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#StopAsianHate: Let’s talk about sexualised racism

Confronting the latest spate of anti-Asian violence.

In the recent Atlanta shootings that killed eight people, six were Asian women. In the news articles and social media content that has been produced since, many still spell the names of the murdered Asian women wrong.

On top of this, Captain Jay Baker, who was the spokesperson on the investigation, told press that the assailant had simply had ‘a bad day’. Baker was later taken off the case after it was discovered that he had used anti-Asian slurs on Facebook last year. Neglecting to mention the racial and sexist intentions behind why the shooter deliberately targeted Asian workers across spa parlours in Atlanta, the narrative spun by the media became one in which a 21-year-old white man had simply wanted to ‘eliminate his temptation’ due to his ‘sex addiction’.

If there is one thing that is glaringly obvious about the case, it is that the lives of Asian people (especially women) are repeatedly represented as disposable, as if one man’s ‘bad day’ can excuse the ruthlessness of the Atlanta killings. Afterall, we are the perpetual aliens, the external ‘others’, and sexual objects; expected to appreciate the yellow fever jokes that frame us as ‘cute Asian women’, ‘perfect, obedient partners’ and ‘exotic’ women.

It is more important than ever to understand that racism and sexism are not separate issues. This intersectionality is made clear in the everyday lives of Asian women. In the stories that Asian women have shared online, the discourse of sexualised racism is embodied in our everyday lives. Living in the body of an Asian woman means that we are constantly being painted as exotic entities, small, quiet, obedient; just another Asian girl. Our bodies are hypersexualized under the white male gaze. It is no doubt the shooting is racially and sexually motivated. It is also no doubt that denying the sexualised racism underlying this tragedy is not just ignorant but filled with the sting of everyday racism, once again sweeping Asian people under the rug.

Sexualised Politics, Racism and History: Asian women migrants

Sexualised racism towards Asian women has a long history – both in the US and Australia – yet, we are frequently left out from the discussion of racism and migrant history in general. In the era of Gold Rush America, Asian immigrant women, particularly Chinese women, were dehumanised as  ‘lewd’ or ‘debauched’. Part of the reason for this portrayal was that the smuggling and transporting of Chinese women into the sex work industry was secretly encouraged by the government as a ‘soft method’ to stabilize immigrant men; yet, these women had no welfare guarantees. Lucie Cheng Hirata writes that Chinese sex workers would help to “maintain the labor force of single young men, which is in the interest of capitalists who would otherwise have to pay higher wages to the laborers with families to support”. Hirata also notes that the exploitation of Asian sex workers “enable[d] entrepreneurs to extract large profits from the work of women under their control”. As integral as Asian women have been and continue to be to the history of the world we know, we are constantly sidelined and forgotten.

Eventually, with Asian sex workers regarded as morally corrupt, and a threat to the institutions of marriage and white males, the 1875 Page Act was established to  prevented Chinese women in general from immigrating to the United States. This legislation was and later expanded to women from Japan and Mongolia. Asian people, particularly those of southeast Asian and East Asian descents, have dually been viewed as morally corrupt while sexually alluring ever since.

In Australia, sexual politics remain glossed over in the shadow of colonialism, and the stories of non-Anglo women remain largely unseen, covered by the ‘harmony’ mythos that permeates images of Australia. In a very similar manner to in the US, during the Gold Rush and early colonial period, Asian migrant sex workers were secretly encouraged by the government to work in the gold mining areas and immigrant worker groups as a way to stabilise the large in-flow of migrant men. The history of the treatment of Asian migrant women across continents overlaps in the lack of welfare for Asian migrant women in the sex industry, as they were globally portrayed as a threat to the purity of European marriage institutions. 

Despite growing discussions on the history of Asian migrants in general, few pay attention to the history of migrant women. Even today, in the decriminalised sex industry of which Asian migrant women constitute a large majority of the population, the accurate demography and statistics of these women remain unknown according to the report by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

#StopAsianHate: the Australian Context

After the Atlanta shooting and the new waves of discussion over racism and sexism towards Asian women, it is surprising and frustrating to know that the #StopAsianHate movement has sparked little discussion in Australia. It is as if racism towards Asians is an ‘American problem’ that does not exist in Australia. It might take people a while to remember the racist abuse that Asian people experienced during COVID-19. Between April to June 2020, 400 Asian-identified people reported being verbally and/or physically abused on the street in the space of three months. On USyd’s own campus, there were cases of Asian international students being verbally violated for speaking their first languages, asked to ‘get back to their own country’ and being physically attacked. Though different from the American context, racism towards Asians in Australia is also stirred by its geographical proximity to the Asia-Pacific. In the seminal article Racial/Spatial Anxiety by the Western Sydney scholar Ien Ang, she wrote, ‘the geography of white Australia [is connected to] the fear of Invasion… The invader was imagined as Asian: so geographically proximate, so threateningly multitudinous, and not least, so alienly non-white.” Bearing this in mind, it is the time for us to reflect on the disposable lives of Asian women in the Atlanta shooting, the racism and sexism towards Asian women in Australia. We must all unlearn racism in Australia, and it’s time to listen to the stories that Asian people have to tell, and work together to #StopAsianHate.