the story. I also think of the superiors who refuse them because they may be “too biased.”
All of these people are part of the narrative.
Growing up Asian in a small Southern town where there are very few Asians is like this:
You walk into a room, a store, a restaurant, and the energy of the people within it shifts around you.
You are always visible while rarely seeing anyone who looks like you.
You compensate by making yourself as small as possible, by shrinking down, by accommodating, by learning how to see and hold everyone else’s moods and feelings.
Your food, your English, your eyes, your looks, your clothes are still mocked.
You are still tripped by schoolmates at the top of long stairwells. You are still called names that range from silly to violently racist. You still hear people making noises that you realize are supposed to be your mother tongue. You are assaulted and no one helps.
When you find the words to speak about your pain, that is also mocked.
You try to talk about it with your friends, who tell you that they don’t see your race.
You grade your hurt on a scale, despite the fact that even the supposedly small things are corrosive, like acid thrown on you one drop at a time. One drop is surmountable. You can cover the damage, pretend it didn’t happen. You can withstand it, even if it keeps happening.
You allow yourself to be dissolved, one drop at a time, as long as enough of you remains to survive.
So once the acid begins to pour, instead of calling for help or crying out, you think, “This is familiar. Just more of the same.”
You do not allow yourself to consider that you might not survive.
It’s June 2020. People are marching in the streets for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, and all of the Black people murdered before them. White supremacy has been killing people since the inception of our country, but we are battling it, as others before us have done.
I’m holding anti-racism sessions with my own family, giving them homework, talking with them.
I remember my parents’ surprise on visiting the Little White House and reading that FDR ordered the internment of Japanese Americans. It isn’t that they were surprised he was the person who ordered it; they were surprised because they had no idea it had even happened. And I remember feeling shocked before I also recalled that I grew up learning US. history, while they did not.
So I try to discuss redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, medical malpractice, voter suppression, inherent biases built into an entire system against Black Americans — all of which still exists. Jim Crow no longer bears that name, but it is still firmly in place.
I tell my family it’s especially important to know since we have lived in Georgia for almost three decades.
“Anti-racism” is a noun but urgency requires us to treat it as a verb, I say. It means taking your awareness and turning it into action. Into doing something concrete. And then to keep doing it.
And yet we do not discuss the spate of anti-Asian hate crimes that have been steadily escalating throughout the year. My family and I say nothing aside from “stay indoors; be safe.” I mention the violence in an essay for Asian American Heritage Month, but I do not linger, choosing instead to focus on the myriad ways in which Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are suffering more.
My community is fearful and in pain, but their fresh experiences are all things I have weathered before. Slurs yelled in public, harassment and assault for being Asian. There are so many other things to turn my attention to, that feel more urgent. A presidential election. A deadly virus. The rise of a new civil rights movement.
We do not talk about these things. We survive.
I am, in this way, unwittingly trying to write myself out of the narrative.
The first time I step outside of my apartment after the beginning of the pandemic, I am constantly moving, all nervous energy. I fidget in line at the bank. I cross streets for no reason. My heart races and I have trouble breathing. I tell myself that it’s because I’ve been indoors for too long, that I’m out of shape, that I’m unused to exerting myself while wearing a mask.
I tell myself not to think of the Asian woman in Brooklyn, whom an unknown man attacked while she took out the trash. The way I obsessively trawled news sites and forums after, until I saw someone on Reddit say, If you watch the footage, it had to have been a neighbor. He knew her routine and exactly when she was going to be outside.
There is a snarl of fear growing within me, tangling with the other parts of myself that I have not examined in years. An awareness accompanied by a desire just as strong to pretend that it does not exist. New York City was my first true home. Where is home if New York no longer feels like it? If instead what I recognize are all of the things I thought I’d left far behind, in Georgia?
When I call my family, we discuss the weather, the election, the number of COVID cases rising or falling. I do not mention the news stories I have seen circulating amongst the Asian American community online that week.
There’s time to address this later, I think. No one is dying.
But of course, white supremacy has been murdering Asians for a long time.
History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past, wrote Grace Lee Boggs.
We have been killed in our ancestral lands in various wars, overseas on missions too dangerous for white soldiers, on U.S. soil in internment camps. By drone, by chemicals, by bullet, by baseball bat.
In order to heal and become who we aspire to be in the United States, we must begin by purging the poison of the lie that this is not who we are.
The term “Asian American” comes from student activists at Berkeley who realized in the 1960s that we lacked a means of describing ourselves, both politically and collectively, that white supremacy did not assign to us.
