The dehumanization of Asian women: Why we can no longer be silent

Disclaimer: This article discusses subject matter that some readers may find triggering, including rape, sexual assault, and violence. Reader discretion is advised.

When Chanel Miller (formerly known as “Emily Doe”) revealed her name and racial identity as a Chinese American woman in 2019, four years after she was brutally raped by Brock Turner, I remember staring at her photo with rage and empathy — a strong, visceral reaction that could only be understood through lived experience as an Asian woman.

Miller was dehumanized in a narrative tainted with racism, sexism, and toxic masculinity by men who spoke on her behalf. At the trial’s end, Miller asserted her voice in a powerful 12-page statement which she delivered directly to Turner.

An image of author Chanel Miller sitting in front of a whiteboard with many drawings.
Chanel Miller. Photo Credit: The New York Times

The intersectionality of her identity as a Chinese American woman and her decision to remain anonymous speaks to the invisibility and silencing that Asian women are often subject to within a white patriarchal society. As history illustrates, our legal system favours protecting white men.

I was reminded of this recently by Captain Jay Baker, who sympathized with Robert Aaron Long — a white terrorist — for having a “really bad day,” in response to his massacre of six Asian women. Rather than hold Long accountable for a racially motivated crime, the narrative instead focused on hyper-sexualizing the victims as “temptations to be eliminated.”

At a time when anti-Asian racist attacks have surged at a tragic rate, Baker’s lack of accountability silences us. It continues to add fuel to centuries of ongoing racism, misogyny, and gender-based violence against Asian women.

A historical overview of the dehumanization of Asian women

Since the 19th century, Asians have been subjected to discrimination. In 1875, the Page Act barred Chinese women from entering the United States. It explicitly forbade the “importation of women for purposes of prostitution”, under the pretext that Chinese women were prostitutes. 

This perception of Asian women as prostitutes continued into the turn of the century when Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly, premiered in Milan, depicting a love story between Butterfly, a 15-year old geisha and Pinkerton, an American naval lieutenant.

Opera director Annilese Miskimmon notes that Puccini was deliberate in portraying “the seduction and corruption of Butterfly as a conscious choice by Pinkerton.”

This stereotype heightened during the mid-20th century through increased American militarization in Asian countries, where soldiers “met Asian women that worked on or near the military bases [as] on-base service workers who cleaned or cooked, or sex workers in the surrounding communities.” This portrayal began to emerge in Hollywood films about American-led wars in Asian countries, like Oliver Stone’s trilogy of Vietnam War films: Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Photo Credit: Warner Bros

Years later, the premiere of the critically-acclaimed Broadway musical Miss Saigon in 1989 — a modern adaptation of Madama Butterfly set against the backdrop of the Vietnam war — is another example of how the hyper-sexualization of Asian women continues within Western society.

Why this is problematic

Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War films, Madama Butterfly, and Miss Saigon’s portray Asian women as temptations and objects of desire. This often obscures the real hardships they faced during the war. Sex work was often a means of survival for Asian women and sometimes, the only option.

This context, which illustrates the strength and agency of Asian women, is replaced by a stereotype that hyper-sexualizes and fetishizes us. This is a damaging repercussion that Western media continuously perpetuates.

For embodiment coach, author, and human rights activist, Tara Teng, she sees these works of art for what they are, but emphasizes that they are also opportunities for education.

“It is very important,” Teng emphasizes, “if we are to continue showing these films [and] performing these operas — that we do so in a way that educates people of the harm that is done and the nuances.”

A black and white photo of people gathered at an Asian Lives protest.
Tara Teng at the Asian Lives March in Vancouver. Photo Credit: David Bong

Context and history matters. Our identity as Asian women inextricably intersects with racism and sexism in a way that is only unique to us. 

To understand how these films and works of art can still make an Asian woman like myself flinch in a #MeToo era, one can refer to what Concepción de León noted two years ago in her review of Chanel Miller’s memoir, Know My Name:

“It’s impossible to acknowledge the dehumanization of and violence against Asian women — including hyper-sexualization, exoticization and fetishization — without connecting it to a long history of American colonialism, imperialism and militarization in Asian countries.”

Read more: Why we must learn Asian American history

How mainstream media silenced the victims of the Atlanta shooting

In the context of the Atlanta shooting, we continue to see the silencing of Asian women through mainstream media outlets. They largely follow in the heels of Captain Jay Baker, casting doubt about whether the crime was racially motivated.

In this case, journalistic integrity is tainted by a dangerous rhetoric that offered a sympathetic narrative of a white terrorist as a devout Christian who gave into temptation, meanwhile scapegoating the six Asian women rather than spotlighting the tragedy.

Xiaojie Tan; Daoyou Feng; Hyun Jung Gran; Soon Chung Park; Suncha Kim; and Yong Ae Yue were treated merely as footnotes; their identities are rendered invisible in a media firestorm that sensationalizes sex workers and massage parlors.

Credit: @1demerith on Twitter.

“The intersections that make us who we are matter,” Teng explains. “If you don’t see me in the fullness of my humanity, with my Asian-ness being the fullness of my personhood, you don’t see me.

