Nothing happens by accident...

...and it's never a lone gunman

Note: This piece is about the shooting in Atlanta last night. It’s all so awful and terrifying, and it won’t be undone with just a single donation or a single volunteer shift. With that said, we build solidarity relationships one step at a time, so this morning I’m sending some money to the Hate Is A Virus Community Action Fund and signing up for the Hollaback Bystander Intervention training. If you’re able, I encourage you to do the same.


Eight people were killed in Atlanta last night in a string of shootings targeting massage parlors. Six of them were Asian American women.

It is horrifying. It is rage-inducing. It did not come out of nowhere.

There have been 3800 documented hate crimes against Asian Americans in the past year. 68% of them were against Asian American women.

That too is horrifying. That too is rage-inducing. That too did not come out of nowhere.

We (and here, as always, I mean primarily white people, though this isn’t limited to us) are about to do our well-practiced distancing dance.

Depending on your politics, the move will either be to speculate about the killer’s mental health and retrograde otherness or to boldly label him as a domestic terrorist. I get the intent behind the latter, but I’m not sure if it’s accurate. Terrorism attempts to threaten the logic of a nation-state. I fear that wasn’t the case here.

I also suspect that, when our collective good-white-person-gaze is directed past the immediate assailant, it’ll stop, disproportionally, at the foot of Donald Trump. And sure… that makes sense. Until a few months ago, the then-President of the United States of America was using the world’s dumbest anti-Asian slurs as go-to rally punchlines. Goodness knows I wish this was all that guy’s fault. But again, I fear that’s not really how we got here.

Trump wasn’t tweeting jokes about the flu in 1997 when Yang Song fell to her death in Queens during a police raid on a massage parlor.

Trump wasn’t President in 2012 when seven lives were lost in the Oak Creek massacre.

Trump wasn’t President in 1997 when Kuan Chung Kao was killed by a cop in California.

Trump wasn’t President in 1982 when Vincent Chin was beaten to death by a couple of white guys in Michigan.

Trump wasn’t President in 1875 (the year the Statue of Liberty was built) when the Page Act opened the floodgates for 150 years of xenophobic immigration legislation. The target of that act, of course, was Chinese women. Their ostensible crime? That they were all prostitutes who came to America with “lewd and immoral purposes.”

Eight people were killed in Atlanta last night in a string of shootings targeting massage parlors. Six of them were Asian American women.

It is horrifying. It is rage-inducing. It did not come out of nowhere.

All this is deeply complicated, of course— a web made immensely more tangled by the diversity of nationalities and immigration narratives that we’ve collapsed into a single “AAPI” category, a web blurred even more by model minority myths and whiteness’ favorite rope-a-dope (our monkey’s paw offer of conditional acceptance as a reward for assimilation). I highly recommend reading the Hua Hsu piece linked above for an incredible wrestling with some of those dynamics.

At its core, though, is the most American of all stories. There is only one group in this country that is truly allowed to live (and, more to the point, to consume) with impunity. That’s the promise of American whiteness. Everybody else is only truly useful at the point that they are able to provide whatever it is white America wants: land, labor, entertainment, sex, a fighting force for various colonial wars, etc., etc. etc.

We wanted a railroad, which isn’t the same thing as wanting anything to do with the people who came here to build it. We wanted an army to fight the Khmer Rouge, which isn’t the same thing as wanting the children of those soldiers to live next to us. We want our nails done, which isn’t the same thing as acknowledging the human being holding the polish.

Just as white America has historically defined ethnic groups’ value based on the service they could provide for us, so too have we perpetuated myths that allow for their devolution from full human beings to mere consumer products. Perhaps nowhere is that pattern of “stories justifying the sin” more obvious than in our country’s relationship to poor, newly-arrived Asian American women. It’s a story of lasciviousness and submissiveness, of “love you long time” prostitutes and generations of women defined primarily by white male desire. Even when it’s a story told sympathetically (the yellow peril prostitute of past centuries is now the “victim of sex trafficing”) it’s never been one about human beings with dignity.

That was the story in 1875 when we kicked Asian women out, lest they continue to tempt our men. That was the story in 1960, when Nancy Kwan became the first Asian American woman to break through in Hollywood. She played, of course, a doomed prostitute named Susie Wong. That was the story throughout America’s imperial wars in Southeast Asia (in Thailand, for example, commercial sex workers are five times more concentrated in areas that once housed U.S. military bases than anywhere else in the country). That was, of course, the story last night. It’s a story that justifies invisibility. It’s a story that justifies exploitation. It’s a story that leaves communities vulnerable to violence.

Eight people were killed in Atlanta last night in a string of shootings targeting massage parlors. Six of them were Asian American women.

It is horrifying. It is rage-inducing. It did not come out of nowhere.

If white people want to be part of a world where shootings like this don’t happen anymore, it’ll take far more than condemning this single action. It will take far more than calling out your most obnoxious friend when they trot out “that accent” again. It’ll take more than getting “Stop Asian Hate” trending, than pretending that liberation is just on the other side of a few good hashtags.

It’ll take organizing other white people to break patterns that are less about individual boorishness than they are about our collective relationship to racial capitalism: the presumption that everything we want to consume is ours for the taking, that our comfort and convenience always takes precedence over others’ humanity.

It’ll take organizing that recognizes that the mess we’re in is perpetuated both by powerful structures and deeply internalized stories, and that any way forward involves taking a sledgehammer to both.

It’ll take organizing that offers a counterpoint to xenophobia and nativism, but that doesn’t pretend that the sins of whiteness begin and end when an outward bigot spits on a Southeast Asian family in the supermarket.

Most of all, it’ll take organizing that listens to and follows the lead of Asian American activists who, in the spirit of the I-Hotel, are standing up to gentrification and are building power alongside the most historically vulnerable groups of immigrant Asian women— sex workers, domestic workers and beauty-industry employees.

There was a tragedy last night. It deserves to be mourned. This isn’t a single weed that can be lobbed off, never to be seen again, however. Like everywhere white supremacy reveals itself, we’ve been allowing this root system to grow unimpeded for years. It’ll take far more than any of our individual acts of self-righteousness to dig it up. This isn’t the time for media-friendly awareness campaigns. It’s time to start passing out shovels.

End note: If you’re interested in learning how to organize white people to support (not take over) collective liberation efforts, registration is open for The Barnraisers Project spring organizing cohorts. It’s free, though I ask that all participants make a donation to a BIPOC activist group (like many of the ones you’ll find in this piece). You can find more information here.