At some point on Tuesday, March 15th, a 21-year-old with a Richard Spencer haircut and a scraggly red beard walked into Big Woods Goods in Canton, Georgia, and bought a 9mm pistol.
Hours later, he would raise that same 9mm and put bullets in six people at Young’s Asian Massage, just 15 minutes away from that gun shop. He would do it again at two more spas, killing eight people in total, including six Asian women.
He planned on driving to more spas and massage parlors in Florida, but for now, the motive is officially unclear. There’s no end to the chatter on Chan boards, Reddit and Twitter about why Robert Aaron Long chose spas that were allegedly Asian-owned. Was it a racist hate crime? Was he more of a misogynist? Was it just religious fervor, based on his Baptist beliefs?
To me, it hardly matters which factor is deemed the “motive.” We’ve already seen enough to understand why young, seemingly banal white men commit heinous acts of mass violence. Each killer’s lived experience may be different, but the intersection they reach before committing their crime remains the same. It’s the crossroads of latent racism, misogyny, the self-hatred of incel culture and the violence of masculinity, projected through the lens of an American identity that idolizes the gun and the assurance of liberty in equal measure.
And too often, Asian women have been the fatal obsession of white men, who seek both trophy and scapegoat to soothe their insecurities.
If you look at history, it becomes clear that Asian hatred is a designed piece of the American experiment. This is a nation that welcomed tens of thousands of Chinese men to labor for depressed wages to build the transcontinental railroad, then broke their backs and banned their wives, portraying Chinese women as prostitutes in an effort to emasculate and isolate “coolies.” In the middle of the 20th century, America jailed and abused Japanese people en masse under a policy that’s best described as “traitor until proven innocent.” America then threw $850 billion at a corrupt war in which savior-complex whiteness fueled the murder of more than a million Vietnamese people.
Through it all, Asian women have been targeted by white men, both fetishized and otherized, belittled into an exotic plaything in pop culture and abused behind closed doors.
In more recent history, I think of Lili Wang, who was stalked and murdered by a white graduate peer (nearly 20 years her senior) at North Carolina State University in 2002; his suicide note claimed it was over a disagreement, but observers noted they had no real relationship.
I think of the Japanese college students who were abducted and raped in Spokane, Washington the year prior, by two white men who went out of their way to find the satellite branch of a Japanese university. An accomplice told investigators that Asian women were targeted because they would be “too ashamed to report” the crime to the authorities.
I think of the disgusting PhD student at Princeton who stalked Asian women and terrorized them by cutting pieces of their hair for collection, spraying them with his urine and putting his semen in their drinks. Incredibly, he was married to an Asian woman during the two and a half years he assaulted unwitting students. Also incredibly, he appears to have dodged any jail time for what he did.
I also can’t help but think of Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista killer and the patron saint of online misogynists, who apparently loathed his half-Asian heritage so much that he targeted Asians at the start of his rampage. I think of the Telegram channels I prowl that are dedicated to sharing memes and videos that show “gooks” getting hurt or killed. And the 4chan commenters who are cracking puns about “happy endings” today.
The everyday reality for Asian women is less pulpy than these headline events, but the facts remain bleak. Hate crimes against Asians have spiked heavily since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, with the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate reporting 3,800 incidents in the last year — a thousand more than it tracked in 2019.
Even before the pandemic, Asians were seeing increased rates of violent attacks, per reporting from the Bureau of Justice in 2018. And the pattern of violence is different from that of white or Black victims: For those groups, the attacker tends to be of the same ethnicity in a strong majority of cases. Asians, meanwhile, were attacked by other groups more than 50 percent of the time.
Unsurprisingly, the report from Stop AAPI Hate suggests Asian women are targeted for hate incidents at a much higher rate than men — more than twice as frequent. “There is an intersectional dynamic going on that others may perceive both Asians and women and Asian women as easier targets,” Russell Jeung, professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University and co-founder of the nonprofit, observed to NBC News.
Asian women are what white men want, until they can’t have them, or stand them. Then they become an easy target. And in many ways, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is true that social shame and warped interpretation of cultural values inspires many Asian women to remain silent after attacks. And toxic men know how to exploit this, just like they exploit everything else.
Am I surprised that this unique harm to Asian women has been pretty much ignored in the last 20 years, even as the discourse around misogyny and masculinity matured? Not really, because American society has proven the point time and again. There’s always been a lack of services and support for Asian women in America. Instead, they’ve had to endure a hostile language barrier, anti-immigrant sentiment and cultural stereotypes that deem them docile and subservient — then blame them with the same tropes when they’re victimized. This is the endgame when you spend a century demonizing and mocking a community of people while also erasing honest representation at every opportunity. This is what happens when America treats Asian workers as cogs in a machine, just nameless faces peering out from behind the glass of a suburban strip mall.
The media will continue to probe into the Georgia murderer’s purported “sex addiction,” and whether he was a client at a massage parlor, or perhaps his social media history. People will mourn this tragedy while continuing to criminalize the lives of the Asian women who operate nail salons and spas, under the guise that sex work is evil and these workers must be exploited geishas in need of saving.
Nevermind that this is another paternalistic falsehood that continues to hurt vulnerable people. Can anyone expect differently? The deaths of eight people in Georgia is another notch in the arc of the immigrant story in America — the raw story that remains when optimism for freedom and riches fades into the exhausting thrum of capitalism and trepidation. In this case, at the literal feet of white men who seek their time for cheap pleasure.
The mass murder of Asian women in Georgia — and almost nearly in Florida — is a story of how white entitlement and male rage is woven into the DNA of racism and sexism. We don’t need to worry about exactly what label to put on it.
I know why he did it. And you should know, too.