Asian communities around the world are in mourning as news spread about the tragic deaths of eight people, six of whom were Asian women (image above in front of one of the spas was sourced from Washington Post). There has been heated debate on whether what happened was racially motivated or not. The Australian Filipina speaks to Dr. Elaine Laforteza, one of the leading voices in the Filipino-Australian community on cultural identity and the fight against racial prejudice, on her thoughts about what happened.
For those who haven’t read the news, here is the extract from The Guardian newspaper published online on Thursday, March 17:
The suspect behind shooting attacks that killed eight people in Atlanta was charged with eight counts of murder on Wednesday, with officials saying he may have planned further attacks.
Police and city leaders also indicated they believe Robert Aaron Long, 21, who did not resist arrest when he was apprehended, was on his way to Florida after Tuesday evening’s attack, where they suspect he may have planned to “carry out additional shootings”.
They said it was too early to determine whether the attacks, in which six of the victims were women of Asian descent, were racially motivated hate crimes.
The attacks sent terror through an Asian American community that has increasingly been targeted during the coronavirus pandemic. Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, said that regardless of the shooter’s motivation, “it is unacceptable, it is hateful and it has to stop”.
While the killings occurred in the US, they raised questions on how can Asian communities globally stop hate crime. Today we asked Dr. Laforteza, who wrote the book ‘The Somatechnics of Whiteness and Race’, what her initial reaction was on hearing the tragic news.
Question: How did you feel when you first heard the news?
I was angry and sad but not surprised. There has been a surge in anti-Asian racism since the start of covid-19, but this xenophobic attitude towards Asians is not new. We only have to look at the founding of the Australian nation-state through the Immigration Restriction Act, which primarily sought to curb Chinese immigration to the country. We only need to look at how our urban spaces are designed in terms of ghettos, wherein Chinatowns have historically been places where Chinese immigrants in settler-colonial nation states set boundaries and curfews for their Chinese population – to keep them in as much as to keep them out of other spaces.
There has also been a conflation of all different and various kinds of Asian ethnicities into one umbrella category of ‘Asians’: as if we are all the same even when we have different political, socio-cultural, historical and personal investments, interests, norms, and so on.
I was (and still am) angry and frustrated by the way that a lot of people can’t see the murder of Asian women as racially motivated, but solely as a crime that is sexually motivated (or is solely gendered violence). The intersections of identity are important to take note of so we can understand the ways in which multiple forms of oppression work to subjugate people. There is no such thing as race without sex or gender or (dis)ability, or class and other identity categories.
These murders are a symptom of the combination of misogyny and racism: something that a lot of those who identify as (or are seen as) Asian women are confronted with. For example, think about that comment ‘love you long time’ as a means of taunting a lack of fluency with English and the sexual entitlement towards Asian women, their time, their love. Even though this term has been co-opted as a form of friendly banter between men and women (both Asians and non-Asians), it still carries with it the spectre of trivialising the worth and legitimacy of Asian women within western spaces.
Question: What do you think is the experience of Asian-Australians? How similar or different is it to the experience of Asian-Americans?
I think there are a lot of similarities between the experiences of both Asian-Americans and Asian-Australians, especially in terms of having to negotiate between different cultures. However, as someone who has lived in the USA and Australia, I do have to say that Asian presence in the media has been stronger and has been more normalised in the USA than it has been in Australia.
Although, in my experiences in Australia, Asian-Australians seem to be more cognisant of acknowledging Indigenous sovereignty and understanding that everything we do on this country is on Indigenous land. Perhaps this is more accurate for those who have grown up and been educated in Australian primary, secondary and tertiary institutions, but I think a way to heal and find strength is to continually renew our commitment to centralise Indigenous sovereignty and forging ethical relationships with First Nations peoples and cultures.
Question: What can society do to stop perpetuating these stereotypes?
I advocate for more diverse and authentic representations of Asian-Australian experiences on our stages, pages and screens. More creative works led by, written by, produced and starring people from the communities they are actually trying to represent.
We also have a lot of work to do within our own communities: to stop colourism and idealising white/lighter skins, reflecting on and eliminating our own Sinophobia, and try to connect with each other from a place of respect, understanding and love.
This can be hard work especially if we have been socialised to think otherwise, but it is necessary work, it’s heart work to actively love rather than hate.
Dr. Elaine Laforteza has a PhD in Cultural Studies. She lectures and tutors in the School of Communication and the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her book, The Somatechnics of Whiteness and Race is available through Routledge. She was also the former host of monthly storytelling shows called Generation Women. She is a contributor to Griffith Review, Peril Magazine and Folk Magazine and is an emerging playwright with her plays produced for the Sydney Fringe Festival, Short and Sweet Festival and the University of Technology Sydney’s theatre group, UTS Backstage. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two children.