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Asian Americans in Atlanta fear for their safety after spa shootings

Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter
·10-min read

Angela Jiang was getting ready to go to sleep when she received a text message around midnight Tuesday from a community leader she used to work with at a local Asian American advocacy group in Atlanta, asking her to join a call the next morning about shootings that were happening in the area.

This was the first Jiang had heard about any shootings, but she knew right away that whatever was happening must be affecting the Asian American community. The 24-year-old, who grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County and now lives in the city, began searching online for more information and quickly realized that some of the shootings had taken place at spas just five minutes from where she lives.

Not only had people been killed right in her own neighborhood, at businesses she passes by regularly, but as Jiang continued combing through the initial news reports, it became clear that “the majority of the victims were Asian women.”

“I just remember crying myself to sleep that night,” Jiang told Yahoo News.

Flowers seen outside Gold Spa, one of the Atlanta-area spas targeted in a shooting spree that left eight people, including six Asian women, dead on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Flowers outside Gold Spa, one of the Atlanta-area spas targeted in a shooting spree that left eight people, including six Asian women, dead on Tuesday. (Elijah Nouvelage for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

For the next couple of days, Jiang said, she felt “very depressed, but also just unsafe” and afraid to leave her house. Walks around the neighborhood had been a cherished part of her daily work-from-home routine, but now she found herself debating if she should go out at all.

This sense of insecurity wasn’t new. Over the past year, as racially charged rhetoric about the origins of the coronavirus have triggered rising reports of discrimination, harassment and violent attacks against Asian Americans around the country, Jiang said she has become increasingly aware of her identity as an Asian woman — and the particular dangers she faces because of it.

Those feelings, Jiang said, were “definitely exacerbated by the shootings,” which left eight people, six of them Asian women, dead at three different spas in the Atlanta area.

She’s not alone. Yahoo News spoke to a number of members of Atlanta’s Asian American community, most of them women, who said that they too are on high alert in the aftermath of Tuesday’s deadly rampage.

“We are living in a very scary time where people are looking to scapegoat people who look like me and people from my community for things that are beyond our control,” Jessica Liu, a sophomore at Emory University, told Yahoo News. Though Liu said she hasn’t personally been the victim of anti-Asian discrimination or violence, just hearing the stories of so many others who’ve been attacked simply for being Asian has “instilled this general fear in me that that could potentially happen to me. And that’s something I haven’t felt before.”

Liu said that since the spa shootings, she’s been calculating whether she has enough food in her kitchen to skip her weekly trip to the grocery store in order to “mitigate as much risk as possible.”

“I definitely am more concerned for my personal safety,” she said.

For many, the Atlanta spa shootings were terrifying but not unexpected.

“I knew something like this was going to happen eventually,” said Stephanie Zhang, a junior at Emory University and a co-president of Emory’s Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Activists, an organization that advocates on behalf of Asian American students on campus. “My newsfeed has been flooded with attacks on elderly Asian people.”

According to a study released Tuesday by Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit formed last year to track rising cases of hate and discrimination against Asian Americans stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the group received 3,795 reports of racially motivated attacks against Asian Americans between March 2020 and February of this year— likely only a fraction of the total incidents that actually occurred because such attacks are typically underreported. The vast majority, or 68 percent, of reported attacks were against women.

Another report published earlier this month by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino found that 16 of the country’s largest cities saw a 7 percent decline in overall hate crimes in 2020, while hate crimes targeting Asian people grew by nearly 150 percent.

On Thursday, various Asian American activists, academics and leaders, including several members of Congress, testified during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the history and latest surge of anti-Asian discrimination and violence during the pandemic, which many Democrats attributed to the use of inflammatory terms like “China virus” and “kung flu” by former President Donald Trump and other Republicans.

The hearing had been scheduled by the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties prior to Tuesday’s shootings in Atlanta, but the news weighed heavily over much of the discussion. The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., began the hearing with a moment of silence for the victims, and stated in his opening remarks that the killings felt “like the inevitable culmination of a year in which there were nearly 3,800 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate.”

“I want to make clear that all Asian Americans who are understandably feeling hurt and afraid right now and wondering whether anyone else in America cares that Congress sees you, we stand with you,” Cohen said. “We’re gonna do everything in our power to protect you.”

But another official narrative had already begun circulating by then that, for the women who spoke to Yahoo News, seemed to send the exact opposite message.

