June 22, 2024


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We Must Reckon with the History of Asian Women in America

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Asian women in America know about having a really bad day. They know of days doing labor no one else is willing to do, days of touching hands and feet of indifferent women who refuse to make eye contact while getting their nails done or getting a massage, days of cleaning houses, days of hiding in fear without documents, days upon nights of this routine, repeated again and again. In the poetic language of Ocean Vuong, the most frequent English word uttered by salon workers is sorry.

We know these bad days, because we have seen these lives up close, firsthand with our mothers. We have seen that woman, neck bent over a hand or a foot, 12 hours a day, cleaning, clipping, coloring. She wakes up at 5 a.m. every day, no sleep after a grueling shift, to make sure the kids get off to school. Her tired face is barely visible from the back of the salon, spa, or store where the children of workers and massage therapists spend their childhoods finishing homework. She massages her hands, sore, raw, cracking from chemicals, and then uses those hands again after work to prepare dinner, bathe children, and touch faces as she puts children to bed.

These women were born in an era of devastating U.S. wars across homelands in Asia.

Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, Paul Andre Michels, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue. The Asian women killed in Georgia likely knew about having bad days recently in the pandemic, as working-class Asian women faced crushing unemploymentand exposure to COVID-19in care professions. At least four of the women murdered in Atlanta on March 16 were above the age of 50. Two of these women were around the age of 70. These women were born in an era of devastating U.S. wars across homelands in Asia. They came of age in an empire built on the sexual exploitation of women. Their movements were defined by war and displacement, their immigration structured by a system of unequal laws that exploit labor from migrant communities through temporary visas and limited citizenship that invisibilize immigrant work. At least one victim, Yong Ae Yue, migrated directly as a result of war, as the wife of an American with whom she moved to Fort Benning in 1979. To see these women’s lives in fullness requires that we reckon with overlapping histories of racism, militarism, and policing that have made Asian diasporic women invisible to Americans except when condemned through ideas of illicit sex.

The history of Asian-American womanhood is one of simultaneous opprobrium and desire, a history that is at least 150 years old. It is a history found in the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited Chinese women from entering the United States by classifying them as “prostitutes” and casting them as a threat to American morality. This racist history was built through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which closed U.S. borders to people of Chinese descent and would later be used to ban most people from Asia from entering the country for decades. It is a history put into cruel verses in Rudyard Kipling’s famous call in 1899 to “take up the White Man’s burden” as a demand for white men to “search your manhood” through the sexual subjugation of the Philippines, a people he condemned as “half devil and half child.” It is a history of U.S. soldiers killing more than 200,000 Filipino people in a brutal U.S. colonial takeover of territory. Countless archival documents testify to the brutalities Filipina women experienced as a result of U.S. military occupation, including incarceration, forced labor, and sexual coercion, as Genevieve Clutario shows. They faced forced prostitution, rape, and the abandonment of mixed-race children. While America would hold formal control over the Philippines until 1946, these systems of sexual coercion continued long after as part of official U.S. policy, until at least 1991.

We must grapple with the overlapping histories of racism, militarism, and policing

On December 31, 1950, the Eighth Army, working with the Japan Logistical Command, formally introduced the military program known as R&R, formally understood as rest and recuperation. Мodeled on the Japanese ianjo, a term initially used to describe hot springs and spas, and later translated as “comfort stations,” this was a system of U.S. military sexual exploitation built across vast geographies in Asia and the South Pacific, as Sara Kang argues. The military slang for R&R reflects the troubling history of this program in the deeply misogynist language used by American soldiers: “rock and ruin,” “rape and run,” and “rape and restitution.” By the time U.S. troops began to advance into Vietnam in 1965, the system had spread across territories of former Japanese occupation such as Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Okinawa, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, among many others.

The mass murder in Atlanta and its aftermath reveal ongoing legacies of this global patriarchal system. These histories lay bare the racist notion that American men require “comfort” in the form of sexual exploitation of Asian women. Even as Asian women migrated from those territories to the United States, they continued to find employment in care work professions, in domestic labor, cleaning, nursing, or massage, as low-wage providers of “rest” and “comfort” in spas. The history of these women’s migration reflects the complex and intimate histories of militarism, conquest, and the global exploitation of care labor.

The most frequent English word uttered by salon workers is sorry.

Media depictions following the mass murder have conflated the spaces of spas and these women’s work with illicit sex work, many addressing these murdered women as “trafficked” without evidence. The police statements and reports that followed the violence made deeply reductive statements that erased women’s lives and equated spa work with trafficked sex. As they dehumanized the women killed, the police deployed a language of sexual “addiction” to humanize a white killer. These twinned ideas of the hypersexualization and victimhood of Asian women are built on histories of U.S. Empire, which continues to shape representations of Asian and Asian-American women today. As Laura Kang argues, the idea of the “trafficked Asian woman” has produced a global carceral system of racist policing and governancethat threaten the lives and livelihoods of women. White supremacist ideologies blame Asian women for causing “temptations,” and powerful people continue to erase documented histories of exploitation and portray Asian women as “prostitutes.” These racist stereotypes of Asian women’s hypersexuality and deviancy create entire systems of knowledgebased in the control of women’s sexuality while obscuring the complex decisions, forms of labor, and institutions that shape women’s lives and work.

To think of the lives of these women solely through misunderstandings of victimhood and the reductive language of illicit sex deflects attention away from the real problem: There’s a system of white supremacy built on gendered violence in empire and anti-Black and anti-immigrant racisms and xenophobia in the United States. The hypersexual depictions of Asian women conceal the exploitation that shapes the many forms of Asian women’s labor in the United States and abroad. Immigrant women engage in diverse forms of labor and care work, from unpaid and underpaid domestic work, childcare, sex work, and nursing work to painting nails and licensed body work in spas. They face many modes of labor exploitation, sexual and otherwise.

The hypersexualization and victimhood of Asian women are built on histories of U.S. Empire

As Asian-American women who have dedicated our lives to researching and writing complex histories of Asian women, we bear witness to the social worlds and the many forms of care labor and unremunerated work that define the lives of these women beyond sexual commerce. We mourn the loss of these women’s lives and futures. The term Asian-American is a constructed pan-ethnic idea that emerged out of social movements of the 1960s and 1970s to forge political links between heterogeneous communities. Asian-American was always a political idea, a term imagined in solidarity with movements for democratic rights against institutional racism, in solidarity with anti-Black racism, the dispossession of Indigenous communities, and Latinx movements for citizenship. Only recently have heterogeneous communities of Asian-Americans in Georgia translated their growth into political power, now 7.46 percent of Fulton County. In the 2020 presidential election, Asian-American and other immigrant groups were mobilized to access the vote through the efforts of Black organizers and leaderswho built infrastructures across the working classes. These political alliances across communities of color threaten the very tenets of white supremacy in the segregationist geography of Atlanta.

We mourn the loss of these women’s lives and futures.

Even as they navigate a profoundly unequal world, Asian-American women also know of very good days. From emerging testimonies of family and friends, we learn of the good days these women had and the good days that were to come, with their children, birthdays with strawberry cakes, fantasies of travel, and dance parties. These women’s lives are a testament to their survival, enduring systems of war and global labor that displace millions, force migrations, and continue to exploit women’s work through systems of low-wage care work. It is time to narrate these women through their lives, not solely through the circumstances of their deaths. These women made lives in this country, had good and bad days, did many kinds of labor with their tired hands, laughed, dreamed, and built lifeworlds in a country intent on disappearing them.

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