Prof. Jeevan Gurung, SUNY, New York
Updated: Exclusive: The Atlanta spa massacre of eight people on March 16 shook the nation, and like many other Americans, I wanted to do more than just express shock and grief at the loss of the precious lives of six women with Asian descent. My heart went out to their families and friends. Then I saw Facebook post by my good friend Iswari Pandey, Professor of English and Director of Business/Professional Communications at California State University: “#NRNA: Did I miss your statement on the recent slaughter in Atlanta or the ongoing series of hate crimes against Asian-Americans? Any protest programs in solidarity with the rest of the Asian-American community? Remember, even a Nepali Uber driver was recently assaulted? I didn’t become a life member to be a silent witness to all these atrocities. Wake up or be prepared to face a mass exodus.” I couldn’t agree more with Iswari’s outrage.
Where is our voice ?
If not the Non-Resident Nepali Association of America, then at least the Federation of Indigenous Peoples of Nepal in America (FIPNA) needs to immediately condemn this violence and show Nepali people’s solidarity for the Asian American community in this time of need.
On the fatal day, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long arrived at Young’s Asian Massage near Acworth where he killed two and left three others wounded. Later he drove 30 miles to Gold Massage Spa on Piedmont Road in northeast Atlanta and shot dead three women. He then went across the street to Aromatherapy Spa to kill another woman. Fortunately, the police were successful in apprehending Long on his way to Florida. At this time, he has been charged with eight counts of murder and is being held at the Cherokee County jail. According to police, Long was motivated by a sexual addition to carry out his criminal act.
Let’s, however, not be misled into believing that the Atlanta massacre isn’t a hate crime. Yes, Captain Jay Baker from the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office described Robert Aaron Long’s killing spree as having resulted from his alleged sexual addiction. He even explained it as Long “having a bad day.” That and the continued reporting that the authorities are investigating whether Long’s motive was driven by hate is obfuscating what is so obvious: Long specifically targeted massage businesses that he knew employed Asian women and he killed six of them. Long may have described his action as a need to remove a “temptation,” but we cannot ignore the interplay of misogyny and racism in his motivation.
It is true that massage parlors have a history of concerns about sex trafficking, and in some cases, they have been found operating as fronts for prostitution. But the massage businesses that Long targeted were legitimately operated businesses. Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms had this to say regarding the incident: “We are not about to get into victim-blaming, victim-shaming here. And as far as we know in Atlanta, these are legally operating businesses that have not been on our radar, not on the radar of A.P.D.”
Obviously the victims were professionals making an earning for themselves and their families, but the killing of women engaged in any profession, be it prostitution (which in this case it was not), shouldn’t minimize the fact that this was a hate crime perpetrated against Asian women.
What should scare us more about this incident is that it is a hate crime against Asian-American communities with whom we share a lot in common. Like the six women who were gunned down in cold blood, many Nepali women work in spas and beauty salons. While we may call ourselves South Asians, many of us share features that are more Asian than the typical South Asians. Therefore, there is nothing to prevent an attack on one of the spas where our near and dear ones may turn out victims. That is a very plausible scenario, as there has been an exponential rise in violence against Asian Americans, and we are getting roped in this violence. Citing a report published by Stop AAPI Hate, the New York Times reported that there were nearly 3,800 hate incidents against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. The Stop AAPI Hate report notes that the incidents could be higher since not all incidents are reported. I don’t think the Nepali Uber driver’s assault that Dr. Pandey referenced in his Facebook post was included in the Stop AAPI report. Subhakar Khadka, a Nepalese Uber driver was assaulted and coughed on by his passengers in San Francisco. His dashcam video that went viral last week shows Khadka’s passengers yelling, attacking, and ripping Khadka’s mask after he asks them to wear theirs. It’s highly likely that many more Nepalis are victims as a result of the recent spate of hate incidents against Asian Americans. And it is likely to increase even more.
Why do we fear ?
Some of our Nepali brothers and sisters might think why stir the hornet’s nest if we are not being targeted directly. They may think that we can live with the occasional incidents, and they may have genuine fear of speaking up thinking that doing so may only make us the target. That may be true to some extent. But not speaking up has a bigger risk. First of all, just because many of us share Asian features we are already a target whether we like it or not. Second, hate doesn’t just disappear if not confronted and building alliance is the best way to fight against hate. And we build alliance by supporting others when they need us. Third, it is simply wrong to think that we will be unaffected and look away when others are being targets of hate. I would just like to point to Martin Niemöller’s poem and let it speak for itself:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Niemöller wrote this poem as an indictment of the Germans for not speaking up before the start of World War II when the Nazis came for various groups one by one. But the poem could as well apply to us, and we might find no one speaking for us when we need them the most.
“Our silence is complicity.”
President Joe Biden said it best during his visit to condemn the anti-Asian violence during his Atlanta visit: “Our silence is complicity.” And as a group that has so much in common with the Asian-American communities, we, the Nepalis, cannot choose to be complicit through our silence.
I agree that the goals and objectives of NRNA is to represent and promote Nepali interests and to maintain and foster Nepali identity and cultural heritage, further professional advancements etc. All of that is praiseworthy. However, as an organization that claims to represent the almost 300,000 Nepalis living in the US, shouldn’t it be in NRNA’s purview to build alliances with other communities so that the Nepali community has partners supporting them when they need them the most? Or should our attention be only focused on what transpires in our Matribhumi as opposed to in our Karmabhumi? Should we not be doing both?
At the least, I would expect FIPNA to be more proactive when it comes to social justice, as its aim is to “vigorously work to secure the rights of indigenous people living in Nepal.” Why should FIPNA’s focus be limited to Nepal when it is also a Nepali organization working in America? That is not to say that we shouldn’t be applauding FIPNA for all the work it has done for all Nepalis irrespective of their ethnicity during the COVID crisis. However, as an organization that is dedicated toward social justice and equal rights, should FIPNA not be in the forefront of speaking up for social justice everywhere, especially if it concerns Nepali interests? It is a fact that most indigenous Nepalis have Asian features and are likely to be targets of Asian-American hate. I would, thus, think it would be in FIPNA’s interest to express solidarity with the Asian-American community by denouncing the hateful Atlanta shooting of six Asian-American women.
So, what do we do when we don’t find leaders in our community doing their part? I would say that we call on them to do what is right for us and for America, which is our Karmabhumi. Even without these organizations, we can, of course, do our bit by reading and learning about the history of discrimination against Asian Americans, by educating our friends and relatives, by reporting any verbal or physical assault so that all hate incidents are documented as part of the larger crimes against Asian Americans, by donating to help victims of hate, and by attending rallies to show solidarity if possible. However, a more formal condemnation of the Atlanta hate crime and show of solidarity with Asian-American community by major Nepali organizations rather than just small roadside protests against attacks on Uber drivers is the need of the hour. We need to recognize that the attacks on Uber drivers are part of the broader pattern of attacks against Asians, which escalated after the COVID-19 crisis and has led to the inhumane gunning down of eight people last week.
We should understand that the more we do to eliminate hate, the better our living situation will be. The more we do nothing, the more hatred will spread. American history has shown that the march toward justice has, despite multiple drawbacks, only been possible because people were willing to stake their lives, form alliances, and work in unison to change the hearts and minds of the generous American majority. We can also be part of that history of change.
Note: Mr. Jeevan Gurung is professor of English at SUNY Adirondack, New York. He holds a PhD in English Literature from Drew University, NJ and is originally from Pokhara, Nepal.