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Invisibility And Fragility: Asian Americans In Mountain West Reflect On Atlanta Mass Shootings

 Melanie Lan contributed her image and words to the project "I Am Not a Virus." New Mexico photographer Argus Paul Estabrook launched the exhibit to give a voice to Asian Americans experiencing racism amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courtesy Argus Paul Estabrook
Melanie Lan contributed her image and words to the project "I Am Not a Virus." New Mexico photographer Argus Paul Estabrook launched the exhibit to give a voice to Asian Americans experiencing racism amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid a sharp rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, some Asian Americans living in the Mountain West say they are not surprised by the recent mass shootings at Atlanta-area spas that left eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent.

Authorities have not ruled the incident as a hate crime yet, but many observers feel otherwise.

The suspect, a white man, blamed his “sex addiction.”

Jennifer Ho, a professor of race and ethnicity at University of Colorado, Boulder, and the daughter of Chinese immigrants, says that tendency to dehumanize Asian American women is inextricably linked to racism.

“It's happened since the first wave of Asian women, in this case Chinese women, entered U.S. shores. It's the association of Asian women with sex because they were forced into sexual servitude,” she said.

Many years later, Ho said the depiction of Vietnamese women as prostitutes during the Vietnam War helped deepen such stereotypes.

Pasha Eve, a Korean American community organizer, spoke at a recent anti-Asian hate rally in Denver. “It was a lot of clenched jaw, tears rolling down our face, fierce determination, grieving,” she said.

Eve has spoken at dozens of community-organized events over the years but this is the first time she got emotional during her speech. “I wept for these women and I wept because I was not surprised when I got news that this had happened at all.”

She pointed to the long history of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. The vigil, for example, was held in what used to be Denver’s Chinatown. It was destroyed back in 1880 during a race riot. One Chinese man was lynched and others sustained severe injuries.

Ho also turned back the pages of history citing the nation’s racist policies enacted against Asian Americans. She says the U.S. has a track record of retaliating when it perceives a threat from “an Asian entity.” Take the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that barred Chinese people from immigrating to the U.S., she said. Then during World War II, an executive order issued by President Franklin Roosevelt suspended the constitutional rights of people living on the West Coast. It cleared the way for the imprisonment of Japanese Americans at incarceration camps across the West.

“It is frightening the amount of power that the U.S. government had and that they gave to the military,” Ho said. She pointed out that the executive order did not mention race or national origin, yet the U.S. military interpreted it as an edict to only incarcerate Japanese American people on the West Coast.

Aura Newlin’s great-grandparents were imprisoned at one such incarceration camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. “That was acceptable to the American public because there had been almost a century of anti-Asian propaganda leading up to it,” said Newlin, a Japanese American professor of sociology and anthropology at Wyoming’s Northwest College and a board member of the Heart Mountain Interpretation Center.

Now fast forward to the COVD-19 pandemic and former President Donald Trump’s refrain about the “Chinese virus.” Newlin said it is easy to connect the dots — the effects of such rhetoric have been deadly.

After Trump first tweeted “Chinese virus,” researchers found that the use of that hashtag and other anti-Asian hashtags skyrocketed. Meanwhile, over the last year, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported a nearly 150 percent rise in anti-Asianhate crimes across 16 of America’s largest cities.

Korean American artist Argus Paul Estabrook has been anticipating an attack like the one in Atlanta ever since Trump began deploying racist language about the virus — descriptors that right-wing politicians and pundits also adopted and have repeatedly broadcasted to their followers.

“I just knew it was a matter of time,” Estabrook said. “And then seeing that happen — it's sickening because people are dead and it's squarely because of this snowballing effect of hate and misplaced blame that has been put on the Asian American community.”

The New Mexico photographer launched the collaborative project “I Am Not a Virus” with the Asian American Association of New Mexico last November. It is a stirring collection of self-taken photographs and words from Asian Americans who have experienced racism since the onset of the pandemic.

In the exhibit, a black and white photograph of Melanie Lan is accompanied by her recounting of the racism and hostility she endured on a trip to the grocery store: "When COVID19 was just starting to hit the US, before any of us knew to use masks, I sneezed in a grocery store parking lot. A white man whipped around, eyes bulging, and screamed at me to ‘go back to China and die.’”

The project also captures the kinds of complex relationships that immigrants have with the U.S. as they weigh potential opportunities against the increasing awareness that acceptance may be unachievable in their new country.

"I came to the U.S.A to look for a better life,” HH Bae wrote. “But during this pandemic period, I am wondering, 'Is this a life that I wanted to live?'"

Estabrook wanted to give a platform to unheard voices. He said that as an Asian American, “often I don't have a voice, quite frankly.” And the voice that he often feels obligated to use, his public voice, “always has to be good for others to hear it.”

Speaking to the Mountain West News Bureau about this project worried Estabrook too, that somehow he would not “come off well.”

“And I think that's something that a lot of Asian Americans probably can relate to, this kind of pressure that we have to always have a good face on to be able to be respected or be taken seriously,” he said.

Estabrook spoke to the invisibility of Asian Americans compounded by the “model minority” stereotype — the myth of widespread Asian American achievement and success used to minimize the pernicious effects of racism in America. A look at the data helps to dismantle that falsehood.

According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a nonprofit focused on building wealth in underrepresented communities, in 2018, 10.1% of Asian Americans lived in poverty, compared to 8.1% of white, non-Hispanic Americans. The nonprofit stressed that Asian Americans do not face income insecurity equally, with vast disparities seen among Asian American nationalities.

In other words, Asian Americans are not a monolith. They have roots in a multitude of countries with different cultures, languages and belief systems. But at least one common thread that Ho, Newlin and Estabrook seem to share is a belief that the shootings of several Asian women in Georgia elucidate a part of the lived experience of Asian American people in the U.S.

“I thought, yeah, this is what it means to live a life of precarity and vulnerability as an Asian American person,” Ho said.

Copyright 2021 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Robyn Vincent

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