How Asian American women have endured a history of sexualized racism

After dropping off flowers, Jesus Estrella, left, and Shelby S., right, stand in support of the Asian and Hispanic community outside Young's Asian Massage, where four people were killed on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Acworth, Georgia. At least eight people were found dead at three different spas in the Atlanta area Tuesday by suspected killer Robert Aaron Long. Photo by Curtis Compton/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM

Women of Asian descent were six of the eight victims killed in the shootings at three Atlanta-area spas earlier this week. Their killings increased fear among Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community members, who were already targeted for an increasing number of hate incidents since the coronavirus pandemic began a year ago.

Soon after the Georgia shootings, law enforcement downplayed racism as the gunman’s motive, and instead tied his actions to a sex addiction. That claim has been sparking big conversations about how racism and sexism often intersect in cases of violence against Asian women.

Ellen Wu, director of the Asian American Studies Program at Indiana University in Bloomington, says the earliest federal immigration laws targeted women from Asia traveling to the U.S., and led to decades of Asian female sexualization. The Page Act of 1875 restricted Asian women from immigrating here — under the guise of preventing lewd behavior in the U.S. She says these women were often seen as sex workers and sources of temptation for the majority-male workforce in and around gold-rich areas.

Wu points out that anti-Asian violence didn’t just happen on U.S. soil, but during the wars in Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, and Korea. In turn, millions of men’s first encounters with Asian women were in militarized contexts.