The Long History of Violence Against Asian Women
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is the takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for starting your week with us. We begin today in New York City, where back in February of this year, a community was in mourning.
Susan Lee: We deserve to be safe, not feel safe, but be safe in our city, in our home.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're hearing Susan Lee, a resident in New York City's Chinatown neighborhood. I'm currently a candidate for the New York City council. Susan was speaking during a community rally following the brutal slaying of Christina Yuna Lee. Days earlier, Christina, who's not related to Susan was stabbed to death in her own apartment. A college graduate and creative digital producer.
Christina was just 35 years old when a man she did not know, followed her to her home, pushed his way into her apartment, and took her life with stunning brutality. The unthinkable violence against Christina came just weeks after the shocking killing of Michelle Go. Just 40 years old, Michelle was waiting on the platform in the Times Square subway station, when a man pushed her in front of an oncoming train. The deadly crime against Michelle Go occurred in New York, but the reverberation was felt across the nation. After Michelle's death, Russell Jeung a co-founder of STOP AAPI HATE spoke with FOX 2 in San Francisco.
Russell Jeung: I think in our community, people are one degree from separation from knowing someone who's been attacked or assaulted
Melissa Harris-Perry: From March 2020 to December 2021. The advocacy coalition STOP AAPI HATE received nearly 11,000 reports of hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific islanders. It's no wonder that many in Asian American communities are feeling the grief and fear of living, just one degree of separation from violence. In her recent piece for The Nation Sex, Death, and Empire: The Roots Of Violence Against Asian Women. Panthea Lee, ethnographer, activist, and writer interrogates a long history of sexualized and gendered violence against Asian women.
She finds the root of contemporary anti-Asian hate are far deeper than COVID era rhetoric. When she finds a 38-second video from the summer of 2020 on her own iPhone, Panthea discovers she was less than one degree removed from Christina Yuna Lee whose startling murder in February rocked New York's Chinatown. I sat down with Panthea Lee, to discuss her article and just a heads up, as we talk about this, the reality is Asian American and Pacific Islander women face violence and hear some pretty horrible things, so part of our conversation will include some of that strong language.
Panthea Lee: What I started looking at as I was digging through this history of sexualized violence against Asian women was, I started looking back at US military history. I started looking at the Philippine-American war, for example, at the end of the 19th century. A war that devastated the country, the Philippines, and where women who had never considered sex work were forced into it as a matter of economic survival. Now the US military encouraged this and they actually justified officially sanctioned and managed sex work as a matter of military and Imperial necessity.
The thinking was that GIs would need a sexual outlet in the military theater. We need to get that set up for them and then also to manage and inspect women so that they don't get sick. The US government basically said this is a practical matter of manpower and of empire. We need our men to be healthy and to be able to fight, and so they registered women as sex workers, regularly tested them for disease, and tagged them like pets, reinforcing their status as less than human. There's a long military history here, but basically by the end of US colonization in the Philippines, but 50 years later, this ideology had spread across Asia laying the foundation for the regions, now infamous sex entertainment and trafficking industries.
For me, the line from America's earliest empire there through wars in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and now to the surge of anti-Asian violence here at home, is straight, it is clear and it is written in blood.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The differing interpretations of the letters R&R.
Panthea Lee: In 1950, the US military introduced a program called R&R, which is officially rest and recuperation that gave soldiers break from active duty by sending them on holiday. It started shuttling soldiers, for example, daily to Japan. Now soldiers slang for R&R, calling it rape and run, rock and ruin show us what many actually ended up doing with this time. Basically, by the time the US entered Vietnam about a year after Senator William Fulbright declared Saigon has become an American brothel.
By the time US left, there were about half a million prostitutes in the country. I think the system of trying to give men reprieve from active duty and then treating Asian women as the outlets by which they will do so, has caused enormous harm all across Asia and now we see the impacts on Asian women in America today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want you to speak a bit more about the nature of these harms and their interconnection. On the one hand, it seems obvious with the harms of sexual exploitation in sexual abuse, sexual violence, sex as a war crime, but I think it's also worth not doing suffering pornography, but worth really understanding the multiplicative ways that this harm manifests.
Panthea Lee: Thank you. I really appreciate that question. I think that the most obvious that we have seen now is obviously, the surge and violence against Asian women. In New York City where I live, just about a month ago, we saw a 67-year-old woman punched 125 times as she was coming home. About a week before that a man assaulted seven women on the streets of Manhattan as he was walking around over the course of a two-hour period. I think these are the incidents that get the media attention.
I think the reality is that there's also the simultaneous hyper-sexualization and dehumanization of Asian women that has been reinforced through mass culture plays out in our day-to-day lives. From the racist catcalls that we get on the street to how we are treated in professional settings. There is a very specific type of marginalization that I think Asian women face. All women have their experiences of creepy men, of discrimination, of glass ceiling, but I think Asian women face a very specific kind.
