I was 11 when my parents signed me up for karate.
I wasn’t particularly interested in martial arts, but a schoolmate had called me a “chink” and kicked me, so they decided I needed to learn how to protect myself. I was the only Asian in the class and the only girl. I had just started wearing a training bra and I was very uncomfortable with my changing body, especially with the way it elicited leering glances from boys. One boy in my class, who was a couple of years older than me, always found a way to land kicks between my legs when sparring. I told myself it wasn’t intentional, until the day he winked at me, his foot resting against my vagina, and asked, “Does it really slant sideways?”
I punched him in the face.
At school I experienced the usual barrage of insults and racial slurs, especially after September 11 when the patriotic fervor of my classmates extended to telling me to go back to my own country. In spite of the fact that they clearly didn’t view me as American—or perhaps because of it—many of them fetishized me. Maybe viewing me as foreign made it easier for them to dehumanize me. Boys called me “Mulan” and “Shelby Woo” and “Lucy Liu” because to them, all Asian women looked alike, were interchangeable and equally objectifiable.
As I grew older the harassment grew more graphic. Men assumed that I was docile, subservient, eager to please. They told me what they wanted to do with my body. “I’ve never been with an Asian,” they’d say. “I hear you’re really tight.” Some of them offered me money for sex. “Filipinos are poor, right? You’ll probably do anything for money.” Others assumed that I would be so flattered by their attention that I would beg them to jump into bed with me. More than once I had to use the self-defense skills my parents had been so adamant about me learning.
Make no mistake: Hypersexualization is at the root of violence against Asian women.
I wasn’t surprised when the news broke that a white man had shot and killed eight people—six of them Asian women—at three spas in Georgia on March 16. I was devastated. I was angry. But I was not surprised, because the threat of violence based on my gender and my race has loomed over me my entire life.
The hypersexualization of Asian women is rooted in many things, from the historical romanticization of the East to the West’s history of colonialism to the depiction of Asian women in Hollywood. Three years before I was born, Full Metal Jacket brought us the phrases “me love you long time,” “me so horny,” and “me sucky sucky,” which are still used to objectify and harass Asian women today. I was a sophomore in high school when Memoirs of a Geisha was released, and men saw it as license to cast any Asian woman in their own geisha fantasies. There are many more examples, of course, and the problem goes back much further. Asian representation in Western pop culture has long been plagued by stereotypes. One of the most pervasive tropes, that of the mystically sensual Dragon Lady, has been used over and over again in media dating back to the 1930s when Anna May Wong starred in Daughter of the Dragon and other films that employed the damaging archetype.
Many people don’t see these depictions as racist. Some of them even think Asian women should be flattered by them. But how can I be flattered when they lead to violence against Asian women like me? Make no mistake that this hypersexualization is at the root of violence against Asian women. The recent killings were horrifying but by no means isolated; 21% to 55% of Asian American women report being victims of physical or sexual assault.
I have been catcalled, followed, cornered, and groped. I have had to physically defend myself, or run away. And I am one of the lucky ones. Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Soon C. Park, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim and Yong A. Yue were not as lucky. According to authorities, the shooter has claimed he has a “sex addiction” and that he viewed the women as a “temptation.”
We’re preparing for an uncertain future. We’re stocking up on pepper spray. We’re being careful not to go outside alone.
Some authorities have declined to call this a hate crime (the acting chief of the Atlanta Police Department says it’s too early in the investigation), casting doubt on whether or not these horrific killings were racially motivated. It’s true that not all of the victims were Asian women. The other two people he killed, Paul Andre Michels and an unnamed woman, were white. But the facts that the majority of the victims were Asian women and that the gunman reportedly targeted Asian-owned businesses attest to underlying racial prejudice. An employee at one of the spas said the shooter allegedly yelled “I’m going to kill all the Asians” before opening fire, according to a report by a local Korean news outlet.
The killings occurred amidst a larger wave of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans, most of them against women. As an Asian American woman, I have been forced to confront what this means not only for me, but for my family and my community. The surge of hate crimes has been connected to anti-Asian sentiment in the wake of the pandemic, but there’s no vaccine for racism.
I worry about what will happen after quarantine as Asian Americans leave the safety of their homes. My loved ones are scared too. So many of my friends and I have spent the last few days crying and preparing for an uncertain future. We’re stocking up on pepper spray. We’re being careful not to go outside alone, not even to check the mail. We’re grateful for the protection of face masks, not just as barriers for the virus but as tools of anonymity that obscure our Asian features. We are wearing sunglasses to cover more of our faces and wondering if we should bleach our dark hair blonde. We are worried about our elders, as so many of them have been attacked too. Our mental health is eroding, and we live with an ever-present fear that we will be next.
Where do we go from here? Conversations are finally opening up about the racism the Asian American community is facing, but conversations don’t mean much without actively working to dismantle racism. We need to combat stereotypes. We need to keep speaking out, and uplifting Asian American voices. We need to remember that this situation is ongoing, and that the news stories we see reflect only a small portion of this crisis.
It’s too much to hope that the racism will die down along with the pandemic, but I hope that the outrage we are seeing right now will not subside, either. I hope that the conversations and the work will continue, and that people will remain committed to dismantling racism and the harmful stereotypes that endanger the Asian community and all marginalized communities. Because the racism and violence we are experiencing isn’t new. We have never been truly safe.
I fear we never will be.
Christine Liwag Dixon is a multiracial Filipino American writer and the content director of Samahan, an online multimedia platform dedicated to connecting Filipinos across the globe.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the names of all the Asian women killed in the shooting.
Originally Appeared on Glamour