The Legacy of U.S. Policy and Violence Against Asian American Women

Scholar Catherine Lee on how the gendered origins of immigration law in the United States, the over-sexualization of Asian women and white supremacy live on today.

By Ko Bragg, March 18, 2021, The 19th

Tuesday night in the Atlanta area, a White gunman opened fire in three spas, killing eight people. All but one of the victims were women, including six of Asian descent. It seemed to be a grim culmination of events: During the pandemic, in the shadows of xenophobic rhetoric from former President Donald Trump, hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders increased 150 percent, according to a study by Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism. Of the nearly 3,800 incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition of community organizations, 68 percent were women, according to a new report released Tuesday. More than 500 incidents were reported in 2021 alone.

Just some weeks ago, Rutgers University associate professor of sociology Catherine Lee celebrated President Joe Biden’s memorandum explicitly addressing violence against AAPI. “It was just so powerfully moving to have someone acknowledge that,” she said. “Especially after four years of someone just throwing fuel to fire with reference to the China virus and kung flu.” Today, as she reflects on the mass shooting, Lee remarked on this country’s long history of policies against Asian women as a contributing factor to the violence.

Lee’s research as a political sociologist focuses on immigration, gender, race and family — all factors that she believes culminated in Tuesday’s killings. In 2013 she authored the book “Fictive Kinship: Family Reunification and the Meaning of Race and Nation in American Immigration,” which focuses in part on how the United States targeted Chinese families with the country’s first immigration exclusion laws.

In an interview with The 19th, Lee reflects on the gendered origins of immigration law in the United States, the over-sexualization of Asian women and how white supremacy permeates it all.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The 19th: I’m glad that we’re able to connect to talk about the legacy of not only anti-Asian American violence, but policy and how that directly impacts women. 

Catherine Lee: Any sort of discussion about the events of last night requires intersectional perspective. Yes, it’s violence against Asians, yes, it’s violence against women. Yes, it’s violence against working-class women who are Asian, and all of that has a long legacy in the U.S. So one of the things that we have to think about is the importance of the way we’ve always regulated immigration from the very start, the way we’ve regulated who we allow into the country and say is ‘like us.’ Who do we say is deserving to enter and settle alongside us, because they’re ‘like us,’ and who’s not? That’s what immigration sort of boils down to for so many people. The way that regulation has always taken shape has been to focus on women and women’s sexuality in particular.

One of the earliest examples of formal immigration exclusion is the 1875 Page Act. And it says that women who are entering for lewd or lascivious reasons, that was the phrasing, would be banned. The assumption was that women coming from Asia were largely engaged in prostitution — and whether or not women were is almost besides the issue. There’s good research showing that yes, indeed, many women were involved in prostitution, but that wasn’t unusual for many immigrant communities and even just working-class women in the U.S. at the time. A lot of women over the course of their lives might have gone in and out of prostitution, as a way to support their families.

For Chinese immigrants in particular, the Page Act meant that we allowed Chinese men to enter, but not women. So that meant they couldn’t form families — you had these bachelor societies. If you don’t let the women enter and form families, you have the bachelor men who are easier and cheaper to employ than a man who supports a family. [The] racism and sexism that was built into the first immigrant exclusion law really was about supporting the work of capitalism.

I think what is probably relevant for readers today looking at what happened [on Tuesday], is to simply say, it’s not by accident that when Robert Aaron Long, [who has been arrested for the crime], went and targeted these spots, that there would be workers there who were Asian and women. People are saying, ‘Oh, we don’t know if it’s racially motivated, he just simply targeted spas.’ He went there, and there were Asian women there — and that is not by random chance.

Have you noticed that on Twitter and in the news, when people are talking about the spas and about these women, there’s an underlying assumption that somehow these women were were engaged in sex work or [the shooter] believed they engaged in sex work? No one is questioning this. And I think that’s a part of the long history of the narrative of Asian women’s sexuality is something that people can buy.

People are making a distinction between these spas — they’re assuming that this is a place where these women were offering sex or services. Whether that is true or not true is beside the point, but that is part of the assumptions that … no one is questioning. I find that so troubling.