In my piece, I ended up taking a look at an Instagram account, for example, that is dedicated solely to capturing the racist pickup lines received by Asian women on dating sites. I'm not sure how much of this I can repeat on public radio, but I think some of the comments, "I want to try my first Asian woman," "I need my yellow fever cured," "I will eat you like shrimp fried rice." All of these show how Asian women are seen as objects to fulfill male fantasy. I do think the point around yellow fever is worth looking at a bit more deeply, this concept that I think many of us might laugh about nowadays.
It's slang for people that have a specific sexual preference for Asian people. This came out of basically a concept from the father of modern gynecology that insisted there was a unique strain of syphilis in Asian women. Our bodies have been seen as the sites of disease. We saw how the military has tested Asian women for disease. We saw how the Page Act of 1875 was the first restrictive federal immigration law in the US which prohibited the entry of Chinese women because they were thought to be all disease prostitutes.
The idea that our bodies are the sites of disease, the idea that yellow fever is rampant and something that needs to be cured persists today. I think we can see connections between that idea and the ideologies that have been espoused by mass shooters around why they need to go and shoot and kill Asian women. For example, in the case of the Atlanta spa shootings.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I kept having this experience of recognition and familiarity while reading your piece. In part was trying to resist it because it is the danger of always reading the experience of other groups through your own and thinking, "oh, yes. That's just like us. Oh yes, us too." The ways in which that can actually be belittling or diminishing. The section you were just walking us through on, on yellow fever. Of course, the ways that Black folks have used a description of jungle fever in a similar way to talk about white people with a particular sexual preference for Black partners.
Maybe most critically that moment of recognition when you named J. Marion Sims as you say, understood as the father of modern gynecology but becomes the father of that gynecology through experimentation on enslaved women's bodies. What is the value here in seeing not only the window but the mirror of experience between Asian women and African women in the US and African American women and Asian American women, relative to sexual violence.
Panthea Lee: I think that's such a good and important question. To me, I think right now, we are seeing politicians and right-wing pundits using the attacks on Asian Americans and Asian American women to advance their carceral arguments, dehumanize Black people, and delegitimize Black Lives Matter as a movement. I think we first need to recognize and to fight back against that. None of us shouldn't be pawns for white supremacy. Yes, Asian women are hurting, but we also need to understand the root causes of violence and stand in solidarity with all our sisters and brothers who suffer under it, especially Black women.
Absolutely the "father of modern gynecology," his cruel experimentation on Black women, his declaration that there was a unique strain of Chinese toxin of syphilis that was manifest in the bodies of Chinese women. All of these racist and misogynistic ideologies of women of color are what continue to perpetuate our suffering today, and these ideas have been reinforced through mass culture time and again. I think it is imperative that we recognize the common roots of this racism and try and understand how do we actually build understanding that our marginalization is specific and unique to each of us, the histories and the sources of this are actually shared.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you talk about the propagation of these stereotypes of these violent ideas in mass culture, say a bit more about media, about art, about film, and the ways that it has sexualized Asian women and also, dehumanized?
Panthea Lee: Yes. I started looking deeper into how the stereotype of Asian women as docile, as compliant, as hyper-sexualized, existing solely to servicemen has played out over literature, theater, music. I looked back, for example, and thanks to this scholar, Dr. Celine Parreñas Shimizu, looks back at the book, Madame Chrysanthème, published by a French writer in 1887, about a naval officer who goes to Japan, takes a temporary wife, who he believed, "has no thoughts whatsoever." She was merely an object for his collection. This book, the cultural significance of it cannot be understated.
This dehumanization and she ends up killing herself because she bears this child, that love is unrequited. He goes back and marries a white woman. This story has inspired basically a series of operas and plays and films over the last century; Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon, Toll the Seas. While the locations in the settings changed in line with Western geopolitical interests, the story remained the same.
Dr. Shimizu is the one who tuned me into this line of thinking, and her analysis is basically that these films and these plays, they are the manifestations of Western, usually white male desire for this servile submissive suffering women who are sexy because they are servile submissive and suffering. We've seen this play out in Stanley Kubrick's film, Full Metal Jacket about American Marines in Vietnam, and the line a prostitute saying, "Me so horny, me love you long time."
Ask any Asian woman, this catcall has been used time and again. It was sampled by 2 Live Crew and their big hit, Me So Horny, which reached number one on the Billboard rap songs chart. We see this there's memes about "me so horny." I think we continue to see this in the cultural waters that we're now swimming in, to the point where it feels almost invisible. It's like a punch line, and Asian women are the punch line.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to focus in on the policy piece for a moment because one of the important things you do is to shift our focus away from the focus shifting discourse of public policy leaders and you talk about the ways that mental illness gets introduced into the conversation as a hand waving explanation for violence against Asian and Asian American women. Help us to understand how it is that conversations about mental illness actually move us away from having the conversations we need to have.