People hold signs during the
People hold signs at the “Asian Solidarity March” rally against anti-Asian hate on Thursday in Minneapolis. (Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)

At a press conference in Atlanta on Wednesday, Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office relayed a claim made by the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, that the shootings were not motivated by racism but rather by Long’s issues with “sex addiction.” Baker drew criticism for his depiction of the shooting.

“He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope and yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did,” Baker said, adding that the alleged gunman viewed the spas he targeted as “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”

For Jiang, Baker’s comments not only seemed to offer an excuse for the alleged shooter, but his remarks “really erased the suffering” of the victims, and the broader community, in a way that was “incredibly hurtful but not surprising.”

“I think the Asian woman experience in America is particularly difficult,” Jiang said, noting that the long history of exoticization and fetishization of Asian women is something she’s had to contend with in her own dating life.

“I’ve had several relationships with partners who, I wasn’t really sure if they were interested in me [for] my personality or any other aspect of my character, or was it really because I was an Asian woman?”

Liu, the Emory sophomore, said she has “no doubt” that the shootings were racially motivated, a belief that she says has only grown stronger in light of the “sex addiction” claim.

“You can’t separate racism from the way Asian women have been sexualized in society in general,” Liu said. “There’s just too much overlap between the two for race to not be a factor.”

A woman mourns outside Gold Spa on Thursday, March 18, 2021 in Atlanta, GA. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A woman mourns outside Gold Spa on Thursday in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Initially, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office identified the four victims who were fatally shot at a spa in their jurisdiction. They were Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44. The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office has since released the names of the remaining four women who were killed at two other locations, in Atlanta. They were 74-year-old Soon Chung Park, 51-year-old Hyun Jung Grant, 69-year-old Suncha Kim, and Yong Yue, age 63.

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, Zhang said that she and her fellow campus activists moved quickly to reach out to Emory’s Asian American students and provide resources for them to cope with the news. At the same time, she said, her organization has been “pushing out resources for non-Asian students to learn more about the history of Asian American violence” while also working to “demystify popular narratives around Asian Americans and Asian American women.”

“We try to ask people to look at it through the framework of the hypersexualization of Asian women, [which] is a very real thing,” Zhang said. She argued that the fact that the suspect specifically targeted Asian-run spas makes it “very clear that he has this assumption that Asian women fit into this mold of being hypersexualized even if they might not necessarily be in sex work.”

A woman yells during a demonstration following the deadly shootings in Atlanta, Georgia on March 18, 2021. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
A woman at a demonstration following the deadly shootings in the Atlanta area on Thursday. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Long was charged Wednesday with murder and assault, and Deputy Atlanta Police Chief Charles Hampton Jr. said that additional counts, including possible hate crime charges, are not off the table as the shootings are still being investigated, with the help of the FBI.

A spokesperson for the FBI’s Atlanta field office told Yahoo News in a statement that “at this time, the FBI is assisting the Atlanta Police Department and the Cherokee County Sheriff Office in their investigations. We are coordinating closely with those local authorities. If, in the course of the local investigations, information comes to light of a potential federal violation, the FBI is prepared to investigate.”

During Wednesday’s press conference, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms tried to do damage control, emphasizing that “we will not begin to blame victims, and as far as we know in Atlanta these are legally operating businesses that have not been on our radar, the radar of [the Atlanta Police Department].” And on Thursday, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds issued a statement saying that Baker’s comments “were not intended to disrespect any of the victims, the gravity of this tragedy, or express empathy or sympathy for the suspect.”

But for some, the damage had already been done. Zhang believes that Baker’s comments not only helped perpetuate harmful stereotypes about Asian women, but also signaled to members of the Asian American community that the police, the “people we are taught to trust,” she said, can’t be expected to “hold perpetrators of these types of violence accountable for their actions.”

Meanwhile, Jiang said that it didn’t take long after Wednesday’s press conference before she began seeing speculation circulate online about whether the victims may have been sex workers, suggesting that “somehow it’s OK that prostitutes potentially got killed in this instance.”

“It’s really disheartening to me,” Jiang said, noting that the women who worked in those spas, like so many others working in service industries throughout the pandemic, were “already putting themselves so much at risk to just make a livelihood.”

“The cruelty of it all was just incredibly heartbreaking,” she said.

Julia Munslow contributed reporting to this story.

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