Protesters stand with signs at a rally to show support for communities experiencing anti-Asian racism in Minneapolis, MN. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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As Anthea Yur approached the microphone Thursday evening to thank several hundred participants for coming to a rally against anti-Asian violence, she had to pause. Her voice caught. It had been a difficult 48 hours. She’d barely slept. 

“We got your back,” chanted the crowd, many of them Asian women. “We got your back.” 

Yur collected herself and began to speak. “In my history of protesting in Minneapolis, this is the first event that has ever been for Asian lives,” she said. “It means so much that you guys are here.”

Forty-eight hours earlier, a gunman had massacred eight people in three spas in the Atlanta area, four of them in the small town of Acworth, Georgia. Six of the dead were Asian women. It was a town Yur knew well; she briefly lived there early in the pandemic. And it was the latest and deadliest incident in a rising tide of anti-Asian violence. Though police initially claimed the incident did not appear to be a hate crime–the gunman had a “bad day” and was motivated by his “sex addiction”–many Asian American women quickly pointed out the forces of racism and misogyny can’t be separated so tidily.

Over the past year of the pandemic, critics say former President Donald Trump encouraged anti-Asian racism by labeling COVID-19 the “China virus” and “kung flu.” Hate crimes against Asian Americans rose 149 percent in 16 of the country’s largest cities from 2019 to 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. The group Stop AAPI Hate documented 42 incidents of anti-Asian bias in Minnesota over the past year; nationally, more than two-thirds of the incidents targeted Asian women. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights said that 7 percent of all COVID-related complaints to their discrimination hotline over the past year have been anti-Asian discrimination.

The massacre in Georgia sent a searing pain through Minnesota’s Asian American communities, especially among women. 

Vicky Yang, a St. Paul resident who attended the rally, said the killings in Georgia left her feeling unsafe. “I can’t even be myself without feeling like I’m going to fear for my life,” she said. “Those women were doing their job, making their livelihood, to be attacked in their place of work where they felt safe.”

Asian American women across the Twin Cities told Sahan Journal they often feel invisible, and uncomfortable speaking up about the racism and sexism they face. The shootings in Georgia have put a rare spotlight on them, and elicited a show of solidarity from other communities. They hope the attention to anti-Asian racism doesn’t fade when news cameras leave Atlanta.

‘It just completely cracked me’

During the two months that Yur lived in Acworth, she never saw another Asian woman. Just 3 percent of the town’s 22,000 residents, spread out across mobile homes and cabins on large lots, are Asian. 

So when she heard about the shootings in Acworth’s spas, she felt devastated on multiple levels. She’d been worried about the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes before.

“It just completely cracked me,” she said. “The news you never wanted to see.”

Living in Acworth, she heard about the women who operated the spas, and the men who admired them. But she never saw them.

Though police said the attack was not racially motivated, Yur sees the racism and misogyny as inextricably linked. Throughout American history, Asian women have been fetishized, sexualized, economically marginalized, and exploited by military members abroad. 

The shooter, Yur said, saw his fetish for Asian women, and the women themselves, as sinful.

He seemed to think he could just “throw away [his] temptation because they’re sinful,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter because it’s just a fetish.”

In some ways, organizing a rally in support of Asian women felt counterintuitive. Growing up in rural Iowa, Yur heard racial slurs throughout her childhood. The family home was frequently vandalized. But she was taught not to fight it, she said.

“I was raised to clean my house every single time it got egged,” she said.

Yur, who describes herself as an “Asian mutt” with a mix of Chinese, Burmese, Taiwanese and Mongolian heritage, became an activist protesting the Dakota Access pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, where she spent three months in 2016. In more recent months, she’s been active in the Black Lives Matter movement at George Floyd Square, helping bring together generations of families who have lost a relative to police violence.

But she’d never organized an event in support of people who looked like her.

“If no one is going to do it, I’m going to do it even though I’m in pain,” she said. “Because I want everyone else to know that we can’t just keep waiting.”

She’s been grateful to see the support for the protest and rally, from fellow Asian Americans and people outside the community. Just as the pandemic forced the world to stop looking away from the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, she said, she hoped this tragedy would force people to stop and notice.

“People can’t turn their backs anymore,” she said.

