As an American who has heard about thousands of shootings by now, I have never been asked about how I felt about any particular shooting — until a few days after the shootings at three massage businesses in Atlanta, dominated by women of Asian descent.
Yes, I am an Asian American, but more importantly, I am an American who deeply cares about our country — and hence, I am asking all of us to go beneath the surface of our fractured U.S.
I have heard about so many U.S. shootings the past decades — including the one that occurred just six days after Atlanta, in Boulder, Colorado — that many have blurred into one. It seems to me that people of all ages and religions have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, whether it be as bystanders shot in Baltimore or Chicago or D.C., or shot at in one of many places in our daily lives. A few examples: an elementary school in December of 2012 where 6- and 7-year-old children were shot (Newtown, Connecticut); a church in June of 2015 where people were shot during Bible study (Charleston, South Carolina); a synagogue service in fall of 2018 (Pittsburgh); and spas (Atlanta) and a grocery store (Boulder) in March of 2021.
Note the commonality of them all — people shot while doing ordinary things in their lives. Yes, they were of different ages, different skin color and different religions. We have chosen to concentrate on their differences rather than their commonality: Americans shot in the 21st century while doing ordinary things in their lives. And a society that lets this occur over and over again.
For me as a human being, each was awful. Just as awful is the recurring way in which we react: with a list of victims and shock, followed by condolences to a particular group of people, talk of the history of hate crimes against that group, and finding simple reasons for each shooting.
We use language such as "victim" and "perpetrator," and do not discuss the deeper issues in our society — such as the language we use to continually divide us and the binary thinking that we are one or the other — rather than be able to see the character of each being beyond the surface labels we are given by race, religion, sex.
We seldom discuss the commonality of these shootings — that there are guns readily available and a culture that tolerates hate and division. And the word "discussion" gets diluted to shouting at each other and name calling and more surface reasoning for not digging deeper. Instead, I ask that we take responsibility for being part of the divisiveness of our nation, of our surface thinking, and our desire to cling onto ideology of having to be "right" and thinking it must be "their fault." In order to have actual discussions, we must be vulnerable, we must accept that we are all wrong to some extent, and we must actually listen to each other and acknowledge our common problems.
We have created the society we live in — some more so than others. We all matter in what direction our nation takes.
When do we start to take responsibility for a society that categorizes people by surface features of skin color, religion and sex, and continually use language to divide our nation in a binary manner — Republicans versus Democrats, gun rights versus gun control, white people versus people of color, victims versus perpetrators?
There is no better time than now to take responsibility for perpetrating this sad state of our nation. Those in power have continually divided us with their language and their action — or by being silent. And just as importantly, the vast majority of us have allowed the sad state of our nation to recur over and over again with our complicit silence. Speak up about the need to have difficult conversations, and change our divisive language.
Start thinking of "we" over "me." It cannot be about me, an Asian American, just as it cannot be about any fill-in-the-blank American. It has to be about we, the United States of America. It’s going to be a difficult conversation. But if we don’t start now, what will become of "us" — the United States?
Sabrina S. Fu is a professor at the University of Maryland Global Campus. This piece was written for The Baltimore Sun.