A History of Hypersexuality: Racial Feeling and the Invisibility of Asian Women

via 17.21 Women, Oakland High School students in 1968 by Nikki Arai.

The murders of Daoyou Feng, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Park, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Yong Yue, and Paul Andre Michels were followed with the headlines “8 people killed in Atlanta Area Massage Parlor Shootings” and“8 People Killed in Atlanta Rampage, 6 of Them Asian Women.” The grabbing title, far from straying away from announcing the gruesome violence itself, makes invisible the racial identities of the women or strangely qualifies that violence by modifying it with an added description that six of the eight victims were Asian women. Reflecting on these descriptions of the victims and reading further into the inability for police to categorize the event as a hate crime unless it gets designated at the federal level as “a crime motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability,” raises the question as to why violence is always filtered and understood through what can be counted as being “about race”? What experiences get to be counted as gendered or racialized and what feelings get validated as such?

As a Ph.D. candidate in Asian American literature, I have spent the last ten years of my academic career thinking through questions around the embodiment of Asian American women and how the category, rather than being something that exists naturally in and of itself, is something that has been produced and understood through a materialist understanding of American Cold War militarism and the needs of technology’s political economy. My work focuses on the categorization of Asian women as “small, foreign, and female” and how these descriptors naturalize the exploitation of the bodies of immigrant women.

How do we begin to make violence visible and identifiable as racial violence when the body of the Asian American woman has been made invisible through a history of erasure? An erasure that itself is a form of systemic violence — relegating war and the political economy built upon its forms of exploitation to the background of our collective memories.

The most recent act of anti-Asian violence in Georgia, abhorrently occurring through one man’s fantasy of the Asian woman as being responsible for his ongoing perpetration of sexual violence, is part of a history of only registering and recognizing Asian bodies in relation to transnational labor, militarism, and sexuality. We must start to politicize representations of Asian women and critique the ways in which we have come to collectively remember the Cold War.

War genders women’s bodies as eroticized and feminized to secure the interests of militarism, creating a cultural narrative that certain bodies and nations are more easily disposed to political and military intervention. To understand sex work today, one must engage with how the transnational movement of girls and women from one country to another, requires attention to the historical conditions upon which our economy has been built. Through a series of “interventions” in Asia, securing the interests of American capital through militarism, many ways of life were obliterated. Out of this destruction came economic necessity, often leading to sex work and prostitution throughout military bases in places like Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand. The Asian woman is once again visibly rendered through the figure of the war or mail-order bride — emerging only to neglect the way marriage itself is militarized and political, further erasing violence and hiding it within the space of the domestic to justify this set of power relations as being solely in the realm of “love” or “intimacy.” This way of viewing the Asian woman’s body gets normalized through cultural representations of that body as “hypersexual” and “naturally” more aligned with certain forms of labor. In the case of the Georgia massacre, the six Asian women were the victims of one man’s toxic masculinity and violence, where their bodies could only be rendered through the ways in which they have been positioned and seen through registers of whiteness.

In Grace Hong’s famous book on women of color labor and feminism, The Ruptures of American Capital, she argues for the importance of thinking about women of color feminism as an analytic. A set of identities that can be translated into a reading practice that is astute at witnessing:

“The transition from capital’s global phase to its national phase.”

This recuperation of the Asian American woman — not operating as a “given” cultural figure — turns an identity that has been dehumanized into an analytic that bears witness to the intersections of capital in a post-Cold War America. If we resist categorical ways of reckoning with violence and read these moments through the analytic of women of color feminism, we can replace militarized formations of reading the “other” and in turn, destabilize how cultural identities are built and stabilized on certain forms of invisibility.

This last week, I’ve found myself frustrated with the limits of language and the inability to articulately express the anger, despair, grief, and outrage that have lived in my body’s memory but have suddenly been made visible in the public discourse. Being an Asian American woman in some ways has meant internalizing intergenerational memories, everyday affective experiences, and structures of racial feeling as I’m simultaneously told that those ways of being should be remembered and recuperated through whiteness. This week’s events feel different in that something is suddenly being made public, something that has been so deeply internalized across generations that now is immediately being made visible. Figuring out how to suddenly see and then remove those ingrained structures from myself and ways of reading my own physical body, things that have at this point falsely stabilized and held up my identity as an Asian American woman, has created tremendous pain and disorientation as I figure out how to fill that emptiness with something else — reconciliation and self-love.

Creating that emptiness and reconfiguring how we come to see ourselves in relation to the past means changing, rethinking, and correcting how we validate and make visible everyday racial violence. In the famous Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977, emerging out of the Third World Women’s movement, the authors collectively state that:

“We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy.”

This call to politicize identities in order to identify systems of white, patriarchal violence, radicalizes the work of rebuilding and filling in those spaces of emptiness. Maybe after this reckoning, then will a more systemic understanding and critique of the foundation of our own identities — and those of Daoyou Feng, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Park, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Yong Yue, and Paul Andre Michels — within racial capitalism emerge.

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