It’s been one year since Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Paul Andre Michels, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun, and Yong Ae Yue were murdered in Atlanta—a year of terrible grief for their families and loved ones; a year of sorrow and fear for many within Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander communities, which continue to face mounting harassment and violence.
Yesterday, on the anniversary of the spa shootings, I spoke with Connie Wun, Ph.D., executive director of AAPI Women Lead, an organization that works to challenge and help end racial and gender-based violence in solidarity with other communities of color. Dr. Wun, a 2020 Soros Justice Fellow and a recipient of the 2021 California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus Excellence in Civil Rights Award, leads national research projects on race, gender, and violence, and her work has appeared in numerous academic journals, anthologies, and online publications. A former high-school teacher, college educator, sex worker, and sexual-assault counselor, she co-founded AAPI Women Lead in 2018 with her sister, Jenny Wun.
When Dr. Wun was working as an organizer and educator, she noticed “a lack of organizing in some other fields”—for example, when her sister experienced sexual harassment at her corporate job, there were no real strategies in place to help her organize her company to address it. These personal experiences, in part, led them to start the organization, as did their many years spent working to identify and address racial and gender-based violence against Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander women, girls, and nonbinary people. “Our own family, who are Vietnamese refugees, came from a legacy of colonial war,” Dr. Wun told me. An awareness that “Asian and Pacific Islander communities writ large have experienced histories of colonization, of xenophobia, of racism, of patriarchal violence” also led them to found AAPI Women Lead.
Nicole Chung: What do you think people need to understand about racial and gender-based violence, and how they are bound together for Asian and Pacific Islander women and for other women of color?
Connie Wun: The violence against Asian women and girls and our nonbinary communities is deeply rooted in the legacy of patriarchal violence, too—this has been part of our histories here in the United States and abroad. Today is the anniversary of the My Lai massacre, in which hundreds of women and children were assaulted and killed by U.S. troops in Vietnam. Today is also the anniversary of the eight people who were killed in the Atlanta spa shootings. There is a long history of aggression against our bodies and communities, here and abroad. It is a part of U.S. history.
People need to understand that we experience racial and gender violence beyond the deaths. They only see or hear about the terror when people die, but this violence is an everyday experience—and by that, I’m talking about the racism and sexism Asian women experience in corporate America, at the hands of the medical industry, on the street. I’ve had men in my life say things like, “How’s that moo shu going?” I’ve been asked, “Is your pussy slanted, too?” You’re nodding, because you understand.
Chung: Yeah, I got a version of that question for the first time from a white girl on the playground.
Wun: Exactly. It starts from childhood. It’s commonplace. People don’t pay attention to these things. They condone them or are complicit in that underlying violence against us.
With the Atlanta shootings, it’s also very important to highlight that these were migrant workers, massage workers, working to support their families here and abroad. There’s so much stigmatization and criminalization of massage workers and sex workers, which also helped lead, in part, to today’s anniversary.
Chung: As you said, the most horrific, violent attacks are the ones people tend to hear about, but women in our communities also experience domestic violence, intimate-partner violence, sexual violence at higher rates. And these are just the numbers we know about, because there’s a lack of data—our communities tend to be under-surveyed and under-supported. How can we better serve and support those who are facing or healing from various forms of violence?
Wun: I appreciate you recognizing that the violence against us is typically underreported. As for how to help our communities, it’s multifold. One thing we need to do is collect stories to identify and understand the violence we experience. AAPI Women Lead is currently collecting our stories, from our communities, around our experiences with violence. These have to be couched in a systemic analysis to help us understand the role of poverty, of war, of colonialism, of gentrification in the violence against us. We need an expansive definition of violence, one that is not only focused on interpersonal violence—we need a structural analysis of it. A number of organizations have been working for a long time to try to address the violence in our communities, but they’re often underfunded. We need to support the organizations that are safe places for survivors of violence.
You actually have to see us as human, as survivors of multiple forms of violence, and you have to see us as people who have been fighting and resisting these forms of violence for a long time. The U.S. has a long-standing history of imperialist wars in Asia. It occupied the Philippines, and characterized the people there as savages, as people to be civilized, to justify the war. The same kind of dehumanization happened in Vietnam, in a war that also extended to Laos and Cambodia and other countries in Southeast Asia. Here in the United States, Chinese American laborers were seen as “coolie” labor, and then the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. So there’s a long history of portraying us as animals, as uncivilized, and then rendering us expendable once they’re done with us. Now we are seeing many formerly incarcerated Southeast Asians here being detained and deported—I think last year, when President Biden made his statement around anti-Asian hate crime, it was that week when he deported 33 people to Vietnam, though they hadn’t been there in decades.
Chung: Over the last couple of years and especially since the shootings in Atlanta, as we’ve seen more and more reports of harassment and violence against our communities, do you feel there has been any kind of shift in awareness?
Wun: Some things have shifted; many things have stayed the same. The Trump administration’s xenophobic comments and depiction of COVID-19 as coming from Wuhan, from China, gave some people an excuse to justify their racism and sexism against us—the violence was already there; they just had something to blame it on.
