AAPI hate, one year after the Atlanta Shootings

Louise Kim, Contributing Writer

I can only remember fragments.

But I remember them vividly, intensely. The date is seared into my memory. Headlines too. “8 Dead in Atlanta Spa Shootings, With Fears of Anti-Asian Bias,” from The New York Times. What I remember most though, like a muscle memory of sorts, is the paralyzing sensation of fear and terror. More than a year of shocking and sustained violence against the Asian American population, stemming from racism and xenophobia, had culminated in this mass attack. In response, I spiraled into a state of mental collapse. I scheduled an urgent meeting with my guidance counselor, and while there was an APIDA affinity group meeting held in its wake, I partly chose not to attend because I just knew I would burst into tears. I wasn’t ready to cry in front of a group that was already mourning.

The next day, only one of my teachers mentioned the shooting in class, and, even their offered space for open discussion quickly devolved into a debate centered solely around the moralities of gun control and gun violence, rather than an acknowledgment of the racist nature of the attack and the mounting violence targeting Asian Americans. I appreciated the gesture, but when the conversation hurtled down a path it wasn’t originally meant to, it stung just as much as the violence not being addressed. Still, I found some support from those around me. One teacher offered me an extension on a paper when I was suffering from anxiety attacks. I saw peers reposting infographics and resources on social media and sharing messages of solidarity.

However, the aftershock of the shooting, for me, was debilitating. I spent the majority of that spring break attempting to recover, but upon returning, I was forced to grapple with the fact that school life continued on without my having processed the attack, frankly, to any degree. My mental health consequently worsened — I endured exhaustion, panic and anxiety attacks, nightmares, and dissociation when entering unsafe spaces. The key factor that exacerbated this decline was my overwhelming feeling of isolation following the shooting, after the media coverage and attention died down. Although conversations with the school’s AAPI community sparked sentiments of allyship and togetherness, I still felt a striking sense of invisibility; it felt as if the shooting was erased from the timeline. The flood of support from a few weeks prior had diminished to a slow trickle.

It was then that I experienced the consequences of conversations about fighting back against anti-Asian violence which arose primarily in reaction to a traumatic event. Much of the school, like the rest of the country, seemed to move on without the lives of the eight people and without seriously addressing or acting to heal the pain faced by its AAPI population. But trauma doesn’t just go away — many continue to suffer long after the triggering event, and I am one of them. Not only have there been prolonged consequences that still harm us, but these assaults have only persisted, with no end in sight.

In May, October, and November of 2021, three Asian people, including a 73-year-old woman, were pushed onto subway tracks in New York City. My mom and I have barely taken the subway since the beginning of the pandemic, but in the rare moments we do, she constantly reminds me to stand away from the platform edge, look for the nearest exit, and to never enter a subway car where there are few people inside. Although she had always cautioned me about public safety, the driving reason now for these warnings was the danger of racially-motivated attacks and the surge of anti-Asian violence on the MTA. 

Going out in New York City — and particularly, taking the train — used to feel liberatory at most, mundane at least. Now every excursion, alone or not, feels like I am walking onto a battlefield. The death of Michelle Go, killed on January 15th by being pushed onto subway tracks, was indescribably tragic, and I cannot help but imagine myself in her place. Moreover, I know several other AAPI individuals who were harassed on the train, often troubled by a slew of racial slurs. When my peers take the train without voicing this same fear, I long for a world where I can take the subway without my race being at the forefront of my mind.

Many cases of anti-Asian violence are taking place in our very city. GuiYing Ma, a 62-year-old Queens woman, passed away on February 22 from her injuries, three months after being beaten by a man with a rock. On February 13, Christina Yuna Lee was stabbed in her bathroom by a man who followed her into her Chinatown apartment. A few days after her passing, I heard from my mom that we had belonged in closely overlapping communities. Learning that Lee and I — with whom I already shared identities as a Korean femme living in the New York Metropolitan Area — shared a mutual relationship filled me with feelings of sorrow and loss. What hurt almost as much as hearing about her death was the news that a memorial dedicated to her was desecrated — twice. There are people so full of hate as to destroy her sacred space of remembrance. Our right to exist peacefully is violated — even in our homes, even in death.

It may be easy to ignore that many AAPI people in the HM community, including me, are also facing race-based harassment. These incidents don’t make headlines. Strangers have called me slurs online, replying to my comments expressing grief and frustration under AAPI news posts. As I waited to cross the street, a person standing next to me muttered, “These [expletive] Asians.” In an unforgettable incident in my apartment’s elevator, a child who could not have been over the age of six pointed at me and my mom and said, “You’re Chinese — you have coronavirus!” Their guardian rushed to whisper, “We don’t say things like that,” which I knew was code for, “Those are things we only say inside the house.” The truth is that for more than two years, harassment has been the lived reality for many AAPI people, particularly AAPI women, who make up 68 percent of the victims of anti-Asian hate incidents, according to Stop AAPI Hate. I’m terrified for myself, but even more, I’m terrified for my mom, my friends, and other people in the AAPI community. 

After each assault and killing, I watch names of victims fade into obscurity in mainstream discussion, only to reappear once a year in a memorial post or email. I will not stand the Atlanta shooting turning into another annual day of memorial without sustained action to prevent anti-Asian violence and support those who endure it. People naturally tend to find it unpleasant to enact and sustain confrontation with the darkest acts of humans. As difficult as it may be, it is important to stay conscious of the importance of that work, even if the triggering event has passed. It is only through this unceasing commitment that communities can support their Asian American members and the AAPI community.

If you only pay attention to this continuous barrage of violence after a particularly brutal incident until it fades from the headlines, it leaves no room for sustained action, no commitment to anti-racism beyond a moment of crisis. The AAPI community faces severe, destructive, and omnipresent violence. If I have one takeaway from watching and participating in justice movements in the past few years, it is that every individual must actively and continuously contribute to the struggle against bigotry to create, preserve, and grow more sustainable models of support and care. Every individual must do the necessary work and think about what they can do to help foster long-term discussions and structures in HM, as well as in the broader world.

The AAPI community is not an invisible community and we will not stand being treated as such. We deserve to feel safe — and seen, and heard, and listened to. We will not be reduced to a group onto which weakness or silence is projected. We deserve to celebrate our solidarity, resistance, and joy, and have it celebrated by others. Though justice would be served if Hyun Jung Grant, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andrew Michels, Yong Ae Yue, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Daoyou Feng, and more fellow Asian Americans were alive and safe, we can practice kindness and love by siding with the AAPI community throughout this period of heinous violence. It is the least you can do to make HM, and our world, a safer, more compassionate space for both the AAPI community and for all of us.