Note: Below remarks are presented during the "Virtual Roundtable: What does the Atlanta Tragedy Mean? Korean Diaspora Speaks" event, which took place on Wednesday, March 24th, 2021 at 6:30 PM - 8:00 PM ET.
A Call for Diaspora as a Space for Intersectional Belonging
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto
I teach sociology at the University of Toronto. I was born and raised in South Korea, but for the past 17 years spent most of my adult years in the US and Canada. These past weeks made me finally realize that I am an immigrant, a member of a diaspora.
When I first read about the Atlanta shootings, I was in shock and numb. But then, it felt as though it confirmed the fear that many of us in Asian communities have experienced for more than a year. I wish it didn’t take a mass shooting for people to see the gravity of the situation. In my own neighborhood in Toronto, I was attacked on the bus last February for being “Chinese” and “bringing Covid to our country.” That fear for me still comes and goes. But while I had the choice of staying mostly at home—however sad and unfair choice that may be—many of my fellow Asians who work in essential jobs, or run a small business, did not have that choice. And like the victims in Atlanta, they were the ones who bore the brunt of the anti-Asian violence and hate.
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When an American news media contacted me for an interview, I said yes, because I thought it was an important task. And when I was on the phone, the journalist asked me, “how did the gender and economic inequality in South Korea push these women to immigrate to the US?”
I refused to answer that question. The gender and economic inequality in South Korea is, in fact, one area of my research expertise. But at the moment, I was so tired of people treating us like we are from somewhere else and belong somewhere else. This suggests the sources of our struggles and problems somehow belong there. Like many of us here today, the four Korean women who lost their lives last week spent more of their adult lives outside of South Korea, even from 1970s and 80s. Their stories, and the heartbreaking end of that story, is an American story.
We talk about intersectionality as a word, but to me, the question is ultimately: who claims these women as their own? Who is left out of that claiming? Why isn’t America claiming them?
I told the journalist that the story here is the US labor market that relegates South Korean and other immigrant women into low-wage, service sector jobs. Whether they held middle-class jobs in their home countries or not, in the United States, their educational and work credentials are not recognized, and their English fluency and accents are ridiculed. Many can only find employment within the immigrant ethnic market, whether it’s a restaurant, cleaning service, laundromat, nail salon, or spa, into their later years.
It is a story of gun control, or the lack thereof. It is a story of dehumanizing Asian women in the context of US imperialism and militarism. Whether they were working in sex industry or not, it is of criminalizing and stigmatizing sex work and making them vulnerable to gender-based violence and workplace abuse. None of this, not surprisingly, made into the paper. (Naturally, they found someone else to comment on gender and economic inequality in South Korea that pushed the women away.)
Perhaps I was too hasty to refuse to fill in the Korean story, I also realized in the next few days. Denied as fully American, these women’s lives are also not fully claimed as Korean story in South Korea either. This made me disappointed and saddened in a different way. While the Atlanta shootings and the deaths of four Korean women did appear in Korean media, it was not front page news as I think it would have been had the victims been Korean or Korean-American doctors, professors, or others who fit the model minority myth. Even college students and tourists would likely have garnered more, and different, coverage in the Korean media.
Now that we have gathered as scholars and community members in Korean diaspora, I think it is we, as members of the diaspora, who should claim and remember these women and commemorate their deaths as fully our own. Diaspora isn’t just an immigrant space, but a space of belonging for people who are in between, for those who don’t have an easy way of assumed belonging. It is, rather, a space that we need to consciously create. This is a space where intersectional resistance, that of race, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and class, can emerge, based on people’s lived realities that are intersectional, and already multiracial. Solidarity across boundaries can emerge, if we fight for it.
And it is this emerging space that I hope we can come together and remember these women’s deaths, and their lives.
(Spoken at the Roundtable “What does the Atlanta Tragedy Mean? Korean Diaspora Speaks” on March 24, 2021)
Bio. Hae Yeon Choo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto, and is the author of Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Korea.
What does the Atlanta Tragedy Mean? Korean Diaspora Speaks
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, York University
Faculty Associate, York Centre for Asian Research
Director, Resource Centre for Public Sociology
Atlanta-area shootings – 16 March 2021
Thank you to Hae Yeon and Yoonkyung for bringing us together tonight, and to you, for joining us. I’m Ann Kim, an associate professor in Sociology at York with a long-standing research agenda on Korean immigrants - when I saw the list of speakers I immediately thought how rare it is that I’m the only Kim in a sea of Koreans.
