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‘We Keep It Alive in Our Culture’: The Legacy of U.S. Policy, 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 | Our Future
Asian girl wearing face mask while protest against racism on city street - Equal rights and demonstration concept - Focus on eyes
Credit: DisobeyArt // Adobe

This article was originally published by 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. 

Photo of Ko Bragg
Ko Bragg is a general assignment reporter for The 19th, a nonprofit newsroom. She previously worked at The Appeal, Frontline/PBS and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
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