A week ago, eight people—six of whom were Asian women—were killed by a shooter who targeted three massage businesses in Atlanta. Over the past week, their families and communities have mourned and memorialized their lives: Daoyou Feng, who a friend called “kind and quiet”; Hyun Jung Grant, who loved karaoke and cooked better than any restaurant, according to her son; Suncha Kim, whom her family called “a strong, loving presence”; Paul Andre Michaels, who would give you the shirt off his back, said a friend; Soon Chung Park, who was so active that her son-in-law thought she’d live past 100; Xiaojie Tan, whom her friends and family described as always filled with joy; Delaina Ashley Yaun, whom relatives remembered as a doting mother; and Yong Ae Yue, who was always kind-hearted and willing to help, her son said.
This act of violence against so many members of the Asian American community—which, to the frustration of many Americans, law enforcement has so far declined to label as a hate crime—has brought widespread attention to racism against Asians in the United States. At least 3,795 incidents of discrimination and violence have been reported by Asian Americans nationwide in the past year alone. As we’ve learned more about the Atlanta shooting, activists and authors have raised awareness of the nuanced context in which the attack occured, including the country’s long history of individual and state violence against Asian women, the specific danger of racist misogyny, the hypersexualization of Asian women, and the vulnerability of working class Asian immigrants and sex workers. On social media and at protests across the country, people are imploring America to “Stop Asian Hate.”
All too often, however, the rhetoric underpinning this outcry has fallen back on one of our nation’s most enduring narratives about immigrant lives: that our value lies in what we can provide to others and to the country, through the labor we do and our food. To rely on this logic is to implicitly suggest that some lives are more valuable than others. As people of color and, more specifically, as immigrants, it is as though our dignity is earned, but is not inherent.
We see this narrative at play in obituaries for the Atlanta victims that emphasize their resourcefulness and industriousness. A USA Today remembrance of Xiaojie Tan, who owned the targeted Young’s Asian Massage in addition to a nail salon outside of Atlanta, devotes a section to her business acumen. Invested in “becoming an American,” as a friend described it, Tan set her goals early on learning a trade and figured out how to find the best deals. She went from being a nail technician to a two-time business owner in 15 years, and bought two homes in addition to a commercial property. According to the Washington Post, Tan made time to teach other women about the nail care profession while working 60-hour weeks; money from these late hours helped support relatives in China.
These points paint a picture of a woman committed to taking care of her family and her community through tireless hard work. Though these descriptors were offered by Tan’s family and friends, the media also selects which facts to focus our attention on, and its portrait of Tan is that of an immigrant who became American through legal naturalization, and who built a life here through her strong work ethic. Similar but briefer references to these themes are mentioned in the memorials of other victims on the Washington Post.
Of course, we do have to talk about work when we talk about the Atlanta attack, because the work that these women did undoubtedly put them at risk. Stereotypes surrounding Asian massage parlors and the shooter’s own statements blaming these businesses for “temptation” have brought up questions around sex work, though it remains unclear whether sex work took place at these establishments. Either way, the Atlanta shooting is equally a story about the labor conditions and the stereotypes of sexualization that Asian immigrant women face, and how they put us at risk of violence and discrimination. As organizer Yves Nguyen from the grassroots collective Red Canary Song told NPR, "There's a hatred for both sex workers and immigrants and being Asian and being women, and they all intersect. It would be irresponsible to not talk about all of those parts."
Tan’s achievements certainly shouldn’t be downplayed, but in the context of these obituaries, they also read as justifications as to why Tan’s life shouldn’t have been ended: She contributed to the country and to her community. Media depictions such as these perpetuate the idea that working hard is a sign of immigrants’ interest in assimilating into American culture, thus rendering immigrant lives less foreign and more in line with “American values.”
The narrative of the hard-working immigrant also reinforces a time-tested dichotomy. There is the “good immigrant,” who immigrated legally and lives in the US as a law-abiding, job-doing member of the community, guided by the pursuit of “the American Dream.” And then there is also the “bad immigrant,” who is portrayed as a threat and a drain on the jobs and resources owed to hard-working Americans. By highlighting Tan’s by-the-book path through American society, these memorials clearly try to frame the victims of the Atlanta attacks in line with the first definition. While this might seem to present a counterpoint to the stereotypes of the massage business, such an approach also reinforces the notion that immigrants must earn respectability by providing material value to the communities we enter. In short, our worth is seen as part of a transaction.
We see a similar ideology of our transactional value at play in a protest sign that’s been repeated across Instagram graphics and captions: “Love our food like you love our people.” The intention of this message is presumably that if you appreciate Asian food and if you benefit from it some way (either in terms of personal enjoyment or actual profit, as is the case with non-Asian people running Asian restaurants and recipe developers riding the coattails of pho’s success, for example), then you should respect the lives creating it.
Once again, however, the implied logic is that the value in Asian immigrant lives stems from what we provide to outsiders—whether that be an exchange of knowledge, or an exchange of cultural experience. When it comes to addressing racism, commodification and consumption are flawed methods of appreciation. To see immigrant lives through this lens of exchange is rooted in capitalism, which tells all of us that our value is inextricable from our productivity. But the pressures of productivity and value generation are even more stringent for immigrants, for whom these things are inevitably framed as earning us a right to live, and a right to be mourned.
What these narratives erase is that there is value in Asian immigrant lives—and the lives of all immigrants and marginalized people—regardless of what we bring to the table. A person should not have to work hard to make the taking of their life worth mourning, and you don’t have to like our food to respect that we have a right to exist. What if we saw life as life, valuable because we’re human?