Commentary: Toxic stereotypes make Asian Americans easy targets of hate attacks

AMHERST, Massachusetts: Over the past year, attacks on Asian Americans have increased more than 150 per cent over the previous year, including the Mar 16 murders of eight people, six being Asian American women, in Atlanta.

Some of these attacks may be classified as hate crimes. But whether they meet that legal definition or not, they all fit a long history of viewing Asian Americans in particular ways that make discrimination and violence against them more likely.

I have researched and taught on Asian America for 20 years, including the pernicious effects of stereotypes and attacks on individuals. Race can play a role in violence and prejudice, even if the offender does not clearly express a racist intent.

Much remains unknown about the attacks in Atlanta, but the man charged with the murders has said he did not have a racial prejudice against people of Asian descent. Rather, he has claimed he has a sexual addiction.

But that statement indicates that he assumed these women were prostitutes, whether that’s true or not. This assumption, and the resulting violence, is just one of many that Asian Americans have suffered through the years.

READ: Atlanta shootings expose fear in Asian-American community

READ: Commentary: Protecting public health is key in novel coronavirus fight but we must also tackle xenophobia

A LONG HISTORY OF PREJUDICE

The assumption that all Chinese women were of questionable moral character placed the burden on the women themselves to somehow prove they were not prostitutes before being allowed to immigrate.

The US military contributed to this conception of Asian women as hyper-sexualised. During the wars in the Philippines at the start of the 19th century, and during the mid-20th-century wars in Korea and Vietnam, servicemen took advantage of women who had turned to sex work in response to their lives being wrecked by war.

In the 1960s, the US government brokered a deal with Thailand to be a “rest and relaxation” centre for military personnel fighting in Vietnam. That bolstered what became the foundations of Thailand’s modern-day sex tourism industry, which attracts men from the United States and Europe.

Hundreds of women from Thailand were forced into prostitution

(Photo: AFP/Jimin Lai)

This association of Asian women with men’s sexual fantasies has permeated popular culture, such as a scene in the 1987 Stanley Kubrick movie “Full Metal Jacket” in which a Vietnamese woman entices two servicemen by saying, “Me love you long time,” and regular themes in the animated comedy “Family Guy”.

This makes Asian women more desirable to sex traffickers, brought over to serve male desires in spas and massage parlors such as the ones attacked in Atlanta.

This history of sexualisation of Asian women, shaped by the US military and patriarchy, creates the backdrop to the Atlanta shootings. It helped create the conditions for the Asian spas and massage parlors to be there in the first place. It presents Asian American women as submissive, responsive agents of sexual temptation.

Race and gender inform what happened and the public response to it, whether the alleged shooter articulates racist motives or not.

READ: Commentary: Please don’t shout ‘coronavirus’ at people

READ: White House announces new measures to counter anti-Asian violence

STEREOTYPES AND PERCEPTIONS MATTER

Other crimes against Asian Americans may also lack clear evidence of racial bias, but still echo anti-Asian American stereotypes.

For instance, many elderly Asian Americans have been shoved to the ground in recent weeks, and Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old man, died in one such incident in February in San Francisco.

The public defender representing the accused perpetrator in Ratanapakdee’s death denies that race motivated the crime. But that is different from saying race was not a factor at all.

Practically all Asian Americans, but elderly men in particular, are often viewed as nonaggressive, meek and unable or unwilling to fight back, in contrast to men of other races. They are easy targets.

READ: Video shows elderly Asian-American woman assaulted on New York street

IT’S NOT ALWAYS A CRIME

Other anti-Asian American racism isn’t criminal at all, but still fits with the nation’s racist history. As COVID-19 spread across the US, Asian-owned restaurants and stores were the first to experience declining revenue, even though most of the earliest cases in the US came from Europe.

FILE PHOTO: A Chinese restaurant and barber shop in Harlem are closed,

FILE PHOTO: A Chinese restaurant and barber shop in Harlem are closed, as retail sales suffer record drop during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York, U.S., April 15, 2020. REUTERS/Bryan R Smith/File Photo/File Photo

There is a long history of suspecting Asian Americans of carrying disease into the US, which made it seem natural for people to avoid Asian American-owned businesses. President Donald Trump’s repeated public declarations that the “Kung Flu” virus came from China reinforced those feelings.

This race-based and erroneous assumption has resulted in Asian Americans having among the highest unemployment rates in the nation, though they had among the lowest before the pandemic.

It defies logic to claim that race isn’t relevant in attacks on Asian Americans unless the perpetrator actively references it. Research has found that most Americans assume a person of Asian descent is foreign-born, unless there is some aspect of their appearance that clearly marks them as American – such as being overweight.

Asian Americans of all types experience this perception of being “forever foreigners” in a wide range of ways. Regardless of whether some or all – or none – of these latest assaults on Asian Americans are proved to be hate crimes or not, race plays a historic role.

Pawan Dhingra is Professor of Sociology and American Studies at Amherst College. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

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