Notes on privilege and anti-Asian violence

Eight people were gunned down and killed nearly 36 hours ago at three Asian-owned massage parlors in the Atlanta area. Six were of Asian descent, and seven were women. I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the pain and grief of processing this. One of my white friends said to me last night, “I’m so furious that for one second you’d feel less safe because of these assholes,” and I replied, “I don’t know that I’ve ever truly felt safe.”

I had never said that before. Upon reflection, I think it’s more accurate to say, “I don’t know that I’ve ever truly felt safe as an adult.” I am Korean, adopted when I was four months old by upper-middle-class white parents, and I know that my light East Asian skin and proximity to whiteness have afforded me privilege not shared by other non-white people or even other Asians — especially when I was a child and blissfully ignorant. Being raised by white parents in a 90% white town in the late ’90s and early 2000s, it was almost a relief to hear my white friends say they would “forget” I’m Asian. It was comforting to feel accepted by whiteness, to be told it was “cool” that I was adopted, especially when the less colorblind kids would mock my eyes or envy my straight hair.

As I got older, it got more complicated. People I trusted as friends would make thoughtless or cruel Asian jokes, and while it was discomforting, I didn’t want to be That Girl™ who didn’t have a sense of humor or made a big deal out of nothing. I was reassured that I was “only Asian when it was convenient for a joke,” which I took to mean, essentially, no one really thinks I eat dogs. No one really means what they’re saying. They’ve just watched Austin Powers in Goldmember too many times, right? When someone said, “I know we don’t have those floor cushions your people like, but you can sit on the couch, you know,” I told myself not to take it personally, that it was meant to be a harmless joke. Same way the racist cartoons drawn in my yearbook were meant to be harmless. Same way constantly being interrogated about my grades and test scores was meant to be harmless. But, though I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, none of it was harmless.

I could only convince myself of that for so long, and I think deep down, I always knew the jokes weren’t funny, that they weren’t jokes so much as dehumanizing and disrespectful jabs at people who looked and/or lived differently — including me. Since then I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to learn about all the ways I was wrong and unpacking the dichotomy between my racial and cultural identities, the privilege of my proximity to whiteness, intersectionality, and the specific experience of being an Asian woman in America. For a long time, I felt guilty for ever being upset at racist treatment because it “wasn’t as bad” as what others experienced. I still have a hard time forgiving myself for my ignorance and past complicity. I’m working on healing, on holding myself accountable while also forgiving myself — and while also giving myself permission to validate my own experiences and acknowledge my trauma.

Because ultimately, even though I am well aware that I benefit in ways from being racially East Asian and culturally Western living in a system built on white supremacy, it doesn’t mean I ever feel safe. There are times when the complexities of existing between fixed identities simply don’t matter.

My privilege didn’t stop the white man with an Asian fetish who stalked me at work when I was in college. It didn’t stop any of the men who’ve harassed and assaulted me on the street.

It didn’t stop any of the countless men who’ve messaged me on dating apps from asking, “What are you?” and it didn’t stop the man who grunted, “Ooh, my first Korean pussy,” while we were having sex.

It didn’t stop any of the people who gave me nasty looks last spring in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic on the rare occasion that I left my Brooklyn apartment, and it wouldn’t have stopped a white supremacist “having a bad day” from shooting me at an Atlanta massage parlor last night.

Anti-Asian racism in America is not a new phenomenon. It did not begin with the pandemic, and it will not end with it. Bigotry is so embedded in our culture, and any claim that suggests all Americans are equal and free is patently false. Women, racial minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, sex workers, and other marginalized groups are not a monolith, yet all are expected to monitor and adjust their behavior, to make themselves smaller and suppress their identities so as not to invite violence — and that still won’t and can’t make any of us safe from being murdered merely for existing.

I’ve been hesitant to post anything on social media about any of this, given my aforementioned dichotomous racial and cultural identities and adjacence to whiteness — it’s so hard to explore anything with any nuance in a Twitter thread or Instagram post, and I don’t want to appear to present myself as self-pitying or like I’m trying to represent others’ experiences — I can only speak for myself. I’ve instead opted to share the words and sentiments of others in the AAPI community, but I’m still grieving deeply. I’m still in pain. I still feel unsafe living under the violence of white supremacy and patriarchy, and I still resent it.

And so, I’m holding space for the victims of last night’s shootings and for their families. For the thousands of others who have been injured or killed in hate crimes. For those suffering from the perpetuation of the model minority myth, particularly the impoverished and homeless. For those struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental illness — especially those who feel like they can’t ask for or receive help. For the non-English speaking, for the mixed race and adopted Asians existing between fixed identities, for the East Asians and South Asians and the white passing and dark skinned. I see you. None of us are free til all of us are free.