For spa goers at three different businesses in the Atlanta area, the soothing flame of a candle turned into the blinding flash of gun fire. Bullets ripped through their bodies like a fatal form of acupuncture. When it was all over, the stench of gun smoke overpowered the scent of aromatherapy.
With the lifeless bodies of six Asian American women, who the gunman left in his wake on March 22, a wound that has been silently festering in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community for years was reopened.
Current evidence suggests that the attacker was motivated by an alleged sexual addiction which he felt the spas presented a source of temptation that needed to be eliminated.
Despite this, three Asian American students at the University of Memphis say that the shooting points to a history of unspoken discrimination against their community in the US that has been going on long before the latest shooting ever happened.
“The people that deny the racist intentions behind it are the people who haven’t experienced it first-hand,” said Annie Leng, an accounting major at the university.
Leng, who is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, highlighted the model minority myth as one of the leading causes of anti-Asian discrimination in the US. The model minority myth is the perception that Asian Americans are the most successful minority group in the US and are the standard for other minorities to aspire to.
Leng said that this false perception causes the true struggles of Asian Americans to be overlooked.
“We are the lost cause. Whatever we experience is in the dark,” said Thanh Le, a nursing major at the university.
In a study conducted from March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021, stopaapihate.org reported 3,795 hate incidents that were carried out against Asian Americans in the US. However, the site states that this does not account for all the cases of discrimination.
“The number of hate incidents reported to our center represent only a fraction of the number of hate incidents that actually occur, but it does show how vulnerable Asian Americans are to discrimination, and the types of discrimination they face,” the study said.
The majority of these incidents, 68.1 percent, were cases of verbal harassment.
Le, who immigrated from Vietnam with her family in 2010, said that her mother experiences verbal harassment almost daily. Her mother works at a local nail salon and Le said that people frequently mock her mother’s Vietnamese accent.
“Because my mom works as a nail technician, she doesn’t get the respect she deserves,” she said.
Another type of verbal abuse comes from people, who along with Donald Trump, blame Asians for the coronavirus pandemic.
The third largest category in the study (11.1%) was physical assault.
Kristin Talens, who graduated from the university in fall 2020, said that she had an encounter with an older man at a local gym where he tried to spray her with a bottle of cleaning solution.
“He took the spray bottle, tried to spray it at me and said, ‘Oh, I’m tired of this mask shit’,” Talens said.
Talens is the daughter of Filipino immigrants and is the first person in her family to be born in the US. She said that she feels like, because of instances like the one at the gym, there is a social understanding that people that look like her are unclean.
Alongside calls for justice and equality for Asian Americans, the shooting has also rejuvenated calls for tighter restrictions on existing gun laws to prevent them from getting into the wrong hands.
President Joe Biden, following a second mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado — just six days after the ones in Atlanta – announced his support for banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, along with closing loopholes in the background check system.
Even though each of the women are mourning with their community, neither of them agrees completely with these proposed actions.
“I believe that there definitely needs to be more of a conversation about accessibility, but overall, not an outright ban of taking away guns,” Talens said.
Talens and Le both said that they believe that guns are not the issue, but that it is about the one holding it, their mental state and their biases against certain groups of people.
Furthermore, according to William Faulkner, a law student and president of the Federalist Society student chapter at the university, gun bans in the US have historically targeted minority populations.
“Gun control, historically, has huge racial connotations. It disproportionately impacts minorities,” Faulkner said.
Faulkner shared a website document that included over 20 pieces of legislation from 1640 to 1995 that limited the ability of African Americans to own or carry firearms.
While these laws have historically targeted African Americans, the US has also passed legislation in the past that targeted Asian Americans. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigrants from entering the US and declared them ineligible for naturalization. A much more prolific, yet glossed over, case of racism occurred during World War II, when the US put 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Talens and Le said that discrimination against their community often goes unacknowledged because of a culture of silence from within in it.
“The way you teach a child right, the more you hit them and forbid them from doing something, they go to eventually learn that behavior as a bad thing,” Le said.
Talens referred to this phenomenon as “laying low” and that they are taught as Asian American women to not speak up or bring attention to themselves. Le and Talens said that despite all that they have witnessed their community go through, they understand the privilege of living in the US.
“We know what this country can bring for us, but all we are asking for is respect,” Le said.