I think the reason that people aren’t thinking that through very critically is because of this long history of our country of assuming that Asian women who are here, who work in places that are in any way aligned with some ideas of sexuality must be working as sex workers.

People are discussing the Chinese Exclusion Act, and we just briefly discussed the Page Act, but something that is very stark to me is that, especially during the Trump administration when families were being separated, there was a lot of outrage. But this country’s first immigration laws separated Chinese families, or prevented them from forming here by targeting women first.

The Chinese Exclusion Act in general — the Page Act in particular, as well as other Asian exclusion acts — really helped to undermine the formation and the settlement of families. It’s theoretically possible to let immigrants do the work we don’t want to do ourselves. We can have artificially cheap labor come to pick our fruits and vegetables and clean our home and serve us at restaurants, but not stay and not become part of what we envision to be the American nation. Family migration, family settlement really indicates a much more permanent settlement.

Then, let’s say, we have a seasonal worker coming for the picking of strawberries in spring and summer. Whenever we start to talk about families joining, suddenly having an ability to become fully American, we balk at that. So absolutely any attempt to forestall the entry of families and the settlement of families is a way to try to preserve or hold on to this idea, which at this point is false — that the U.S. is a White nation, and one that we can keep White.

Can you talk a little bit more about what the last four years have been like, and now that we’re out of a Trump presidency what [the next administration has] to undo? 

This is again why intersectionality is so important. We have to stand against violence against Asians, we have to stand against violence and racism against Black and Latinx communities. And we also have to recognize that there is oftentimes a very more perilous position that people who assume identities that crisscross those attacked groups face.

We have to recognize a particular harm that is associated with sexism and misogyny, so we have to support legislation that returns some sort of support in terms of services funding for prosecution of crimes, gender-based violence. We also have to treat the kinds of anti-Asian rhetoric and violence as serious. And because it’s serious we’re going to collect data on it, and because it’s serious we’re going to make sure that victims who experience it are treated with respect and given an opportunity to report it and to see something come of that reporting.

I say this as someone who has seen this in my own extended family, which is a blended family. There are people who could not believe that the rhetoric of the Trump era would have anything to do with the harm and vulnerability that I said Asian Americans like myself were experiencing. They would say, ‘Well, Trump said it’s the China virus because it’s from China.’ At what point is it not worth having that conversation anymore? I’m going to turn my attention and energy towards making sure my community feels safe and protected and work towards making sure services and legislation addressing these issues get enacted.

The fact that we have an administration that doesn’t have to be convinced of how serious the issue is like night and day. We’re starting from a different place. I do hope that we don’t sweep it under the rug. A few years ago we would have had to spend a lot of time convincing people this was a problem that needed attention. And the fact that we can talk about that, rather than trying to convince people that this is real, is important.

How did the model minority myth develop, and how does it contribute to erasing the fullness of the experience of being AAPI in this country?

Model minority is the phrase to depict Asian American success, that there’s a “good” minority, unlike minorities like Black Americans or Latinos in the U.S., who need this or that from the government, or who can’t make it out. And so, Asian immigrants are the “good” minority. Of course, there’s so many falsehoods within that, right?

If we disaggregate Asian America and look at the true diversity of that term, we see that there’s great variation in terms of wealth and income, occupational achievement, educational attainment. In all of those measures, levels of poverty vary significantly. East Asians, like Chinese and Koreans, may have a certain level of economic attainment. But Southeast Asian groups like Hmongs and Laotians in the U.S. face higher levels of poverty.

The idea of a model minority is problematic, right, but the power of it is so significant in this moment because it is something that I think Asian immigrants also were told to buy into: Be a good minority, go to school, stay quiet. Don’t get in trouble and you’ll be OK. It doesn’t matter whether one has a college education or wears a suit and tie to the office. Being a good minority doesn’t mean that other people will say that you belong or deserve to be here and treated like a full human. Unfortunately, model minority allows for a fracturing of a full Asian American community and activism to strengthen and coalesce.