Well, like all of you, my thoughts are with the victims and their family and friends. And I’m also trying to process how it is that this massacre, which took place only 8 days ago, was followed by 9 more mass shootings in the US, with one in Colorado on Monday resulting in 10 deaths. But we’ll leave the important topic of gun control for another day.
Tonight, we’re talking about violence and hatred towards Korean and Asian women. As I read about the shooting and its victims, I felt a range of emotions: incredulity, horror, anger, sadness, and desire. And then I realized that these were the same emotions I felt when I saw footage of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer last May and when I saw Joyce Echaquan’s video recording of hospital staff taunting her before she died last September.
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We know that Asian people occupy a space that is not Black or Indigenous and that is not white. We heard from Claire Kim of UC-Irvine at a virtual talk in November at the Resource Centre for Public Sociology about how we often try to understand Asians’ structural position vis-à-vis white supremacy but that in order to fully understand Asians in the racial order, we must also bring into focus anti-Blackness. And in thinking about the murdered women in Georgia and other Asian victims of racial violence that we are hearing about, I keep going back to that thesis.
What is racism against Asians? What is racism and sexism against Asian women?
If I could offer my thoughts in a single word, it would be invalidation.
So, evidence of success in the educational system and in highly skilled and well-paid occupations and evidence of underrepresentation in the criminal justice system are all used to invalidate and silence claims of harmful or exclusionary treatment of Asian people, even among ourselves.
But what we can’t deny or dismiss now is that Asian people experience physical and non-physical, or symbolic, violence, to borrow from Pierre Bourdieu. While the violence is different from other racialized groups, and in no way can we compare the ongoing colonization and dehumanization of other groups, racism against Asians is rooted in the same ideology, the same system of power, and it is violent nonetheless.
The most egregious physical violence is murder and we are also witnessing serious assaults, especially of seniors and women, and neglect – an example of which just emerged a couple of days ago, with Candida Macarine, an elderly Filipino woman found dead on the floor of a Montreal hospital.
Non-physical, or symbolic, violence is palpable in the model minority stereotype, which we’ve mentioned already. It manifests also in the apparent absence of boundaries around what is permissible and not permissible to say to an Asian person. This was pointed out to me by a young ethnic Korean man during a recent focus group discussion on anti-Asian racism. He remarked that there appears to be very little social mores on what you can and cannot say to Asian person – question their nativity and citizenship, comment on their English language abilities, accents, smelliness of food, physical features, and ridicule their names and the phonetics of their languages.
These types of experiences lead Asian people to take accent classes to sound more Canadian, undergo plastic surgery on facial features to appear more white, adopt Anglo first names to make it less uncomfortable for others and to get jobs, and pack sandwiches for school lunches to avoid being the object of derision from classmates. This is invalidation.
How does a former president call the coronavirus “Kung Flu” with impunity?
How does a Georgia police captain, in effect, make excuses for a murderer by saying he had a sex addiction and a bad day AND post an anti-Asian racist image on social media and still be captain?
How does an MP (formerly Conservative, now Independent) ask whether Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, works for Canada or for China and still sit in the Parliament building?
To see these men hold their positions of power invalidates the damage that the men inflict and trivializes Asian people’s pain.
And we see both types of violence, physical and symbolic, in the segregation of Asian women in certain places of employment, such as massage spas, and in their exoticization and hypersexualization, and in assuming they are all sex trade workers.
Turning to the women of the Georgia shooting, more specifically, their stories are about more than gender, race, and class to me. Their stories are stories of migration and being American, entrepreneurship, their work ethic, intra- and inter-racial families, single and married mothers and grandmothers, mid-life and late-life, paid and unpaid labour, self-sufficiency and supporting their families, and much more.
I mentioned when I began that one of the feelings I had while reading about the shooting was a sense of desire. It’s the desire for things to be equitable for Asian people, for Black people, for Indigenous people, and for a Civil Rights Movement Redux or a Civil Rights Movement Part II. I think it’s about time, like others have expressed, for a multiracial coalition.
Roundtable: What does the Atlanta Tragedy Mean? Korean Diaspora Speaks
WIND Korean Feminist Group
Thank you to Hae Yeon and Yoonkyung for inviting WIND to the Roundtable tonight. I am Yeon Ju Heo, a member of the WIND Korean feminist group.
Our WIND Members discussed the Atlanta tragedy last week. We got to know that today’s Roundtable was organized just before our meeting. It was good though that we were able to share our thoughts and feelings about the Atlanta tragedy with each other. Today, I would like to talk about what we discussed in three aspects, which are the media's reporting attitude, how we felt about this tragic event, and what we can or should do on behalf of our WIND members.