I understand why some people resent it. Or refuse to use it. I understand when other Asians balk at its broadness, how easily it collapses us together into a group with the largest gaps in socio-economic standing and cultural cachet, like holding together magnets with opposing poles. How it can feel like a false connection between disparate peoples.
But we are connected, regardless. White supremacy does not discern between us. And we owe it to ourselves to believe we can resist that flattening of our identities by standing together.
Visibility has more value when we are fully visible. Asian Americans are in every class from working to upper; we are every kind of migrant and generations removed from migration; we are mixed-race, LGBTQ+, disabled, Jewish, Muslim— every possible way there is to be a person, it is possible to be Asian American.
“Asian American” is not the name white supremacy gave us. It is the one we gave ourselves. It is the name we can choose in order to begin building, both for ourselves and with other communities.
I use it specifically to connect to this history and as a starting point for identity. Sometimes I use it to keep myself from feeling as though my own roots are too shallow.
I need to believe that someone cannot simply undo my entire existence on a whim.
As a social media manager, I see the thoughts and feelings of people across platforms. As a woman, I often feel obligated to hold those thoughts and feelings on others’ behalf. As someone who cares deeply about equity and social justice, I feel the need to act, to improve the circumstances that cause the pain and injustice I see documented online.
As an Asian American, I often do not hold any space for myself at all.
I have seen posts featuring Asian writers or artists on our channels getting less traffic, less engagement, less attention than many of our other posts. Sometimes the difference is stark. I have seen people question whether Asians even experience discrimination in the US, and why we are attempting to participate in discussions about racism.
It’s okay, I tell myself. I can keep helping and building anyway. I can hold this.
A few years ago, someone asked for my full name over the phone and I gave it. When they read it back and mispronounced my surname, I corrected them and apologized, assuring them that it’s difficult to say.
“No, it’s not,” they replied.
I was stunned.
“No. It’s not.” I felt myself parroting back the words.
“Yao” is only one syllable, three letters. I share a name with a famous basketball player. It’s not hard to pronounce at all.
I have been apologizing for it for such a long time that I stopped noticing I was doing it.
“Representation is not a substitute for or even a sign of progress,” multiple think pieces and social media posts by other Asian Americans have declared to me this week.
Multiple Asian artists made history with their Academy Award nominations on Monday.
Six Asian women were still slaughtered on Tuesday.
My fellow Asians and Asian Americans are correct in calling out the faults in thinking that representation alone is a bellwether of change, or a sign that we are dismantling white supremacy.
The work is lifting people out of poverty, building coalitions, excavating buried histories, investing in communities — the list goes on. It is multiple lifetimes’ worth of work, the undoing of multiple lifetimes of systemic violence and oppression. Increasing police surveillance or relying on police brutality that hurts the Black and brown people with whom we need to stand in solidarity is not the solution, and we need to declare this loudly and often.
“He had a bad day,” a white police officer said of the Atlanta killer. It was not racially motivated, the murderer himself claims. National news outlets picked up this line without challenging it.
They are already trying to erase us from the narrative.
And there is a narrative, in which representation is a crucial piece. I urge my fellow Asians in the diaspora not to dismiss it entirely. We are only just beginning to capture the full breadth and depth of what it means to be us.
What it means, for instance, when safety from harm as a woman relies on fending off the widely-accepted aggressiveness of men. How the addition of white supremacy forces Asian women to fight the pervasive notion that our bodies specifically are readily available. How the myth of the model minority relies on all of us being affluent and upwardly mobile. How the presence of low-wage laborers among us makes us a less effective cudgel to use against other people of color.
What it means when all of these things collide, but the systems in place rely on smoothing the turmoil into something benign. Especially when to do otherwise would be to acknowledge the cause of the wreck is anything but benign.
Representation should not begin and end with visual recognition; it should be specific, honest, and resonant. It should speak to those similar and dissimilar to us alike. It should mirror the universe itself, perpetually expanding, upending previously held truths, impossible to know fully but infinitely worth knowing.
Because it is the key to unlocking the difference between being seen and being understood. Because the work of dismantling cruel, unequal systems depends on it.