Anthea Yur, the organizer of the Asian solidarity rally, speaks in front of people gathered to show support for communities impacted by anti-Asian racism. Hundreds of demonstrators marched to show support for AAPI community members. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

‘I can’t even cry’

Naomi Ko was surprised by how hard the news hit her. She’d been tracking the rise in anti-Asian sentiment, and experienced it herself last March when a group of young men chased her on their bikes. Still, Tuesday’s shootings in Atlanta floored her.

“I’m at such a point that it feels like there’s nothing inside right now,” Ko said. “I think it just hurts so much that I can’t even cry a tear about it.”

Ko, a filmmaker, actor, and writer, was frustrated that police did not consider the shootings a hate crime. Sexual violence and racial violence are intertwined, especially for Asian women, she said.

“It is how the West has always perceived us,” she said, noting that United States immigration policy banned Chinese women even before the late 19th century Chinese Exclusion Act. “Sexual assault is one of the main ways that Asian American women experience racism in this country.”

She was also upset that the news stories from Korean language media were so different from English language, mainstream media. While English language  media said the shooter was motivated by a “sex addiction,” Korean language media reported something different: that eyewitnesses heard him say he wanted to “kill all the Asians.”

“If that isn’t your first piece of evidence that it’s a racially motivated attack, okay,” Ko said.

‘We should be discomforted’

Minnesota’s political leaders were quick to condemn the attacks.

“The surge of anti-Asian violence is unacceptable, and we demand justice for them – whether it is in our own communities in Minnesota, or in Georgia, or anywhere across the Nation,” read a statement from the legislature’s DFL People of Color and Indigenous caucus. 

“Violence is never acceptable and this attack is abhorrent and awful,” wrote Jennifer Carnahan, the chair of the Minnesota Republican Party and a Korean adoptee, on Twitter. “I sincerely hope this was not an anti-Asian attack. Our thoughts and hearts are with the families and communities of those lost.”

Governor Tim Walz, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, and Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero joined a Zoom call, livestreamed on Facebook, with the Coalition of Asian American Leaders to offer support to the community.

“The fear and discrimination and racism that you are feeling cannot stand,” Walz said. The moment called for action, he said, suggesting that hate crime laws should be strengthened. 

Walz, who grew up in Nebraska, noted that many Asian Minnesotans have been in the state longer than his family. “But it doesn’t matter if you arrived yesterday or you arrived decades ago,” he added. “You are part of this beautiful tapestry, and this is your place. Our hearts grieve for our brothers and sisters in Georgia. We stand in solidarity with you.”

“There are people in Minnesota who think that we can ‘Minnesota nice’ our way through moments like these or simply say, to talk about issues like white supremacy makes people too uncomfortable,” said Flanagan. “We should be discomforted. Because that’s what will spur us on to action.”

‘I guess really nowhere is okay’

When she heard the news of the shootings in Georgia, Sun Yung Shin thought about the Asian massage parlors on Lake Street decades ago. She thought about her own work as a craniosacral therapist, and all the women performing service work, whether nails or hair or sewing or massage. And she felt horrified and heartbroken, unable to get out of bed.

“I just felt terrorized by the terror that they must have felt,” said Shin, a poet, teacher, and Minnesota Book Award winner. “I felt such deep sadness that this is how their lives ended. And I also felt a sinking feeling that the media was going to make the murderer into a sympathetic figure. I was not surprised to see that he was taken into custody without incident like many other white perpetrators of violence.”

Since Trump was elected president, and especially over the past year, Shin has been nervous to leave her home.

“You just don’t know which white person is part of the Trump following, and which white person will let you go about your business,” she said. “So I try to not be afraid and let my life be ruined by that. But I do think about it every time.” She also has started to wonder about how this will change when pandemic restrictions are lifted. “It’s going to be really different to go out and about without my mask and just have my whole Asian face showing.”

Shin feels safer in Minneapolis than outside the city. But lately the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes has spread to other diverse, liberal cities like Los Angeles and Brooklyn. “I was kind of shocked,” she said. “Really? This happened in Brooklyn? I guess really nowhere is okay. I mean, nowhere on earth is safe for a woman, period.”

“Being Asian American often feels like being in kind of a parallel invisible world,” Shin said. That invisibility can manifest in various ways—including high rates of suicide attempts for Asian American women, she said. “We experience a lot of depression from all of this invisibility and all of this various types of violence against us.”

She’s encouraged to see diverse communities and leaders rallying behind Asian Americans in recent days.

“That has brought me to tears,” she said. “I want us to continue to build solidarity together, because our destinies are intertwined.”

Ben Hovland contributed reporting.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.