“This is where the injustice and embodiment intersect. Because every injustice begins with the body, we see the dehumanization of Asian women through fetishization.” 

Teng’s observations are reflected in the aftermath of the shooting, when disparaging “happy endings” jokes began to emerge. It ranged from, “No happy ending then?” to “‘Youngs Asian’ massage parlour…they love you long time.”

Beyond simple Internet trolling, it is this insidious, deep-rooted manifestation of white patriarchy and lethal entitlement that allows violence against women to go unchecked. It validates the anti-Asian sentiment internalized among white men and unfolds in ways that have resulted in the deaths of countless Asian women over the centuries.

And the Atlanta shooting was not the first time that this has happened. 

The Atlanta shooting represents a much bigger problem

Over the last 30 years, misogynists have paved the way for disturbing right-wing groups like incels (a portmanteau of “involuntary celibate”) — an “online brotherhood of men” whose unsuccessful romantic/sexual attempts with women fuel extreme hatred and misogyny.

In the Atlanta shooting, Long’s motivations intersect plainly with incel culture and purity culture (promoting sexual abstinence before marriage). Both are nefarious products of the same ideology: men are victims of their own desires, and women are responsible.

“When we aren’t viewed in the fullness of our humanity, it’s hard for people to stand in solidarity with us. It becomes easier to inflict violence upon us and it makes it easier for us to be killed. That’s the bottom line,” Teng emphasizes.

Baker, Long, and Turner are byproducts of this mindset which continues to mutate and attack our community.

As Asian women, violence is continuously inflicted upon our bodies, erasing our voices, our identity, and our basic human rights.

And it’s not stopping.

#StopAsianHate needs to begin

In April 2021, TikTok began censoring the automatic caption for “Asian women”, reducing us to mere asterisks — “A**** w****” — on a global platform that yields 689 million monthly users, because the term is “often uttered as a ‘frequent porn phrase.’”

This erasure of our identities is particularly damaging against the current backdrop of anti-Asian racism — a clear indicator that our ethnic group isn’t viewed as human. Instead, we are a profanity, lumped together with commonly censored expletives or negative words. 

It wasn’t until TikTok users began drawing attention to this that TikTok fixed the issue three weeks later, attributing it to an “error”. 

This censorship wasn’t the first time that our identities were erased—Apple blocked the word “Asian” from web searches on iPhones, specifically if the adult content filter was turned on. 

Credit: @Stevenpotato on Twitter.

Phrases such as “Stop Asian Hate”, “Asian food”, were also blocked, meaning that adult content was irrelevant to the censorship. This issue has been ongoing for a year until March 2021, when Apple released its latest iOS 14.5 Beta which fixed the issue

Though Asian hate crimes have surged since 2020, the lack of solidarity and level of inaction is hard to ignore. On Instagram, the #StopAsianHate hashtag only has 447,000 posts.

Coverage of Asian racist crimes is limited to Asian Instagram accounts such as RiceFeed, NextShark, and AsianFeed. It wasn’t until the Atlanta shooting that media coverage slowly began to increase.

In response to a video of a Filipino elderly woman who was violently attacked as a hotel guard stood by and watched, writer Viet Thanh Nguyen tweeted, “The Asian American woman violently attacked is the first crime.

“But the second one is the guard who sees her on the ground and then casually closes the door. The crime of doing nothing, which is what so many Asian Americans feel that much of the country is doing. Nothing.”

A new generation of Asian women

A cover of Time Magazine with an Asian woman drawn in a stylistic way, with the headline "We Are Not Silent"
Photo Credit: Time Magazine, Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya.

Systemic racism and deeply ingrained misogyny has created intergenerational trauma that we, alongside many BIPOC, hold deeply within our bodies. This trauma isn’t only experienced by one person, but spans generations.

For Asian women and for the BIPOC community moving forward, we cannot erase the intergenerational trauma inflicted upon us. But we can choose to shift our trauma into empowerment.

“If we’re the first generation who can truly speak up and bring accountability to these….injustice[s] and use our bodies to stand in solidarity with one another,” Teng points out, “then maybe we can also be the first generation to bring [intergenerational] hope, healing, and liberation.”

As Asian women, silence has been central to the intersections of our identity. We have long been refused our right to participate — a byproduct of a white society that attempts to force our silence. 

But we continue to assert our voices loudly and clearly against racism. 

Actress Gemma Chan recently called out the British tabloids for their casual racism, former MTV correspondent Suchin Pak condemned MTV’s racist culture, and actress Sandra Oh delivered a speech at a Stop Asian Hate protest.

Our fight towards dismantling systemic racism and showing up for our community points to the birth of something new — a generation of Asian women who will not be silenced anymore.

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If you or someone you know needs support, please visit these national organizations:

Butterfly – support for migrant and Asian sex workers (Canadian)

Swan Vancouver – Culturally-Specialized Supports & Advocacy for Im/Migrant Women Engaged in Indoor Sex Work (Canadian)

Red Canary Song – the only grassroots Chinese massage parlor worker coalition in the U.S. (Also organized transnationally with Asian sex workers in Toronto, Paris, and Hong Kong)

Making Asian American media

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