It is the feeling I have when I close a book, wish fervently I could send it to my teenage self, and cry thankful tears when I think of the teenagers who have it now. It’s my joy seeing Jessie Mei Li, Amita Suman, and Sujaya Dasgupta embody very different, vibrant characters in trailers and pictures for Shadow and Bone. It’s my pride for Oscar nominees Steven Yeun, Riz Ahmed, Lee Isaac Chung, and Chloé Zhao. It’s my excitement when I see the cover for Marie Lu’s Steelstriker. It’s the marrow-deep ache I felt watching Phillippa Soo sing in Hamilton, “Will they tell my story?”
It’s what I feel when I see every community of color and other marginalized peoples rallying to support us, to express their solidarity with us in this specific moment. It’s what I feel when I see white, straight, cis people standing with us as well.
When we say, “we need diverse books,” we do not mean that books by marginalized people are only for marginalized people. We are pointing out the dearth of, alongside the need for, diverse books.
And everyone needs diverse stories. Imagining someone else’s internal life vividly enough to feel it within yourself is how we reshape culture and unlearn false ideas. How we defuse fear and begin asking questions instead of making assumptions. How we expand our circles beyond the people in our immediate vicinity. How we face evil and refuse to allow it to win.
We cannot build a better world if we cannot imagine ourselves together in it.
Stories of marginalized people are not here for tidy consumption. They are not here to be simply swallowed and passed through for nutritional value by people who have not lived our lives. They are how we acknowledge that our past, no matter how recent or distant, is not merely history but a living, vital part of our present. We carry it with us. These stories are an attempt to capture the texture and richness of our experiences, and to shape the future we hope to see. They are a reminder to keep fighting for progress.
For Asian Americans, there’s frequent talk of in-betweenness, of not being enough. It’s true; we are not fully Asian or American. But representation means telling us that we are wholly ourselves. We are something new. We are still mapping who we are, but that doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary for the cartography to exist.
Do the work, but recognize the work includes refilling the well of your own humanity, of putting yourself back into the narrative.
Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky, writes Rebecca Solnit. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future—and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.
Rage and fear and hurt are currently driving us, but it’s the hope and love and community that will sustain us.
I am Asian American. I am no longer asking for permission to exist.
I am hurting, but I am not defeated or alone.
I am Asian American, and of it, I refuse to be anything but deeply, unapologetically proud.
* * *
Atlanta-based AAPI Organizations/Chapters:
- Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta – “the first and only nonprofit legal advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) in Georgia and the Southeast.”
- Center for Pan Asian Community Services – “Established as the first and largest Asian and Pacific Islander health and human service agency in the Southeast region, CPACS has been providing its core groups of services to immigrant and refugee families in Georgia since 1980.”
- Verified Atlanta shooting victim fundraisers
- GoFundMe-organized AAPI Community Fund
- Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Atlanta Fund for the victims and their families
- Stop AAPI Hate – nonprofit that tracks incidents of hate and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S.
- Anti-Asian Violence Resources – includes statistics, bystander trainings, mental health resources, and more
- Asian Americans, A PBS Documentary – “a five-hour film series that delivers a bold, fresh perspective on a history that matters today, more than ever… Told through intimate personal stories, the series will cast a new lens on U.S. history and the ongoing role that Asian Americans have played.”
- Asian Author Alliance’s Kidlit Directory – “A Directory of Asian Kidlit Authors as a way to help others discover and amplify Asian voices and stories!”
- KiBooka – site by author Linda Sue Park that showcases kids’ books (picture, Middle Grade, and Young Adult) and their Korean American + Korean Diaspora authors
- The Asian American Curriculum Project – “Our mission is to educate the public about the great diversity of the Asian American experience through book distribution, cultural awareness, and educating Asian Americans about their own heritage, thus instilling a sense of pride.”
- Maomi Bookstore (Chamblee, GA)
- Femme Fire Books (Jacksonville, FL)
- Arkipelago Books (San Francisco, CA)
- The Asian American Curriculum Project (San Mateo, CA) – proceeds from sales also support their nonprofit, which works to “bring a wide variety of Asian American curriculum materials to schools, libraries, and the general public.”
- Bel Canto Books (Long Beach, CA)
- Eastwind Books (Berkeley, CA)
- Giant Robot Store (Los Angeles, CA)
- A Good Used Book (Los Angeles, CA)
- The Lev (Los Angeles, CA)
- Philippine Expressions Bookstore (San Pedro, CA)
- Various Locations
JoAnn Yao is the Social Media Manager for We Need Diverse Books. Among other things, she has conducted research for the American Film Institute, provided book and script coverage for a Hollywood agency, designed an online narrative game, and written a comic for a New Frontiers anthology. She lives in New York City with her dragon’s hoard of books. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.