First, it was unpleasant to see how the media has framed the motivation of this crime. Although the conservative media mentioned that the liberal media needs to wait for facts before placing blame, the fact is that six of the eight people killed in the shooting were Asian women regardless of what the motivation was. However, some media and police seem to focus the motivation on his sex addiction problem. It was upsetting that even South Korean media was focused on the location where the shooting occurred. The media was centered around the fact that the location was named a Spa, but its surrounding area was filled with prostitution shops. The media said there seem to be many Korean people worrying about the American public options and they will target the problem of how the prostitution business was operated by Korean Americans.
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It cannot be rationalized that he had carried out the shootings at the massage shops solely because of his sex addiction. He intentionally targeted three Asian spas. Six Asian women could have been targeted because of their race, their gender, and their job. This tragic event shows how strong the prejudice against Asian women or Asian massage workers is. We don’t know whether the massage workers who were killed would have considered themselves sex workers.
How much longer should Asian women endure sexualized racism? I don’t think this behavior should be tolerated as much as it is present in our society. For decades, the Asian stereotype and fetishization of Asian women have become extremely prevalent and we can no longer just sit idly by. It is important to shed some light and expose these behaviors for what it is- a racially charged and gender-motivated hate crime. Whether or not his motivation was sex addiction, this is a hate crime against Asian women. We must stop labeling it as COVID anxiety or sex addiction. The investigators must distinguish between excuses and motivations for this tragic event. This is their duty.
In our meeting, our discussion moved to our daily lives in Canada. As an Asian woman, we talked about how many invisible threats related to race and gender we have to face in the workplace, at school, on the streets, or in the store. Even if we just live without perceiving any race or gender-related threats in our daily lives, these tragic events continue to imprint our identity as a minority on our minds and make us live our lives in tension.
Racism towards Asians has been so normalized in this day and age, that it is sometimes hard to recognize, or it’s even brushed off because it is so common, which only contributes to the problem and shows how we need to change. It is not uncommon to hear racial discrimination cases below from Asian people in Canada. There are many unreported racial discrimination cases that the public plays off because of the normalized racial discrimination towards Asians.
“When my child wanted to ask a question in class, their teacher answered everyone else’s question before helping my child. My child was discouraged.”
“A big dog kept trying to approach me. While I was trying to avoid it, the dog’s owner pulled the dog away and said that I was a piece of garbage towards the dog.”
“We submitted an offer to bid on a house we were looking at, but it was rejected. When we looked into what happened, we found that the house was sold at the same price we bid for it, but our offer was rejected due to the owner’s racist tendencies.”
Lastly, we discussed what we can and should do. It was difficult to clarify what we can do. Is it easy to perceive discrimination and prejudice regarding race and gender in our daily lives? I can’t say it is because there are many invisible experiences. How and where can we share these experiences? How common is discrimination in day-to-day life? I still don't know enough to answer these questions. I want to find more granular data that show the quantified results of hate crimes broken down by race, gender, job, etc.
The recent report of police-reported hate crime in Canada 2018 showed that the number of police-reported hate crimes decreased by 13%, for a total of 780 incidents, compared to the previous year. However, the Ottawa police said that hate crime reports were up 57% in 2020, with 182 incidents reported last year compared with 116 cases reported in 2019, and in Vancouver, the number of anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 717% from 12 cases in 2019 to 98 cases in 2020. The important thing is not only to gather police-reported hate crimes but also to gather the data on “invisible” hate and to understand the psychological and physical negative effect of hate crimes on individual victims and their communities. Thompson (2020, p. 1) stated hate crimes can cause trauma to victims, family, and friends; increase fear of being targeted for future crimes; and can escalate and prompt retaliation. The government-funded survey of anti-Asian racism across Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic showed the data on racial attack incidents, which were self-reported. 59% of those who reported racial attack incidents are those who identify as women. The top 3 locations where racist attacks occurred were a public space/park/street/sidewalk (49%), a grocery or food store/restaurant (17%), and public transport (9%). The top 3 types of discrimination were verbal harassment (73%), physical force/aggression or unwanted physical contact (11%), and coughed at/spat on (10%). The top 3 consequences of the racist attacks were mental distress/emotional harm (73%), physical harm (8%), and loss of services and/or benefits to meet my needs (3%).
I hope racism and misogyny identification resources will be popularized and brought to life. To call for action against racism, please refer to the resources in the FIFSW statement of solidarity against anti-Asian racism.
Make the invisible visible!
 The cases were collected from Toronto Korean Community