A Year After the Atlanta Shootings, Asian American Women Grapple With Continued Violence and How To Heal

People march during a Stop Asian Hate rally in downtown Detroit on March 27, 2021, as part of a nationwide protest in solidarity against hate crimes directed towards Asian Americans in the wake of the Atlanta, Georgia spa shootings that left eight dead. (Seth Herald / AFP via Getty Images)

I’ve been trying to keep my head above water, but the weight of trauma after trauma keeps pulling me down. 

Exactly one year ago, as my colleague and I were working on written testimony on behalf of the Asian American Psychological Association for a House Judiciary committee hearing on anti-Asian violence and discrimination, news broke about the killings of eight people, six of them Asian women, in the Atlanta area. Several days later, I cried as I watched U.S. Representative Grace Meng (D–N.Y.), through tears, testify at that House Judiciary committee hearing that Asian American communities were “bleeding,” “in pain” and “screaming out for help.” 

Meng’s impassioned plea for societal recognition of Asian American communities and support for those who are targets of hate crimes closed with a forceful proclamation: “We will not let you take our voice from us.” Reps. Meng, Judy Chu of California (the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus) and many others have worked hard to ensure that Asian Americans’ voices are heard. Due to their powerful work, Congress passed, and President Biden signed, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act to increase access to hate crimes reporting channels and provide funding for programs that prevent and address hate crimes at local and state levels. 

Despite these important efforts, violence against Asian Americans—particularly Asian American women—continues to rise. To be sure, Asian Americans’ experiences of racial discrimination and violence is not new. But it has increased substantially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased 339 percent in 2021, after 2020 broke the previous record. 

The news cycle has moved on—but I refuse to. Each time I see a picture of the latest Asian American woman victim, I see a family member, a friend. I see me.

The racism Asian American women face is often also layered with hypersexualization and exoticization. When the killer of Atlanta area shootings admitted to multiple counts of murder, he also claimed he had a sexual addiction, but denied racist intent. This gaslighting of Asian American women’s experiences of racism happens everyday and keeps us from seeing and addressing the harm that gendered racism causes.

Whether it takes the form of a catcall or a violent attack, incidents of racism are not simply events to be easily brushed off or gotten over. Research shows that the wear-and-tear of chronic racism compounds with past traumas and has long-term impacts on physical and mental health. Such long-term impacts include increased risk for chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.

I have been pressing on, conducting research on Asian Americans’ experiences during the pandemic and advocating for the needs of Asian American communities based on this research. I’ve pressed on, trying to calm the rage I feel each time I learn of yet another violent attack on an Asian American woman. I’ve tried to ignore the fear I have for my family, the anxiety of being out without a mask where others can see my face more clearly. 

As an associate professor of clinical psychology who studies Asian Americans’ stress, trauma and coping, I know I haven’t been using the best strategies to cope with my own stress and trauma. 

I’m trying to find ways to heal and find resilience. I’m stepping back, acknowledging that I am not okay, and seeking support. Slowing down to pay attention to how I’m feeling and how it’s impacting me has freed me up to heal and find strength. I’m finding inspiration from my colleagues and friends who themselves are trying to preserve their well-being and who are teaching others to radically heal

I’m loving the circles I’m stepping into, particularly with women of color who don’t tell me it will be okay, but instead cry and laugh with me. I’m spending some of my free time working with passionate people on integrating Asian American history into K–12 schools in Illinois. 

Being a part of and helping to cultivate communities filled with love, care and determination, gives me hope and helps me heal. Prioritizing community and self care helps me ensure that I did not lose my voice or have it taken from me, but instead can use it to do the necessary work needed to eradicate the gendered racism Asian American women and other women of color and gender minorities face.

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Anne Saw is an associate professor of psychology at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow at the OpEd Project.