On Tuesday, March 16, 2021, eight people — six of them Asian women — were killed by gunfire at Asian-run massage spas in Atlanta, Georgia. The suspect in these murders was taken into custody with Cherokee County police as the investigation unfolds.
After taking the alleged murderer into custody, the Cherokee County sheriff’s office delivered a press conference wherein Captain Jay Baker rationalized the horrific murders, saying the suspect lived with a sex addiction and “was pretty much fed up and had been, kind of, at the end of his rope. And yesterday was a really bad day for him.”
The victims, predominantly Asian women, were killed at Asian-run spas, yet authorities resist labeling these atrocities as racist hate crimes. The killer had planned a route to get from one spa to the next, clearly targeting locations with high concentrations of Asian women.
A critical component of deconstructing racism is naming its manifestations. The senseless killings earlier this week demonstrate racism at a few levels: individually, in the legal system, and in the media coverage of the event. The killer decided to specifically target Asian spas, purportedly related to a sex addiction. At the very least this reinforces a racist trope that Asian women have a tendency toward sex work. While he can say that his targeting was about sex, it was only targeting a certain type of spa, and that is racist.
The failure of the Cherokee County sheriff’s office to use direct language shifts the blame onto other “societal woes” and upholds the protection afforded to the killer by his whiteness, positing him as sympathetic. Last year, marches, protests, and conversations highlighted the injustice that lives in our legal system. We spoke about the senseless killings of Black men and women for doing everyday things: for walking while Black, running while Black, breathing while Black, and driving while Black. We watched videos of Black people dying for no other reason than their perceived threat. Yet here we are, a year later, and a white man has murdered eight people. He was clearly identified on camera and by family members but was taken into custody without harm, and his actions were justified as the result of a “bad day.”
Highlighting the killer’s motives rather than the impact of his actions places the killer at the center of the story, supporting white supremacy. Since the killing spree, abundant airtime has been devoted to the killer’s motives. Meanwhile, the names of all the victims were only released yesterday. This delay distracts from the impact of his actions — families, businesses, and communities left shattered and bereft. What does that tell us about what we value in this country? We value the killer, his reasons, his history, and his life. We ignore the eight lives of the people who died. The media will spend days and weeks discussing the killer, but not the victims. The coverage reinforces the idea that white men are more important than Asian women, Black men, Hispanic women, and any other race that is not white. It has to end.
Why does this matter to educators? Students of many backgrounds, but particularly students of Asian descent, are likely experiencing strong emotions that can interfere with their well-being and learning. How in the world can you explain these events in Atlanta and simultaneously teach your students about democracy, fairness, and diversity? Short answer — you can’t. The two perspectives are in direct opposition. You must teach them how racism works to help them make sense of the Atlanta shootings.
You must also teach students that what happened in Atlanta and what happens every day in our nation is in direct opposition to what this country claims to stand for. You must unpack the contradiction between the ideals that represent the United States and the reality that many students in your classroom and beyond experience all too often. Perhaps most importantly, you must armor your students against racism — against the many ways their identity, beliefs, and skin will be challenged, harassed, or made to feel inferior. This teaching, unpacking, and armoring might be one of the most important lessons your scholars can learn from you. You’ll be preparing them to enter a country that is often unready to live up to its own stated ideals.
All students should be taught to identify and name racism and understand it is morally reprehensible and something that must be dismantled. Students learn best from content that helps them understand and change the world. Students struggle to align the things they see as important in their world to what is in your lessons. How are you helping them make that alignment? How are you ensuring that what you’re teaching is as much about learning literacy as it is about changing the world? That is what is real and could dramatically increase the level of engagement in your classroom — your students will trust that you’re telling them the truth.
As educators, we hope to inspire our students to act in morally upright ways. This week’s atrocities provide a sharp reminder that identifying and deconstructing racism are essential parts of that education.
Learn more about the historical and current context of racism against Asian people:
- The Deep History of Anti-Asian Violence in the U.S.
- They’ll Call It Anything But Racism
- This Is What No One Tells You About Being Asian in America in 2021
- This Isn’t Just a Problem for North America.’ The Atlanta Shooting Highlights the Painful Reality of Rising Anti-Asian Violence Around the World
- A Specific Kind of Racism’: Atlanta Shootings Fuel Fears Over Anti-Sex-Work Ideology
By Stephanie Crosier, Senior Director of Partner Success; John Maynes, Data Specialist; Kendra Shipmon, Director of Program Strategy, Partnership Manager