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Asian Americans In Kansas City React To A Wave Of Anti-Asian Violence Across The US

Authorities investigate a fatal shooting at a massage parlor, late Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Woodstock, Ga. Officials say 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, of Woodstock, Georgia, has been captured hours after multiple people were killed in shootings at three Atlanta-area massage parlors.
Mike Stewart
Authorities investigate a fatal shooting at a massage parlor, late Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Woodstock, Ga. Twenty-one-year-old Robert Aaron Long, of Woodstock, Georgia, was arrested hours after multiple people were killed in shootings at three Atlanta-area massage parlors.

Authorities in Georgia have said it's too early determine if a string of killings there was motivated by race, but some Asian Americans see a clear connection to this country's history of discrimination.

When Deth Im first learned about Tuesday’s string of spa shootings in Georgia, he was still thinking about the video podcast conversation he had with his oldest daughter earlier that day.

The topic was what it’s like to be Asian in the U.S., and it didn’t leave the former Kansas City Council candidate with the energy he needed to deal with more tragic news about Asians becoming targets in a country he’s called home since 1973.

“I was like, ‘I can't deal with this now,’” said Im, a training director for Faith in Action, a national organizing network. “When I woke up (Wednesday), I read through some of the pieces and, you know, my first reaction was feeling a deep sense of grief.”

The shootings in and around the Atlanta area left eight people dead, six of them women thought to be of Korean descent.

The killings are just the latest in a recent wave of attacks against Asian Americans that began as the novel coronavirus started spreading across the country.

It’s all a direct result of the careless and flippant use of words, said Im, particularly “China virus” and “kung flu,” phrases used by former President Donald Trump and others to refer to the virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.

Im, an American originally from Cambodia, believes this despite statements from investigators in Georgia that it’s too early to call the shootings a hate crime. Police said the 21-year-old suspect told them it was sexual addiction, not race, that motivated him.

In a much criticized press conference on Wednesday, one Georgia law enforcement official called the incident the result of “a really bad day” for the shooter.

Im was appalled when he heard the statement.

“I have bad days all the time — it doesn't mean I go and shoot folks,” he said.

What’s more revealing to Im is that the shooter's "sexual addiction" played out in an environment filled with Asian women.

“That's not accidental,” he said. “It’s connected to how we exoticize Asian women here.”

Michelle Bacon is a musician and content manager at 90.9 The Bridge who wrote about anti-Asian sentiment for Flatland, KCPT's digital magazine, at the beginning of the pandemic.

“I have also spent most of my life being called exotic and being told, like, ‘That's a compliment, you should be honored,’” said Bacon, who was born in Taiwan and raised in Independence, Missouri.

“It's kind of funny until you realize, it's really infuriating,” she said, trailing off. “It's just this very, very tired stereotype that has been a part of how we've been portrayed for years.”

Bacon recently has felt an urge to stand up on the issue of anti-Asian sentiment, something that doesn’t come easily to her because she said she internalized feelings of being a model minority — the myth that Asian Americans are polite and law-abiding, and have achieved a higher level of success through some innate gift.

“I would definitely say that the Black Lives Matter movement propelled it,” she said of her newfound sense of urgency. “It was also Donald Trump … using Asian people as a scapegoat.”

Like other Asian Americans in Kansas City, Hoang-Anh Tran says the racism she has experienced lately has been relatively subtle but toxic all the same.

“They are actually probably more described as microaggressions, as opposed to really tangible and explicit acts of hate or violence,” said the 41-year-old chief of staff for administration at UMB Financial Corp.

For Tran, who calls herself “hybridized Vietnamese,” it was a stranger making underhanded comments at her in the Costco parking lot. That they might have had some other motive besides anti-Asian bigotry only caused her to question her own judgment.

While Tran, an advisor on the board of the Kansas City chapter of the National Association for Asian American Professionals, acknowledged instances like these are rare, she said the violence in Georgia “hearkens back to something much more hurtful and historically deep within the Asian American communities here.”

Mary Manivong worked as a manicurist before the pandemic, but has been a stay-at-home mom since.

Even before the killings in Atlanta, anti-Asian violence is "something that had kind of been tugging at me,” she said.

Manivong, whose parents are Vietnamese and Laotian, remembered an incident from the early stages of the pandemic. She and the rest of the staff were working at salon near the Country Club Plaza, making preparations to shut down indefinitely as COVID-19 began to spread.

“And here was this person who happened to be walking by and just like pointing at us and shaming us,” she said. While the person’s intent was unclear, the act made her feel like an outsider, despite the fact she was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas.

Manivong also wonders about her young son, and whether he’ll have an easier time navigating the racial lay of the land. She said his classmates have asked him if he knows kung fu or how to speak Chinese.

“I tell them it's OK that your friends ask, and it's OK that, you know, you can educate your friends,” she said. “But sometimes I wonder, like, do we educate our kids enough here for them to understand?”

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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