The Slatest

“The Most Resonating Emotion That We Felt Has Actually Been Fear”

An organizer explains how Asian American and Pacific Islander communities around Atlanta are responding to yesterday’s shooting.

Mourner Erica Gonzalez leaves flowers at a memorial with candles outside Gold Spa.
Gold Spa was one of three Atlanta locations that a shooter attacked on Tuesday. Megan Varner/Getty Images

On Tuesday, a gunman killed eight people at three different spas in Atlanta—Young’s Asian Massage, Gold Spa, and Aromatherapy Spa. Six of the eight victims were Asian women, making it difficult not to connect the killings to the anti-Asian attacks that have consumed the country over the past year due in part to racist rhetoric around the coronavirus pandemic. Asian women and elders have suffered the brunt of the violence. Local officials charged Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, with four counts of murder and one count of assault on Wednesday, and he is the main suspect.

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To get a sense for how the Asian American community in Atlanta has been responding to the shootings, I spoke with Bianca Jyotishi, Georgia organizing manager for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Aaron Mak: What can you tell us about the Asian American population in Atlanta?

Bianca Jyotishi: Fulton County, Gwinnett County, and DeKalb County have the largest communities of AAPI residents, and Fulton County is where at least one of the shootings happened. There’s a lot of people, and there’s a significant number of immigrant communities in these counties. Our people have really been shaken up by this, just because it’s so close to home. It’s 10 or 15 minutes away from where I live. This is a place where so many of us have been for so long, so for it to hit so close to home is just really scary.

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What has the reaction to the shootings looked like in these AAPI communities?

There’s a lot happening right now. When we first heard the news, a lot of us were just shocked and shaken and angry and confused and frustrated. More so than anything, the most resonating emotion that we felt has actually been fear, fear for our safety and fear for our families. We have several members who actually have experiences in, and whose parents have worked in, similar types of services. A lot of our people are working-class. In a moment of crisis, we’re grieving and trying to send love and life to the families of the victims who are impacted. In the same moment of grief, we’re also planning to take action, not having processed our grief fully. It’s definitely been a mix of responses of trying to find time to mourn and take action as well. We’re in the process of working with a coalition to organize a vigil.

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Prior to the shooting, had Atlanta been experiencing the wave of anti-Asian attacks that the nation has faced over the last year?

Yeah, even before COVID, we’ve been seeing instances of anti-Asian hate for so long, and COVID has really just amplified that. We’ve had so many community members, a lot of whom don’t speak English or speak English as a second language and are working-class immigrants, who have been really afraid to go outside of their homes to even get basic amenities, groceries. You have this overwhelming fear to even walk down your street, to get the mail. And there’s already a sense of having to hide ourselves in order to not draw attention. We’ve seen community members having experienced racist comments and racial slurs as well. In this moment, a lot of our community members have also experienced the intersection of race and gender, where a lot of them have been fetishized. A lot of our community members have been exoticized and made to be sexual objects, rather than just being seen as human beings.

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You did a lot of outreach to Asian women in the Atlanta area during the most recent Senate races. Was any of this outreach directed at the women who work in these neighborhoods where the shootings occurred, and who work in spas and similar service industries?

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We did get-out-the-vote work in both the general and runoff elections this past year. The majority of the people that we reach out to are directly impacted by the issues that we work on. They are nontraditionally educated. They are not English speakers. They are working-class immigrants and typically aren’t politically engaged. Our chapter operates in 15 different AAPI languages so we can cover the breadth and the scope of AAPI identities and ethnicities across the state.

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What do you know about the lives of this population of women who work in places like Young’s Asian Massage and Gold Spa?

A lot of the ethnicities that we’re seeing right now are Korean and Vietnamese. A lot of our members and their parents work in some of these fields. What we’ve noticed from them is that it hits really close to home, because they’re just trying to go about their day and just live their lives, provide for their families, and earn a living for themselves. What we’re hearing is that so many of our Asian community members go to these types of places—we go to Asian-specific restaurants and grocery stores and establishments because we feel safer there. We feel that those are our people, and we know that there’s already an automatically established trust with those people because they’re ours. They look like us and speak our languages. For this to happen specifically at our places, it’s really scary. That’s our space, and that’s been violated.

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Would you say that there are a lot of Asian Americans working in these service industries in Atlanta, and if so, how do they come into those jobs?

There are definitely pockets in Georgia where you’ll see higher populations. Our office is in a very high-AAPI population area. When you’re driving down this one highway you’ll see a bunch of ramen places, a bunch of East-meets-West kinds of restaurants. There’s pockets of DeKalb that are very wealthy, and then there’s pockets that are considered less affluent, specifically because there is a large immigrant population there. These areas where the businesses [involved in the shooting] were, they’re very traditionally Asian. It’s very visible that they’re Asian businesses.

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I think sometimes those are the jobs we can get when we come. A lot of our degrees are not useful in the United States. If our people are getting degrees in other countries, they’re not seen as credible here in the U.S., and going [to school] here is particularly expensive. A lot of our immigrants when they come here are also past the age of going to school. Sometimes it’s really just out of economic need. We have to take those jobs because those are all we can get. Other times it’s an inherited family business. It’s really just about continuing family practices.

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While we still don’t know a lot about the suspect, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds seemed to downplay the possibility that these shootings were racially motivated in a Wednesday press conference. What do you make of those statements?

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Obviously, there are still a lot of unknowns, and a lot hasn’t been confirmed yet. But it’s very clear to me that six Asian women were killed, and there were specific Asian businesses that were targeted. I cannot stress enough how pervasive this fear has been. We’re afraid to go in public and go to our jobs. Just simple day-to-day living has been compromised in the past year. Yesterday really solidifies that.

Have you personally felt unsafe or uneasy over this past year?

It’s definitely hard for me. I live alone, and I live on the first floor of my apartment. I am constantly in fear of my safety. It’s been hard because, in a moment like this, you want to be surrounded by your people. You want to be surrounded by your community and the people that can uplift you and support you in this moment of crisis and hurt. We’re in a pandemic, which makes that close to impossible to do in a safe way. We’re forced to deal with pain and grief in a really isolating way. It’s taken a toll on my mental health.

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