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Stop dehumanizing Asian Americans

One of the two Atlanta massage parlors where

One of the two Atlanta massage parlors where a shooter shot and killed eight people on March 16, six of them Asians. Credit: AP/Brynn Anderson

The morning after a gunman shot eight people at three Atlanta massage parlors last week, I woke up thinking, "I’m alive, but six people who look like me are dead."

It was the culmination of a whole year of being on edge, a year of reaching for a baseball cap and sunglasses before I went out — to hide the way I look in case that might save my life — a year of anti-Asian racism stoked by former President Donald Trump, a year in which hate crimes against Asians rose by 149% while decreasing by 7% overall.

Multiple friends told me they had been told to go back to China. One Korean American friend living on Long Island told me, "Everyone says ‘China virus’ as though it’s not a slur," adding that her parents, who are in the service industry, constantly have customers tell them to "go back to China" whenever a disagreement arises. Like so many I know, I have faced a lifetime of having my nationality questioned.

I had been trying to get my circle on social media to speak up, posting statistics and descriptions of incidents of violence against Asian Americans. Some doubted the statistics. Some questioned whether the bias was real.

Then came last week’s murders at the spas in Atlanta.

My social media erupted with fresh voices talking about anti-Asian racism, while politicians and celebrities condemned the shootings. I should have been relieved with this national awakening, but I felt emotionally drained.

Are multiple, gruesome homicides what it takes to wake people up to the suffering in our community?

The Atlanta gunman told police he had a "sex addiction." The shootings appear to be at the "intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia," said Georgia State Rep. Bee Nguyen. It seems that to the shooter, Asian women represented temptations he needed to extinguish. Sadly, Asian women face hypersexualizing and objectifying, for example, being called "dragon lady," "lotus blossom" and "tigress."

From "virus" to "tigress," these are all dehumanizing. Dehumanization is an age-old tactic used to normalize cruelty. In the Holocaust, Nazis called Jews "rats." In the Rwandan genocide, the Hutus called the Tutsi minority "cockroaches" and "snakes." In Afghanistan, American troops called the Afghans they killed "savages." David Livingstone Smith, author of "Less than Human," says, "When people dehumanize others, they actually conceive of them as subhuman." This, he says, releases aggression and inhibitions against cruelty.

In medical school, I have been advised to refer to patients as those "with disease" instead of "diseased patients" — for example, patients with cancer, not cancer patients — in an effort to maintain patient dignity.

We must be able to identify any form of dehumanization, subtle or obvious, and never condone it. Believe Asian American suffering. Speak up for us. We know words can escalate to action; we’ve seen that happen all year. Let’s call out hate before it leads to another tragedy.

Kate E. Lee is a fourth-year medical student at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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