It's not that the murder of eight people in Atlanta on March 16 didn't shock. Even after so many mass shootings and a widely reported spike in anti-Asian hate crimes, the news that the suspect, a 21-year-old white man, had driven to three Asian-owned spas and killed Douyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Paul Andre Michels, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun and Yong Ae Yue, still landed cold in the belly. It still warped the feel of passing hours as the names and faces of the innocent victims trickled into my Twitter feed. Their reeling families' grief surfacing in interviews still blurred away everything else I'd been preoccupied with.
But it was the familiarity that hurt most. When the Cherokee County Sheriff's Department downplayed the role of racism in the killings in favor of the suspect's proffered excuse of sex addiction, explaining he'd had "a really bad day," it felt utterly predictable. When that police captain's social media posts surfaced featuring T-shirts that read, "COVID-19, imported from CHY-NA," it fit seamlessly into place with the other pieces. As someone who was happy to echo the racist former president's anti-Asian sentiments on his chest, of course this police officer would ignore the layered racism and misogyny so glaringly obvious in the killer's blaming Asian women as objects of sexual "temptation." Of course the people charged with protecting us look at us like punch lines. Of course he'd sympathize with someone who'd kill us — that person is a white man, not a virus, not an assumed prostitute, not a foreigner.
The right wing's shift back to attempting to pit Asian people against Black people was familiar, too, though it seems to have less punch this time given the increased solidarity among Asian Americans and other people of color under the national banner of Black Lives Matter. Social media offered more painful déjà vu: massage parlor jokes and the flattening of the victims' lives into thin stereotypes.
The lack of surprise in my mother's voice on the phone was hard to hear. Since a pair of white strangers shouted slurs and spit on another Asian woman in her circle of friends last year, she's curtailed her walks. I cannot explain to you how enraged I am that a woman so utterly indomitable should be made afraid of anyone.
Since COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., we've seen a dramatic rise in attacks on Asians, driven in part by former President Trump's repeating of debunked conspiracy theories and referring to the virus as "the China virus." The ripples of that influence reach Humboldt. I hear stories among friends, things that went unreported because what good would it do? A confrontation, a woman hit with a shopping cart. Street attacks against elders in San Francisco don't feel as far away as we pretend. Some of us worry about going out, look over our shoulders, pay closer attention to the stares — sometimes hostile — we've grown used to.
Writing this piece, I paused to consider my safety, along with the emotional toll potential responses would take. After writing a piece about COVID-related anti-Asian racism, I got an angry message from a man who "happen[s] to be white," a phrase I always appreciate as an indicator that the person speaking to me sees it as an isolated fact of genetics with no bearing on the rest of their life, imploring me to stop talking about anti-Asian racism because I was somehow making it happen. He insisted nobody really thinks these awful things that he didn't want to hear about and, if I would just shut up, it would go away.
Well, that would be convenient. But sadly, the opposite is true. If you're not actively calling out racism and white supremacy, you're bringing us closer to the violence we've seen in places like New York, San Francisco and Atlanta. When you take part in or choose to ignore dehumanizing Asian people with a dog-eater joke about an Asian restaurant, lies about the origin of COVID-19, mocking Asian accents, stereotyping South Asians as terrorists, treating us as perpetual foreigners, fetishizing Asian women and stereotyping us as prostitutes — denigrating sex workers in general, for that matter — you're making it comfortable and easy to treat Asian people like things, not human beings.
These are the same allowed behaviors — dismissed as humor, generational habit, as couched in some imagined truth — that made it easy to erect a gallows in Old Town and order Chinese residents who'd helped build settler towns and infrastructure to leave by a waiting ship or be hanged in 1885. They cleared a path to seizing the property of Japanese Americans and imprisoning them for years without cause or trial in 1942. They emboldened a judge to choose not to imprison the men who murdered Vincent Chin, beating his head in with a baseball bat in 1982. They made Balbir Singh Sodhi a target after 9/11, when his killer used his Sikh turban as an excuse to shoot him at his gas station in 2001.
And now it's what hums in the background as a sheriff's captain explains away the murder of eight people as a white man's "really bad day."
We see the pattern as clearly as those who follow it. Show us you can break it. I'd love very dearly, for once, to be surprised.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.