We need to talk about women within AAPI hate

Photo of StopAAPIHate protests
Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff

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Trigger Warning: Violence, Verbal/Sexual Harassment

A study conducted by the community organization Stop AAPI Hate revealed an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 since the first surge of COVID-19 cases in the United States. Moreover, the report showed that more than 60% of these incidents had been reported by women. Violence against AAPI women is intersectional — it is layered with ethnic, racial and gender issues. 

It’s been decades since Western media first fetishized Asian women, labeling them as ‘exotic’ and ‘oriental’ like some rare treasure. Yet today, we have internalized those labels. It’s so ingrained in society that my mom tried to tell me to avoid walking alone and simply ignore comments about “yellow fever,” a slang term to describe a person’s sexual attraction toward a person of Asian descent specifically due to their ethnicity. It’s dehumanizing; it objectifies us and diminishes our uniqueness down to something we genetically share with billions of people. In addition, the history of colonialism in the Asian continent and the prostitution of Southeast and East Asian women during that period has carried over the stereotype of Asian women being submissive and docile. If we go against that image, there’s always a risk we would be violently retaliated against by perpetrators of that stereotype.

It wasn’t until my first year at UC Berkeley that I became aware of how vulnerable I was, being an East Asian woman. Stepping into a densely multicultural city doesn’t mean anyone can escape systemic problems of racism and sexism. Multiple times, I have been approached by coworkers and strangers who said they “had a thing” for Asian women and proceeded to force me to converse with them despite my disgust and discomfort. That affirmed to me that sexism combined with personality stereotypes of Asian women is a constant microaggression. I feared that I would suddenly be apprehended or have malicious rumors spread. It took me breaking my safe boundaries, risking telling strangers to stay out of my business and making sure I never asked for help from specific people at work, even if it meant slowly lugging items too heavy for me to carry across my work’s building. To protect ourselves, we’ve been taught from our older generation — our mothers and grandmothers and aunts — to just ignore it, to quietly accept this twisted reality that has made us so uncomfortable and fearful. However, that isn’t enough. I was still bothered at work but too fearful to bring it up to my managers. I only managed to safely leave my work situation because I had financial support from my parents to focus on my studies. Countless women can’t escape their situation and the harassment only increases. Some might not have even seen it coming, and their lives become endangered or even tragically lost by someone’s hurtful generalization over our ethnicities.

Our racial and ethnic identity is not the problem; it’s people who attempt to generalize humans into that one identity that can create tragic consequences. We all need to be educated on AAPI hate and what it means to be an Asian or Asian American woman. This starts with education on the diversity and complexity of Asia and the context of Asian diaspora, especially diaspora in America to address the racially motivated hate. There are more than 45 countries in Asia, with hundreds of unique ethnic groups across it. I have witnessed Asians being easily incorrectly labeled a certain ethnicity countless times. In addition, some of us are children of immigrants — born and raised in the United States — and have no connection to our home countries. Neither our identities nor our features that we were born with should be demonized. 

Breaking free from these stereotypes requires community engagement and action. Get involved in your local Asian community. Organize and advocate for AAPI justice and rights. Document and report Asian and AAPI hate crimes if you personally witnessed an incident. Understand that this is also in solidarity with women and other Black, Indigenous and People of Color as these communities have also received unwarranted hate against their identities.

Finally, support and empower AAPI girls and women to love their identity rather than fear it. We ask to stop looking for objectification and sexualization in us, or frankly, any human. Each of us carries unique thoughts, emotions and experiences and we are tired of being diminished to a label. I, along with countless other Asian women, am still trying to break free of such harmful stereotypes because it’s a fight for our safety and our lives.

Contact Emily Lui at [email protected].