Stare straight ahead. Walk with purpose. Don’t engage.

“Ni hao, beautiful.”

Go away. Go away. Go away.

“Hey! I said, ‘Ni hao!’”

Now he’s following me. “Hello! I’m talking to you!”

When he grabs my arm, I worry he might bruise it. Or break it.

“Where are you from, sexy?”

“Stop. Go away.”

He’s startled by my American accent. “What? You don’t want a compliment? C’mon, I thought you and I might get a happy ending.”

This type of exchange happens every summer in New York City if you’re an Asian woman walking down a public street. The winter is nice because you can wrap yourself in a sleeping bag-sized coat and throw your hood over your head. They can’t sexualize you if they can’t see any part of your body. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve thought about hiding my long, black hair under a hat. I often think about how at least the mask covers my face — but then I wonder, will the mask make racial profiling worse? Will people think I have a “Chinese virus”? So many things to consider.

On March 16, 2020, former President Donald Trump tweeted the term “Chinese virus” to refer to COVID-19, causing the hashtag to increase by a mind-numbing 8,351% from the previous week. Fifty percent of those tweets contained anti-Asian sentiment. And as we all know, hate doesn’t stay online. Hate crimes targeting Asian Americans have since increased by 150% nationwide and 833% in New York City alone. Crimes against Asian women made up 68% of those reports.

The shooter who killed eight people — six of whom were Asian women — at three Asian spas in Atlanta, Georgia, on Monday told authorities that he had a “sexual addiction,” and that the spas were “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” Charging this attack as a hate crime would make it possible to punish the shooter more severely, which is likely why he denied race as his motive. Or perhaps he truly believes he “doesn’t see color.” Either way, is he the person we should be asking?

Yesterday, a well-meaning man I know agreed that the shooter “wasn’t necessarily looking for Asian women. He was mad about sex. It could have been any women.” When I pointed out that this man targeted three Asian salons, the response I got was, “Well, you know what can happen in those types of places…”

So far, no reports have confirmed any sexual activity happened at any of the Atlanta establishments. It’s unquestionably racist to automatically assume so. 

These stereotypes often stem from the severe lack of accurate representation of Asian women in media. In high school, people loved quoting The 40-Year-Old Virgin at me. They would yell, “We gon’ need mo’ wax!” and pull their eyes backward. We all laughed about it. This sexy masseuse, who giggled like a schoolgirl while she waxed Steve Carrell’s chest, was the only Asian female we’d ever seen on the big screen. Versions of this same character have shown up in The Hangover, Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sex and the City, How I Met Your Mother ... the list goes on and on. 

Asian women have been fetishized and paid the price for it throughout history.

It reminds me of the everyday sexual harassment I’ve experienced on the street or subway. A predator sees you, an Asian woman, and connects your ethnicity with the hypersexualized stereotypes he’s seen in porn and mass media. The predator demands your attention and assumes you’ll be obedient because Asian women are supposed to be “submissive” and “docile.” You reject his advances and the predator flies into a rage. You fear for your safety.

Even as a feisty, take-no-shit, American woman, I don’t feel like there is much I can do to defend myself in these situations. I try not to make eye contact. I try to walk as fast as I can. If there is an altercation, I guess I could scream for someone to help me. And I count myself lucky that I’m an American citizen who could go to the authorities without getting killed or deported.

That’s not the case for many women who work in salons in low-income neighborhoods. These women often exist in extremely vulnerable conditions. They might be living in poverty. They might be immigrants. They might be undocumented. They might be victims of human trafficking. The establishment itself might be sexually exploiting them. 

This reality is a thousand times more disturbing than any R-rated Judd Apatow movie. However, it’s media like this that perpetuate the “hypersexual Asian spa-worker” trope. It may have seemed harmless in 2005, but now it feels harmful for Asian women, everywhere

So it infuriates me when people try to separate race from the attacks on Monday. The Atlanta terrorist clearly bought into these stereotypes and took it upon himself to punish Asian women for his own sexual addiction.

If he assumed the Asian women at these salons were sex workers, his attack was prejudiced, and thus, racially motivated.

If he was a patron of these salons, where he solicited sex from vulnerable Asian women, his attack was prejudiced, and thus, racially motivated.

If he was looking for “random” women to attack and ended up choosing three Asian salons, his attack was prejudiced, and thus, racially motivated.

I wanted to share my story because I believe that only empathy can change perception.  Representation matters, and we need to start seeing Asian women as multidimensional humans, not sexist tropes. Because that clearly leads to violence.

In My Own Words

Demand Equity

As an Asian Woman, I Know Firsthand That Sexism and Racism Are Inextricably Linked

By Liann Kaye