He Killed Them Because They Were Asian Women

Not because they were Asian. Not because they were women. But because they were Asian women, undivided and intersectional.

I hadn’t done anything to him.

All I did was step off the curb.

“Get out of the street you Black bitch!,” as he raised his White middle finger.

My face flushed and I looked around to see who noticed this moment of public humiliation. No other Black women were around, but the Black men and White women in the vicinity averted my eyes. I found neither protection nor belonging with them. This was something that I faced alone: not White, not male. Black and woman. Undivided.

On Tuesday, March 16th, the country endured something that was seemingly commonplace pre-COVID: a mass shooting. A White man, using guns he purchased the day before, massacred eight people in the Atlanta area. He walked into two massage parlors, one named “Young’s Asian Massage,” and started shooting. In the end, he killed six Asian women working in the establishments and a White woman and White man who were receiving services. He also injured others.

Anti-Asian Rhetoric and Violence

While White supremacy often says, to Asian faces, that they are the ever-loved “model minority,” behind their backs White supremacy derides the group as a racial and national threat.

Early reports of the victims’ race provided a reminder, and perhaps an ultimate example, of the increasing number of seemingly random violent attacks against Asian people, especially women. While the unique identities of the victims may have been random, the fact that they were targeted is not random at all. Over a year of anti-Asian rhetoric and the long-lasting devastation of the mishandled pandemic called for a scapegoat for the country’s woes. While White supremacy often says, to Asian faces, that they are the ever-loved “model minority,” behind their backs White supremacy derides the group as a racial and national threat.

Yet, just as quickly, another narrative emerged: Despite the context — massage salons owned and operated by Asian women, increased terror and physical violence against the Asian community — this wasn’t about race, according to the officers who apprehended the murderer. And also, “this wasn’t about gender,” because a man died as well (and one is still in critical condition given his injury).

Even taking the officers’ beliefs about motive at face value — that he killed because of a sex addiction — the fact that he killed this group of people in response to this external influence is itself evidence that he targeted Asian women because they were Asian women. The stereotype of the Asian woman as sexual fetishes for the male gaze, together with a liminal existence of being in low-wage, highly stigmatized work was the reason he targeted these places and not others.

Intersectional Subjugation

Intersectionality imagines our bodies as located in a multi-dimensional space, each of us situated in a time and space regarding socially salient categories.

This is what intersectional subjugation looks like. As a concept, intersectionality recognizes that unique experiences of oppression and subjugation lie at the “intersection” of socially salient categories, those categories around which our society organizes: our race, our class, our gender, and our sexual orientation, among others. The intersectionality concept, coined and developed over thirty years by my UCLA School of Law colleague Kimberle Crenshaw, originated to help us to understand women of color’s experiences of interpersonal violence and employment discrimination within the legal sphere of trying to get justice from the courts. Our laws and our thinking insist on operating only within singular social categories — race OR gender OR class.

Intersectionality imagines our bodies as located in a multi-dimensional space, each of us situated in a time and space regarding socially salient categories. We don’t experience life along one dimension, nor do we perceive others as atomized by race or gender. Our bodies are consistently raced and gendered. I am a lighter-skinned, highly- and elitely-educated Black straight woman who, as a result of my life at the intersection of color and race and class and gender and sexuality, has a unique experience with privilege and subordination. That does not mean I am the additive of the privileges after subtracting the oppression. Rather, my experience, and all of our experiences, exist in what Black feminist scholar Patricia Hills Collins describes as “an overarching structure of domination.”

An Overarching Structure of Domination

Last week’s massacre forces us to consider the Asian woman body as a site of racialized misogyny with race-class scripts and practices.

The tragedy of last week’s murders needs to be recognized as violence against the Asian woman’s body as she experiences subjugation because she is an Asian woman. The structure of domination here was like a traffic circle, a tactic of coordination of where roads collide at our space in the social hierarchy. Some roads lead to privilege, while others lead to subordination and what happens in the middle deserves its own consideration.

These Asian women’s bodies in that space at that time collided with White male supremacy to end in death. Last week’s massacre forces us to consider the Asian woman body as a site of racialized misogyny with race-class scripts and practices. (The history from which this emerges is not hard to find if one is willing to do the work. Here are a few resources to get started.) It requires us to see how the White man who had a sex addiction specifically targeted those he considered to be the root of his troubles: the stereotypically demure and sexualized fetish existing in the Asian woman’s body for the White man’s pleasure.

He targeted them because they were Asian women. Not because they were Asian. Not because they were women. Because they were Asian women.

When I walked across that street that night, that White man yelled at me because of BOTH skin color and gender. That’s all he needed to remind me of my place near the bottom of the race-gender hierarchy. He didn’t say, “Get out the street, you Black,” nor did he say, “Get out of the street, bitch.” He specifically noted my race AND my gender as they existed in my body at that moment.

The combination may have been the reason he chose to yell at all.

Law professor. Teach and write about the law of educational inequality, property and the family. Mom of 3. Amateur artist. All opinions my own.

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