Panthea Lee: As we've seen, we have seen officials and elected officials treating these attacks and these murders as isolated incidences, as exceptions to the norm, the work of mentally ill individuals, but mental illness is a red herring meant to distract us from the truth. The truth is that these attacks are an epidemic that was seated and nurtured by the American state and by American culture, and we're seeing Asian communities paying the price.
When asked for comment about Christina Lee's murder, New York City Mayor Eric Adams replied that the city must do more to address mental illness, but have been too far too many rallies around stopping Asian hate and visuals for slaying Asian women, that I can't go anymore. It's become a political circus that is disrespectful to these women, to their lives, to their families, where officials line up to lament yet another tragedy say, "This must stop," point the finger at mental illness, and then hang around for photo ops.
The thing is, treating perpetrators as aberrations as if they are deviance from the norm really misses the point because mental illness operates within specific cultural contexts. I actually interviewed a forensic psychiatrist who has treated the most violent of offenders around this. The mentally ill still draw upon existing cultural templates which they may distort or act upon and more extreme ways. When it comes to Asian women, the cultural template has long been dehumanization and sexual denigration. I think that for officials and some of the media reporting that we're seeing around this, repeatedly denying the role of race, while pointing the finger at mental illness really just serves to absolve the state of responsibility, but these attacks are not strange coincidences, they're not just the actions of crazy people.
We are seeing actually where the state has fallen short, Martial Simon, the man who pushed Alyssa Go to her death in the Times Square subway, he'd been in and out of hospitals for years. The New York Times found that in 2017, a psychiatrist at a state mental institution had noticed that Simon had said, "It was just a matter of time before he would push a woman onto the tracks."
Despite this, he was still discharged. Who is to blame here? Is it the mentally ill, or the systems that should be taking care of them? Are these lone instances? Is Martial Simon an exception from the norm? Is Assamad Nash who plunged a knife 40 times into Christina Lee an exception? Is Steven Zajonc, who assaulted seven women through Manhattan an exception? Is Tammel Esco who punched an Asian elder 125 times an exception? Are the 10 attacks on Asian women every single day in this country, are they all exceptions, because if every single one of these attacks is an exception, then I guess we must be living in some exceptional times.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You write in this piece about some real brutality, some of what you just walked us through, and yet, I have to say the part that I think has kept me up is about your own contemplation of the third rail. You write about you and your partner having a plan A, B, and C, if you are pushed onto the tracks.
Panthea Lee: Yes. I think after the death of Alyssa Go, I think a lot of women I knew were very shuck. Obviously, I live in New York, I take the subway on a regular basis. It got a bit hard. We started walking through what I would do if I were ever pushed onto the tracks? We have three options. Plan A is to stand almost underneath the ledge where there is space to tuck myself under as the train passes by. My partner pointed out that some stations have almost these little cutouts into the walls for service workers, that could stand and hide in. Before Alyssa's death, I never noticed them, and now when I enter into stations, I just look for them.
Plan B is to run as fast as I can until I get in front of the train before where it might stop, so I can get out of the way and get the conductor's attention. Then the third option is to lie between the tracks of the train and put my head under. I don't know. It's kind of morbid. We've talked through these, and then my partner has also mentioned that there is a third rail which is basically where all the electricity runs through that the trains pull and drive on. He cautioned me to never touch it. One quick touch and you're gone.
In some of these moments now where I've been waiting for the train and not listening to music anymore, trying to look all around me, I don't want to live like this. I've also considered if I were ever in a really bad situation, would a quick touch that apparently I wouldn't even feel, would that be much better than a lot of other ways to go? It's not where I want my brain to go, but yes, certainly something I've considered.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then it turns out that two years ago, you got Christina Lee right there on your own phone.
Panthea Lee: Yes. After her death, I learned that Christina and I had actually indeed met, was hanging out on my stoop one evening, this is summer 2020, and she was doing the same on my neighbor's stoop, just one door over. It was a brief but sweet moment. I think it was it was such a surprising and shocking realization, and I write about it in The Nation piece.
Ultimately, while that moment was small, it led me after her death to explore these larger questions around the patterns and the history that we're seeing around anti-Asian violence. The media and the reporting were really just focused on the really gruesome details of her death because I guess that's what sells. I really wanted to know what her life was like, what she was like, and then also the factors and the history that have led us to these moments. That continue to absolve the state of responsibility or to advance crime and punishment and carceral agendas without actually addressing the root causes of what is harming us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Panthea Lee, ethnographer, activist, writer. Thank you for joining us.
Panthea Lee: Thank you so much, Melissa. I really appreciated the conversation.
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