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2 years after spa shootings: Asian women continuing to push for change

The Atlanta mass shooting triggered a civil rights movement.
Children holding "stop Asian hate" posters.
Posted at 8:15 AM, Mar 16, 2023

Growing up as an Asian American woman in a mostly White suburb of Flint, Michigan, Amber Reed was conscious of being stereotyped and fetishized. She brushed off the microaggressions, believing that she would be spared if she played by the rules.

"I thought if I kept my head down, I worked hard, I would be safe," said Reed, 41.

The night of the Atlanta spa killings two years ago took away that sense of security. Eight people, including six Asian women, were gunned down, with the killer, Robert Aaron Long, telling authorities he was having a bad day. Reed knew it was a case of Asian fetishization.

Collectively with two of her neighbors in Montclair, New Jersey, Linda Tsuei and Linda Kow, they talked about their fears. Hate crimes against Asian Americans had been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic as Asian Americans were being scapegoated for the virus that began in Wuhan, China. They worried about their daughters’ safety.

Hate crime in dictionary.

Hate crimes see another increase, new data indicates

Hate crimes are a "crime motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.”


The three women sowed the seeds of what would become AAPI Montclair, a grassroots organization focused on advocacy for Asian Americans. The Atlanta incident on March 16, 2021, would spark a nationwide civil rights movementfor Asian Americans much like the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, sparked a nationwide Black Lives Matter movement.

Two years after the rallies and vigils, hate crimes against Asian Americans continue. According to the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, a total of 10,905 hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islanders have been reported between March of 2020 — when the pandemic shutdown began — and Dec. 31, 2022. Of those incidents, 69% were against Asian women, with Chinese Americans being the most targeted group.

Women power

At L’Avenue at Saks Fifth Avenue on International Women’s Day this month, Asian American women gathered for a networking session over cocktails and passed finger foods. Hosted by TAAF — The Asian American Foundation — the event brought together professional women from all over the New York City area.

The group is what happens on a large scale when it comes to Asian American activism. Launched in May of 2021 after the Atlanta spa shootings with entrepreneurs such as Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo, and Joey Tsai, co-founder of Alibaba Group and governor of the NBA's Brooklyn Nets, the group has raised over $1 billion in a year of its founding, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. TAAF’s mission is to serve the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in their pursuit of belonging and prosperity that is free from discrimination, slander and violence. It is counteracting narratives about Asian Americans by focusing on education and working with media groups such as the Asian American Journalists Association.

Reflecting on the gathering of Asian women, Diana Tse, a senior buyer with Saks Fifth Avenue, said she was inspired by the camaraderie. Yet she is still haunted by the Atlanta shooting two years ago.

"That was hard. That was hard on many levels," Tse said. "From a news perspective, to see it portrayed as someone having a really bad day. That was really hard to have a reaction, to contain emotions."

woman holds a sign and attends a rally to support stop AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) hate

Why are hate crimes against Asian Americans on the rise?

Experts say the trope of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners and treated as "others" continues today with dangerous consequences.


The future of Asian advocacy

Organizers are now seeking long-term reform as the early rallies have quieted down. President Joe Biden signed legislation in 2021 to fund more investigations of bias incidents. President Biden also established a White House strategy on Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian communities with plans from 32 federal agencies to combat hate crimes while instilling better language access across agencies for non-native speakers.

For Reed and AAPI Montclair, the focus is on education. The group lobbied for an AAPI curriculum for public schools, with New Jersey becoming the second state in the country last year to pass the law.

The Atlanta shooter likely grew up in schools without access to Asian American history, Reed said.

"If there’s any way to prevent another Atlanta, it’s through education," Reed said.

Fear and hope

Living in the shadow of New York City, pandemic crimes targeting Asian Americans — particularly women — have been a real fear in the Asian communities, said Ellen Jeon, director of the Asian American Youth Council that serves New York and New Jersey.

The senseless killing of Michelle Go, who was pushed to her death off a subway platform in 2021, followed by the brutal stabbing of Christina Yuna Lee in 2022, were heartbreaking, Jeon said. Behind the headlines of the slayings, Asian women were being harassed verbally and sometimes followed in the New York City area, Jeon said.

Asian women are vulnerable, said Reed, who helped host free self-defense classes through AAPI Montclair. The pandemic violence coupled with the Atlanta spa shootings left Asian American women in a state where they did not feel safe, she said.

AAPI Montclair also hosted mental health sessions and cultural events to bridge the gap with other communities. It raised over $100,000 in the two years since its founding, a far cry from pooling together $5,000 through its initial founders to host its first lantern festival to address anti-Asian hate.

Slowly but surely, progress is being made, Jeon said. Asian American families in the New York and New Jersey areas are feeling safer, with a sense of inclusivity.

Reed is inspired by the political victories since Asian Americans started the movement, but knows that there is still much work to be done.

"From the beginning, the movement had a lot of emotion," Reed said. "But it wasn’t going to lead to lasting change unless there was organization behind it."