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The Point: Mourn and Organize


Greetings, Colleagues:

“It’s gendered racism with deep roots in the history of American imperialism and war and that continues to be maintained by popular media.”  These are the words of our colleague, Professor Karen Suyemoto, as she drew from her own scholarly expertise to help reporters for the Washington Post explain the fraught intersectional realities that put the eight murdered victims in three spas in Atlanta in harm’s way last week.  Rather than accept the narrative promoted by various mainstream news sources and the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office (“a bad day” for this “sex addict”), Professor Suyemoto and many other experts in Asian American Studies, critical race studies, labor history, and women’s and gender studies remind us, as the Post story puts it, that the “degradation of Asian women has deep roots in American history and culture.” 

The dangerous crossroads inhabited by these victims—where labor conditions, ethnic identity, migration status, and warped traditions of imperialist exoticizing meet—should be of immediate concern to all of us in the FSU; we scholars, teachers, librarians, and activists at University of Massachusetts Boston, a federally-designated AANAPISI (Asian American Native American and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions) public university, must be educated and ready to respond to contemporary expressions of these historical formations. When we went remote in March of 2020, I was in the middle of reading Professor Erika Lee's America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in America with a class of students studying immigration history. One thing that becomes clear in Professor Lee’s book is that the targeting of Chinese women in US immigration history dates back at least to the Page Act of 1875, which barred immigrants considered “undesirable” and explicitly framed East Asian women as a sexual threat.

The murders of Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, and Paul Andre Michels is a tragedy of heartbreaking proportion. The loss of lives and the traumatic reverberations for their families, friends, and communities is staggering.  It is also the painfully predictable outgrowth of 150 years of hate directed at Chinese immigrants to the United States; Donald Trump and his enablers unquestionably contributed to a huge uptick in brutal rhetoric and hate crimes over the past four years, but this racist ground has been tended by many hands, over many years. CUNY’s Asian American/Asian Research Institute has an incredibly useful narrative of this xenophobic history that brings us to this moment.  See also the resources collected up by poet and scholar Timothy Yu in this thread.

We talk in the FSU about doing our collective work for the “common good.”  I hope we can all step up in this moment and recognize our responsibility to fight the violence and discrimination that imperils Asians and Asian Americans on our campus and in our surrounding communities.  The Institute for Asian American Studies here at UMB is a member of APIs CAN!, a network of civic organizations that will be hosting a forum on March 25th on how to fight anti-Asian racism here in Massachusetts. Working for the common good also means acknowledging that this workplace, these women, were quite possibly targeted because of the killer’s perception that they were sex workers. Our colleagues in the Department of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have issued a statement that puts a few things plainly that need to be said:  “[T]his latest incident of violence demands that we account for the specific vulnerabilities of Asian migrants who are targeted while working at massage parlors and spas, Asian migrants who are often poor and sometimes undocumented, Asian migrants who are subject to sexualized violence whether or not they traded sex because of an enduring animus toward sex workers, Asian women, and immigrants. After all, it is the fantasized figure of the migrant Asian sex worker who is the foundation of U.S. anti-immigration law.”  This intersectional analysis is a call to action: we must all consider how to put Martin Luther King, Jr’s “All Labor Has Dignity” dictum into practice.  One good place to start is to educate ourselves (and many of you already have no doubt) about the advocacy work done by groups like Red Canary Song, a collective of Asian and migrant sex workers and more locally the Massachusetts Sex Worker Ally Network.  The establishment of Boston’s Combat Zone as an official vice district in 1974 in and around Chinatown (against the wishes of so many Chinatown residents) serves as a stark reminder that the association of sex work and Chinese settlement has a very poignant local history; we cannot escape the legacy of this conflation, but we can work to mitigate the most malign contemporary expressions.

This is your union. Please tell us at how you think we can work together to fight against the gendered and racialized violence that found such tragic expression last week in Atlanta.


Jeffrey Melnick

American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

For information on the FSU, links to our contract and bargaining updates, and a calendar of events, see the FSU webpage