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Yes, the Atlanta shooting was a hate crime fueled by racism and misogyny

By Michelle Crystal Phan, April 20 2021—

On March 16, 2021, a white gunman was charged with killing eight people in three separate spas in Atlanta. Six of those victims were Asian women. According to the shooter, he saw spas as the source of his sexual temptations and believed that eliminating them would suppress these urges. Even though the shooter correlated the spas with his sexual desires, there is no evidence that the spas had any connections to sexual work. Shortly after the shooting, Cherokee County sheriff spokesman, Jay Baker, commented on the situation saying that the shooter did what he did because he was “having a bad day.” Baker’s statement makes it seem as though this shooting was not race-based, instead, the shooter could only resolve his personal sexual issues by targeting multiple spas, with eight victims caught in the crossfire. Let’s dissect this.

Despite denial from authorities, this shooting was a hate crime targeting Asian women. This shooting comes on the heels of increased hate crimes towards East and Southeast Asians in Western countries, with rising violence based on the harmful narratives placed on Asian people. Additionally, the intersectionality of the victims involved is no doubt an exception to the alarming rise in assaults, as 1 in 3 women aged 15 and above have experienced some sort of physical or sexual violence. The locations the shooter chose very clearly employed mainly Asian women, with one business even being named “Young’s Asian Massage.” It’s unlikely that the shooter had no discretion that the targets of his crime would be Asian women, supporting the argument that this incident was targeting a specific demographic.

Although the shooter said that the reason for what he did was to eliminate his sexual desires, his actions are still foundationally fueled by misogyny and racism. A hate crime is defined as a crime that is motivated by the prejudice one has regarding the victim’s race, sexual orientation, religion or other characteristics. Asian women have been fetishized and hypersexualized in movies, literature and media for decades. This fetishization is rooted in white imperialism. Full Metal Jacket is a film that popularized the quote “me love you long time,” evolving into a phrase used when referring to foreign Asian women and sex. This film is a small example in a plethora of mass media that perpetuates Asian women’s role to sexually serve men through exotic and submissive demeanours. There’s little standing on the gunman’s claims that he was sexually motivated because no sexual activities were occurring at the spas. Thus, the next most reasonable explanation for what he did likely stands on his idea of what sexuality means in terms of women and race. He was motivated by the stereotypical connections he made between spas that employ mostly Asian women — which are not innately sexual — and sex. This “temptation” is just a hidden concoction of sexual fetishism, with Asian women allegedly provoking the very biases the shooter had about those working at the spas.

If the shooter truly did what he did because of his sex addiction, why did he not specifically target businesses that are more outwardly seen as sexual, such as strip clubs? His decision to specifically choose spas was motivated by his idea of sexual desires and the objectification of women, to the point that the alleged only way to control his sex addiction was by taking the lives of those that fit into his narrative. Women shouldn’t ever be responsible for a man that can’t control his sexual fantasies, nor be in a situation where they lose their lives. The shooters’ actions were based on his gratification and feelings of power over women, which is apparent in the fact that his inability to contain his sexual desires translated into shooting women that make him feel these emotions.

If it was found that no sex work was evident, why is this still a part of the narrative? These shootings were motivated by the dehumanization of women to the point where the shooter felt the need to take his personal conflict out on those that seem to fit these roles. The stereotypes of Asian women in “massage parlours” performing sexual acts have become so pervasive and detrimental to the point that individuals lose their lives because of it. Many are trying to misdirect the real intentions behind this shooting by bringing up the possibility of sex work occurring in these spas. It just furthers victim-blaming and perpetuates the biases that society has on race, gender and class. This shooting was a result of deep-rooted misogyny and stereotypes about women — specifically Asian women — that can be seen in media and film through the commonality of Asian fetishization. 

The bigger complication is how the sheriff’s phrase of “having a bad day” is much more harmful than it seems. The sheriff that said this was found to be promoting a t-shirt with racist implications regarding China and COVID-19 last year, which doesn’t stray far from trying to protect the innocence of a man who decided to target Asian women. 

So why exactly did the sheriff and mass media try to push the narrative that this was a man who was just having a bad day? First off, it’s because he is white. It wouldn’t look good for the media if Asian women died in the hands of anyone but a non-white individual. They essentially aimed to protect the innocence and face of the white shooter by shifting the blame towards something that he allegedly can’t control — in this case, his sexual impulses and his “bad day.” Secondly, they didn’t want to admit that he targeted Asian women. By saying he was having a bad day, it seems as though the shooting wasn’t motivated in any other way. It’s likely that if a Black, Indigenous or a person of colour (BIPOC) committed the shooting, there would be less reluctance to call this a hate crime. This mechanism of protecting white shooters in American media has been happening for too long, all to protect and maintain white superiority. 

With that being said, this pattern of harmful narratives is feeding into a bigger issue regarding BIPOC individuals. Whenever we see members of the BIPOC community commit a crime, they tend to be labelled terrorists, thugs, gangsters, criminals or an illegal. Although, when a white man does something similar, they are painted as mentally ill, unstable, bullied or having a bad day. This inconsistency of labelling shooters in America regarding white and non-white individuals is further perpetuating the harmful stereotype that many BIPOC individuals already face on a regular basis. Even though over half of the shooters recorded in America are white, we tend to see shootings done by BIPOC individuals become heightened and criminalized to the point that non-white shooters are seen as more malicious. The pattern of attaching certain labels and negative connotations towards people of colour in the media criminalizes them further while making white shooters who do the same be seen as misunderstood and not knowing any better. Downplaying the shootings and crimes of white people while scrutinizing and blaming non-white races on shootings is because North America is and will always be built on structures of racism. Having a white shooter that didn’t do what he did because of mental issues would ruin the specific narrative of white supremacy. It further alienates BIPOC individuals into stereotypical boxes, transferring the blame off a white shooter’s shoulders onto those of racialized communities.

The inability of mass media and authorities to label this shooting as a hate crime misdirects the situation, undermining the level of violence that minorities experience in the face of stereotypes. This shooting was a crime motivated by sexism and racism. So yes, this was a hate crime at the hands of a white man who sought to fulfill his own narratives of what Asian women should be, at the expense of their lives. 

This article is part of our Opinions section.

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