Why are Asian women the target of xenophobia?

Local leaders and law enforcement must tackle the shadow pandemic of hate

From March 19, 2020 to September 30, 2021, a total of 10,370 hate incidents were reported on Stop AAPI Hate by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. But what is startling is that 62% of these hate episodes were reported by AAPI women.

A May 2021 analysis authored by Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University and co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, along with Drishti Pillai and Aggie J. Yellow Horse, found that AAPI women and girls reported hate incidents on Stop AAPI Hate 2.2 times as often as AAPI men.

While the reports come as a surprise, hate-motivated acts targeting women are nothing new, argued Helen Zia, activist, author and former journalist. “We know that women are often the backbone of their families and communities and may not have time to report to a governmental office,” she said. And then there’s the issue of trust. Many women of color don’t trust people in power in police stations or elsewhere.

Zia’s remarks have some basis. According to the United Nations, fewer than 40% of women who experience violence seek help of any sort.

Zia countered her remarks by acknowledging that STOP AAPI Hate has evolved into a great community model, a safe space for AAPI women from all walks of life. That’s why there are more reported incidents on the platform compared to governmental agencies, which often have a lower tally.

Stop AAPI Hate was launched on March 19, 2020 by Chinese For Affirmative Action, AAPI Equity Alliance and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University in response to the spread of xenophobia and bigotry during the pandemic.

In a May 2021 video, Jeung said he asked Stop AAPI Hate respondents: “What’s your greatest stressor during the pandemic?” The unanimous answer was racism. “Think about that,” Jeung remarked, “Asian Americans are more concerned about other Americans’ hate than they are of a pandemic that’s killed half a million people. That’s how traumatizing it is.”

The nature of hate and discrimination reported by AAPI women and girls ranged from being coughed on, spat upon and subject to verbal slurs to vandalism, robbery and physical assaults. More than two-thirds of the reported incidents concerned some form of harassment.

In Placentia, Calif., an Asian woman was told the dining room at a restaurant was closed even though there were multiple people eating inside. Later a white family was allowed to enter and order food.

A 64-year-old grandmother was assaulted and robbed while she was withdrawing cash from an ATM machine in San Jose. In Oakland’s Chinatown, a 52-year-old woman was shot in the head with a flare gun. In San Francisco, 20-year old O’Sean Garcia was charged with targeting, robbing and assaulting seven Asian women in separate incidents.

“In 2021, we’ve had 83 reported hate crimes but that does not tell the whole story,” said San Francisco Police Chief William Scott at a press conference with California Attorney General Rob Bonta and Mayor London Breed in September 2021 on the heels of charging Garcia. He acknowledged that the number was low “because not every hate crime is reported.”

There have been many cases of serial assaulters seeking out Asian women in hate-motivated attacks. In a news briefing in December 2021, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen told reporters that six California men, ranging in age from 21 to 27, preyed on more than 100 Asian women between Oct 2020 and September 2021.

“AAPI women are continuously fetishized, exoticized and objectified through hyper-sexualization, and this affects the racialized, gendered and sexualized violence AAPI women have experienced, historically and now,” wrote Jeung and his co-authors in their May 2021 white paper.

Historically, scapegoating of Asians happens when there is heightened geopolitical tensions with Asian countries. It happened with Japan during World War II and, recently, with Trump’s anti-China and anti-Asian positions. “When America China-bashes, then Chinese get bashed, and so do those who look Chinese. American foreign policy in Asia is American domestic policy for Asians,” Jeung is quoted as saying in a Washington Post article.

Notably, the Biden administration has adopted a “tough on China” approach, continuing the path set by Trump. Biden has criticized the way China handled the coronavirus outbreak and labeled China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims as genocide in a human rights report, imposing sanctions for human rights violations. Biden’s China policy is an extension of Trump’s, according to many. The fact that Christopher Wray, who called China “the greatest long-term threat,” continues to head the FBI is telling, and also reflective of public opinion.

A February 2021 Pew Research survey found that nine in 10 Americans consider China a “competitor” or an “enemy,” while only 9% consider it a “partner.” Perceived threats from China include job losses, cyberattacks and growing technological power.

When China is seen as an enemy then every ethnic Chinese becomes a potential spy, remarked Zia. “Even Americans who cannot find China on a map will label China as the greatest existential threat,” she said.

And when any ethnicity is perceived as a threat, the vulnerable are targeted first, which is perhaps a significant reason why Asian American women end up facing the brunt of ill will from a suspicious and ill-informed segment of the populace eager to lay blame on a visible enemy.

Given that U.S.-China relations may remain or grow more tense, local leaders and law enforcement must vigorously tackle the shadow pandemic of hate and make a concerted effort to inform communities of color of their rights. In the words of Rob Bonta: “There is no room for hate, not here, not anywhere, not now, not ever.”

Jaya Padmanabhan is a journalist, author and director of programs at Ethnic Media Services. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.

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