Asian women and racial violence in the aftermath of Atlanta | Guest column

In her famous essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous resurrects the myth of Medusa — a gorgon whose terrifying glance turned onlookers into stone. Medusa was created as a result of rape and chastisement, and through her monstrosity represented such a threat to the world of men that its heroic representative Perseus was commissioned to cut and conquer her terrifying head.

Cixous calls this a display of masculine power that rests on a sense of “obligatory virility” designed to “invade,” “colonize” and tame its surroundings.

If we are to go by the gunman Robert Long’s claim, the recent shooting spree in Atlanta’s massage parlors was not about race — it was about justice and the virile obligation to invade a restorative space and “eliminate” the “temptation” represented by businesses that employed female masseuses of Asian origin.

According to USA Today, these businesses were spas that featured on “an erotic review site … where buyers who call themselves “hobbyists” or “mongers” look for sex and information on it. The 21-year-old gunman is reported to have been a sex addict struggling with a burgeoning guilt due to his overt reliance on sex. The merciless shooting was thus his attempt at cleansing the source of his temptation.

The ideas of elimination/cleansing have hurtful connotations in the world we live in — think of the Jews, the Armenians, the Hindu Pandits, Stalin’s Great Purge, the anti-Igbo pogrom, the Yazidis, the Native Indians, the Uyghurs — the list is arduous and long. Despite that, this idea of elimination persists and finds a modest expression in a young man’s urge for moral justice to destroy the source of his temptation. It’s as if the bad/ugly is always outside and never within. For Robert Long, the temptation was somehow outside him, resting in a handful of Asian women.

I say “Asian” women not only because most of the victims of the shooting were of Asian descent, but also because I took some time to scroll through the erotic review website some of these spas were featured in. The introduction to the website seems ominous in the wake of the spa shootings as it claims to “facilitate…fantasy as it meets reality.” It does not explain what it means by “fantasy” — this is left to the user for interpretation.

Furthermore, the list of spas in this website mostly advertise services based on ethnicity, with “Asian” being a commonly-referenced ethnicity in the Atlanta section. The website’s massage blog has an entry titled “Asian vs Non Asian Massage Parlors,” which states that the stereotype of Asian women being “quiet,” “more nurturing,” gentle no-rush service with a smile” holds some truth. The comments by users on the entry not only uphold such gendered stereotypes, but also make a clear distinction between women and their productivity/service based on racial biases. This over-reliance on ethnicity and its juxtaposition with massage services indicates a clear case of commodity fetishism. The Asian woman is categorically thrust into the binary-divide of the Asian vs. Non-Asian. Thereby, the Asian woman comes to represent a commodity/an embodiment of the service she offers, and the American man becomes the active seeker of this dehumanized, fetishized object of erotic desire that is pliant, submissive and ready to serve.

In “The Asian Mystique,” Sheridan Prasso talks about the romanticized Western construction of the Oriental woman as either “submissive, obedient, and obliging” or as “sexually uninhibited” — discourses that still shape the present-day perception of Asian women in the West. Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, in an interview with NPR, further highlights the racial nature of such stereotypical representations of Asian women, who are commonly represented in popular culture as “exotic,” “dragon ladies,” “temptresses” and “prostitutes.”

Thus, the absolute denial of humanity to these Asian women by calling them “temptresses” or in Robert Long’s case, a mere “temptation,” is ultimately an act of both racial and gendered bias. Additionally, shooting in spaces with Asian-run businesses, where the chances of killing Asians over any other ethnicity is far greater, is a racially-motivated act. Therefore, it is astounding that the shooting has not been classified as a “hate crime” by the authorities yet.

Long’s rhetoric of justice — the cleansing of outward spaces that serve as “temptation” — is also reminiscent of the Western construct of “yellow peril” that characterizes the Asian as the dangerous outsider. Interestingly, it is this construct that helped justify the colonial invasion of Asian lands, the anti-immigration laws and sentiments toward Asians, and the sexual vilification of Asians.

Gina Marchetti in “Romance and the Yellow Peril” points out how an important focus of the yellow peril discourse lies in the “sexual danger of contact” with the Asian race. Marchetti notes further that this gets more complicated when “race becomes tied to religion as a spiritual play between good and evil, sin and salvation.”

Robert Long was reportedly “an emotionally disturbed young man who was religious to the point of mania and who felt deep shame about why he frequented these places.” It is therefore likely that Long’s sense of guilt, shame and retribution were a complex derivative of a skewed understanding of gender, race, religion, rights and retribution.

Unfortunately, having easy access to firearms only strengthened his disturbed understanding of a social purge. The result was eight dead bodies — once living and struggling to earn their livelihoods in the corners of a big city.

Jayendrina Singha Ray is a PhD (ABD) in English, with a research focus on the works of the South African Nobel Laureate John Maxwell Coetzee. She teaches English Composition and Research Writing at Highline College, WA, and has previously taught English at colleges in India.