My Asian American Students’ Courageous Conversations After the Atlanta Shooting

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Katherine Kim teachers high school journalists in LA's Koreatown. Grief is mobilizing her students to speak out against anti-Asian stereotypes and violence. (Liusia Voloshka/iStock)

This story originally appeared on KQED's The California Report Magazine.

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work in Los Angeles’ Koreatown with high school journalists who document oral histories in our neighborhood—especially from our elders, who are often overlooked and unregarded.

When we started this storytelling program last March, we captured our community’s experiences with the pandemic. We brought toilet paper and kimchi to residents who were isolated and stuck at home. We recorded stories of the loneliness of quarantine life in those early uncertain days and exposed the grief that COVID-19 wrought upon the young.

Last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests grew across the state, students in my workshop asked the elders in our program about their experiences with racism in America.

“The neighborhood I lived in had a lot of white supremacists—백인 우월주의자,” said Jong Park, 75, during an interview with Chaerin Sung, 17. “I went to the market. Every cashier there would bag all the groceries for other customers, but wouldn’t do it for us. It was racial discrimination.”

And then, over the next few months, the anti-Asian violence started to surge. Slurs turned to acid attacks and face slashings. A latent fear—seeded long ago—resurfaced into hyper-vigilance.

Recently, I moved to Mount Washington, a bucolic enclave in Northeast Los Angeles. My new neighbor, outraged that we were hammering a nail in the hallway, came over and screamed, “Go back to your country of origin.” Ever since, my husband and I have fretted about our physical safety. We’ve asked each other, “Do you think he has a gun?”

When Denny Kim, a 27-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran, was attacked in a hate crime in Koreatown, I called my son—who’s about the same age—and told him he could no longer roam his favorite streets freely, that he has to be on high alert.

“Watch your back,” I told him.

This is what it feels like when Asian American organizations talk about a rise in fear and pain. It means we don’t feel safe in our own homes, neighborhoods and city streets.

S

ince most of my students were born and raised in Koreatown, I’ve worried about them too—especially after the Atlanta shootings, where four of the victims were Korean women.

“It is a little bit scary to walk around in Koreatown,” said Jadyn Kim, 17. “I was walking somewhere with my friend the other day. This guy called out to us and we started running because we didn't want him to see that we were Asian. And then he started following us. That was kind of scary.”

And then she added, “My friend was like, ‘I don't want to get hate crimed today.’ We were kind of, like, joking.”

Jadyn’s words pierced me. How casually she considered being targeted. The use of “hate crime” as a verb. “I don’t want to get hate crimed today,” is how Koreatown teenagers have normalized the rise in violence against our community.

Most of the youth in my program are teenage girls. We talk about how racialized sexualization is embroidered into our identities in America.

Sarah Jho, Program Associate at the Koreatown Storytelling Program, is a recent Yale grad and K-town native who is pre-med and blindingly smart. I wanted her to speak to the young women in our workshop about her perspective.

“This time of collective mourning has also forced people, including my own family and friends, to confront, reckon with and re-evaluate their own biases about sex work as they seek to fully honor the lives that were lost,” she said. “I’m seeing more people talk about the longer history of sex work as it relates to Asian women and United States imperialism; as painful as it is, I’m heartened that we’re navigating these reverberations of that continued history together.”

A young Korean American woman sits on a bench.
“[I was] only seen for how I look—not my personality, not my intellect, nothing else—just the fact that I was Asian,” Abigail Eun said. (Abigail Eun)

Abigail Eun, 17, talked about being approached by two white teenage boys and being compared to an anime character. “We usually call this yellow fever—when an individual is obsessed with Asian women,” Eun shared. “It made me feel so weird and uncomfortable because I felt like I was being sexualized for the fact that I was Asian. Only seen for how I look—not my personality, not my intellect, nothing else—just the fact that I was Asian.”

When I asked the girls in my class when they had come across the notion of “yellow fever,” they all concurred: middle school.

By the time these girls were around 12, they were already aware of being fetishized.

“Hypersexualized cartoon characters,” Cailey Beck, 17, said, explaining anime and hentai girls. “They’re often schoolgirls—even younger than us—and drawn with crazy proportions.”

A young Asian American woman with glasses gazes into the distance in a back and white portrait.
“Hypersexualized cartoon characters [in anime and hentai] are often schoolgirls—even younger than us—and drawn with crazy proportions. But it’s actually a symptom of something more systematic,” said Cailey Beck. (Cailey Beck)

Beck acknowledged these caricatures are part of the problem. “But it’s actually a symptom of something more systematic,” she added, knowingly.

When we discuss implicit bias, the seeds for the discrimination and hatred against Asian women have always been systemic, meaning launched and incited by our government. Awareness, advocacy and amplification—and documenting these abhorrent and ever-increasing incidents—is the only way to ensure our voices are recorded, historicized and heard.

I think about the six Asian women who were murdered in Atlanta. What keeps replaying in my head is their last moments. A shaft of light in the late afternoon at a workplace where they didn’t want to be. What was the outline for their aspirations? When they thought of their families, were they longing for them?

Many of them were mothers—single mothers, grandmothers—immigrant elders who could have raised the young women in my program. Now, grief around their deaths is mobilizing these girls to resist anti-Asian stereotypes and violence. Through storytelling, these conversations are beginning to uproot the hate.

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