One thing that’s shifted is that violence against our communities has entered the popular discourse. People on the ground used to have to constantly prove that we were victims of violence—and that’s why there’s a dearth of data; we couldn’t get attention or funding or support, so we could barely collect any data. Last year, many nonprofit community-based organizations working at the intersection of race and gender suddenly received attention and donations and funding. The financial support was great, but we also knew that might be because we were trending for that one year.
Another shift is that people are now calling every form of violence against us a hate crime, which is actually a problem, because it can minimize everything else that causes the violence—as if violence is only interpersonal, something you see on the streets, something Instagrammable. Violence against us is layered and systemic, and most of it cannot be seen on TV or social media.
Chung: I do want to talk about a point we keep circling—the lack of data—because often you don’t see our distinct experiences and needs disseminated and discussed much outside our communities. How can we address these gaps in education and research?
Wun: There’s a real need for disaggregated data. We have to remember the political history of the term Asian American, an identity which stemmed from being in solidarity with Black Power and other movements. It’s also been used by the census—they lump us all together, and then conflate Pacific Islander with Asian American. People from Southeast Asian communities, who are often more recent immigrants or refugees, do not have the same experiences as those from East Asian communities who have been here for decades or even centuries. Poverty rates in Hmong and Laotian and Khmer communities are much higher than that of, say, fifth-generation Japanese Americans. There are a lot of Vietnamese and Laotian and other communities that want to emphasize that they are refugees, survivors of colonialist wars—which is a very different experience from people who come here partly because of their higher education in other East Asian countries. Homogenizing our experiences ignores our nuances, our immigration experiences, and our needs. And then we don’t disaggregate the data in terms of gender.
When we talk about violence against us, I also want to note that not all of us are Asian American. There are a number of undocumented Asians who’ve also experienced violence, and many have reached out to tell us that when we use the term Asian American, we can exclude them. So it’s important to hear that, and also note that we shouldn’t conflate Pacific Islander with Asian or Asian American, because our Pacific Islander communities are experiencing other forms of egregious violence as well.
Chung: When we’re all lumped together, it tends to be those with the most education, money, and privilege who speak, or are the focus of media attention. People then believe that’s representative of all our communities, when it’s not.
Wun: Yes, when we conflate the data, we often have some Asian Americans speaking on behalf of under-resourced communities. I think a lot of organizations have gotten funding under the pretense that they serve Pacific Islanders as well, but that does Pacific Islander communities a disservice when their needs aren’t actually addressed. We need to know what each community is experiencing and what they need.
Chung: AAPI Women Lead and others have pointed out the fact that we’ve seen increased policing in some of our communities—often against the wishes of many living in those communities—and it hasn’t stopped the violence. There are obviously no easy, short-term solutions to what are long-standing and systemic problems, but how should we instead be thinking about keeping everyone in our communities safe?
Wun: We need resources to support the infrastructure of our communities, and to make sure that we can support one another. In Oakland’s Chinatown, there has been so much divestment and disinvestment—we can say the same about New York’s Chinatown, L.A., Honolulu. These communities have been rapidly gentrified in order for developers to come in, and that has left many people more vulnerable to violence because their needs are not addressed. You know, many of our elders have been harmed while collecting cans. Here in San Francisco, an Asian elder was attacked over cans, and I couldn’t help but think: Why was this elder having to collect cans to begin with?
There’s been no evidence, no real data showing that increased policing stops violence. Instead of more resources going to the police, I would argue that those resources should go to our communities—to housing for our elders, social services, robust public-health policies and support. When people say “Just call the police,” they aren’t accounting for those in our communities who have experienced police violence—people who were detained or deported, incarcerated or formerly incarcerated survivors, sex workers who are heavily surveilled and heavily policed, those who’ve survived raids. We’re ignoring their experiences and calling in a system that hasn’t proven it can end the violence. We need different infrastructures to be able to imagine a world where we can rely on and take care of each other.
Chung: Lately, I’ve had a number of people I consider allies asking me, “What can we do? What do your communities need?” What would you say in response?
Wun: At an individual level, I think sharing the resources we have is helpful; supporting community organizations doing work on the ground is helpful; doing bystander training to learn how to prevent or safely intervene around harassment and violence is helpful. I think education is important—learning about the history of violence against our communities here and abroad, the role that racism and sexism play in our lives. I think asking our communities what we need, telling us that you have our backs, helping us organize for change—and doing it in solidarity with other communities of color—is really important. Because we keep being used and pitted against Black communities in particular, and we’re not here for that at all. Knowing the history of how we’ve been used against each other is also important as we work to end the violence for all of us.
Chung: Is there anything you want to say to the women in our communities who are experiencing so much fear and anger and grief right now?
Wun: First, I would say that I’m sorry this is happening. That I hope we find time to mourn. And that I want us to remember our legacies of resistance as well—this is how we made it here, to today, and we can find hope in that. We need to take care of each other and ourselves, because the fight for freedom will be ongoing and we will need each other. I thank everyone for having the foresight to keep going. It takes a lot of strength and courage to not give up. And we won’t give up.
This is a free edition of I Have Notes. Sign up here to get it in your inbox. Past editions include How Do I Talk to My Daughter About Violence Against Asian American Women?, A Choice in Name Only, and Knowing When to Share Your Work. To gain access to my full newsletter archive, subscribe to The Atlantic here.