Many Asian Americans who didn’t fit the stereotype, who struggled with poverty, who didn’t have the level of education and career prestige, who experienced violence, who lived in poor communities, knew that this wasn’t true for the people that they grew up with and lived near. So, this is something that has been damaging. It just simply allowed for White America to ignore Asians, Asian Americans, and allowed Asian Americans to be used, to be pit against other immigrant groups and other minorities, especially Black Americans.

I’m sort of wrestling with the idea that a White man entered a spa, a place you go to get a service, because he claimed to have a sex addiction. Can you talk about the relationship between over-sexualization of AAPI women, including those who work in the service industry, and that connection to misogyny and violence?

I think this is part of the long history of not only American racism but American imperialism worldwide.  If you were to ask any Asian woman over the age of 30 if they’ve heard ‘Me love you long time,’ the answer would be yes. The reference is from all these clips of  American GIs in Southeast Asia during the war in Vietnam, and references to Vietnamese women sex workers. And I think it was a throwaway line in some stupid movie. [Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket” about the Vietnam War depicts a scene in which a Vietnamese woman says this to two American GIs.]

The idea that Americans and American men have gone to many places around the world in the name of war or imperial conquest is that women have been there to provide sexual service. People might say, ‘Oh, that’s then and there,’ but those ideas are part of our cultural repertoire. I think there’s a reason why this guy went to a place that had Asian workers, they were Asian-owned businesses. On the one hand, it’s about this sort of cultural expectation that Asian women have always been there to provide sexual service, they’re part of this imagining of the exotic Asian sexuality.

One of the things that was written up a lot in the 1870s during the time of the Page Act were references to Chinese women prostitutes being exotic, that they’re capable of different kinds of sexual acts and fulfilling different sexual needs. And also, as being sexually deviant, because they are enticing young men and boys as young 11 and 12 to participate in the opium-fueled,  sex acts. They ruin these boys and men and their families. And I’m sure you know this name: J. Marion Sims, the notorious gynecologist who did the experiments on Black enslaved women. He insisted there was a special strain of Chinese toxin that caused a different kind of syphilis.

Chinese women as a source of different, exciting, exotic sexuality — as well as the source of something diseased and particularly virulent — that’s a long history. So for this man to go and target these Asian-owned businesses and to kill these Asian women, and to cite his own sex addiction makes perfect sense in the long history of seeing Asian women as the source of exotic sex that is incredibly enticing and alluring, but also really dangerous and dirty and deadly. I mean it’s really sickening and horrifying to think about this history that is over 150 years old. It gets reimagined, repurposed regularly, because we keep it alive in our culture. We keep it alive in our foreign relations through acts of war and aggression and imperialism throughout the 20th century.

We saw this happening. So none of us who’ve been watching the rise in anti-Asian American violence think this is surprising. We knew it was going to happen, something horrible like this. We knew it’s going to come.

In your research, you talk about how Chinese exclusion differed from, for example, how Japanese immigrants were later treated. Can you talk about this, especially because the Japanese were later forced into internment camps? 

I was making the point that both race and gender matters, and that, for a while, the Japanese immigrant community experience was a little more privilege than the Chinese. So Japanese women were allowed to come and to form families with Japanese men that were here, not for very long, but for an important, significant amount of time.

But initially, the way politicians, for example, talk about the difference between Chinese women and Japanese women was to make this distinction that Chinese women are all prostitutes. They’re deviant, because they’re all engaged in sex work, whereas the Japanese woman are these good, dutiful women.  Quickly, the position of privilege can change and you can lose your standing and face exclusion like the Japanese did. This is, again, why people have been saying it’s important to talk about anti-Asian violence as a form of white supremacy and the fight against white supremacy. This is not a conversation about who has it worse, Asians or Black Americans in the U.S. The violence that is directed at Black Americans and the violence that Asian Americans are speaking of right now are all part of the larger problem of white supremacy.

Until we dismantle that, you’re always going to face these forms of violence. Maybe it’s not your own particular group that day, that moment, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t always the threat of violence.

Editor’s note: This article was republished from The 19th under a Creative Commons License.

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