Eight killed in Atlanta with crimes against AAPI on the rise: Mikayla Zobeck speaks out

Last Tuesday, March 16, nine people were shot and eight were killed during a shooting spree at three Asian-owned spa parlors in Acworth and Atlanta in Georgia. Seven of the victims were women, of whom six were of Asian descent. The first shooting occurred at Young’s Asian Massage off Highway 92 in Cherokee County, where five people were shot, four of whom died. The second and third attacks occurred in Atlanta on Piedmont Road at the Gold, where three people were killed, and Aromatherapy, where the last victim died. All of the victims’ names have been released: Soon Chung Park (74), Suncha Kim (69), Yong Ae Yue (63), Hyun Jung Grant (51), Xiaojie Tan (49), Delaina Ashley Yaun (33), Daouyou Feng (33) and Paul Andre Michels (54). The sole survivor of the attack, 30-year-old Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, remains hospitalized with injuries. Among the victims were single mothers, business owners and a U.S. Army veteran. 

“My initial reaction was fear. My secondary reaction was outrage,” said Mikayla Zobeck (’22). “As a woman, I feel as though I am constantly so aware of where I am, who is around me and any potential danger or threats to my safety. I gauge whether the nearest person to me could hear me yell for help if I needed to, or I have my phone dialed to an emergency contact in case. We are taught these things as young girls, right? Like the thing they teach you is to do all you can to not die. Look in your backseat before you get in, wear shoes you can run in in case someone is chasing you, cross the street if there’s someone walking behind you and hold your keys between your fingers like Wolverine. In addition to that, it feels more terrifying that no matter what I do, some man or woman might kill me because I’m Asian on top of all of that. There’s this fear of it being unavoidable. The shootings in Georgia really made me feel more fear than I had ever since the anti-Asian incidents began increasing last year, not because I am a woman, but an Asian woman.” Zobeck, who is pursuing a degree in business, is a co-chair of the Asian Student Union’s Board of Trustees. 

Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, was arrested a few hours after the attacks in South Georgia and faces charges of murder and assault. According to officials in Cherokee County, Long states he was not motivated by “racial animus,” hostility or hatred based on racial discrimination, but rather by a sex addiction. Captain Jay Baker stated that Long was “pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.” Despite these statements, Long’s acts of violence fall under the context of a nationwide rise in hate crimes directed at Asian Americans, and many view the shootings as an act of racism. In the past year alone, there have been over 3,800 anti-Asian attacks, and xenophobic violence has spiked by at least 150 percent. 

“I was angry. I still am angry,” said Zobeck in response to Baker’s statement. “We all have bad days. If Long was a black man or a brown man the narrative would have been way different. The language used would have been way different. We all have bad days, but a bad day is no excuse for the act of terrorism that man did. Those women were mothers, aunties, wives and friends. Those women, hard-working women, deserve more than a police officer calling their deaths a result of a bad day. What Long did was not him having a bad day. What he did was a meticulously thought-out terrorist attack. It was not some spur-of-the-moment plan. He sat in his car for over an hour stalking them and watching them. That is not a bad day. That is a terrorist.

“It doesn’t help when that same police officer also supported anti-Asian t-shirts using ‘China Virus’ type rhetoric. It doesn’t make justice seem accessible when the person in charge is excusing the acts of a murderer. How do you have trust in a system where the gravity of the incident is not taken seriously and the people also don’t have any respect for the community it impacted most? Who are we supposed to believe in? Where is the trust in justice and resolution supposed to come from if the people we are supposed to trust also dehumanize you under the cover of social media? You just lose faith and keep losing faith.”

According to NPR, an incident report filed by the Atlanta Police Department states that the attacks were not a suspected hate crime. “We were quite disappointed to hear the narrative that is being pushed by law enforcement, especially through the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, that this… was not racially motivated,” said Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, the executive director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund, which is based in the Atlanta area. “I think the narrative that I heard yesterday is maybe [the victims] were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but we know that people who work in the massage parlor industry or other beauty industries are often working highly vulnerable or low-wage jobs, especially during this ongoing pandemic. And we know that a lot of the impacts around structural violence, white supremacy and misogyny is especially impacting them.”

Russell Jeung, chair of the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State University and one of the leaders of Stop AAPI Hate, says that the systematic racism that oppresses Asian Americans has been perpetuated in recent years. President Trump’s usage of terms such as “China virus” and “kung flu” further normalized hate speech, which Jeung says has led to hate violence. “That sort of political rhetoric and that sort of anti-Asian climate has continued to this day.” 

On Friday, March 19, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with Georgia state legislators and Asian American and Pacific Islander advocates to listen to their perspectives on the rise in hate incidents targeting Asian Americans. Biden has also urged Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which “would expedite the federal government’s response to the rise of hate crimes exacerbated during the pandemic.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also spoke out, saying that the House would hold a moment of silence in honor of the victims and the assault on the AAPI community. “Long before Atlanta, we have known that this has been a challenge, really exacerbated by some of the language of the previous administration,” she said.

I asked Mikayla Zobeck if she would be comfortable sharing her experience as a member of the AAPI and as an Asian woman in America. Here is what she said:

Mikayla Zobeck

“I’m an adoptee from Asia. I was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to a woman named Mai. I was transracially adopted to a white family, and I love my adopted family so much. I was able to find my birth family by complete and utter chance when I visited Vietnam in 2018. I’m actually talking about that experience in my Ted Talk on April 24 this semester.”  

“Kids started making fun of my eyes in kindergarten. I feel as though that is where it started or where it became noticeable. It continued throughout my life in obvious and discrete ways. Ways that I now reflect on and can begin to process through. Boys in high school used to talk about my body right in front of me, asking if I could give them a ‘happy ending’ or just saying really uncomfortable sexual things that only stereotypically applied to Asian women. Their words actually motivated me to start weightlifting. I wanted to be able to be stronger than them. It was this internal thing for me.” 

“As an Asian woman, I’ve always known that Asian women have been sexualized and fetishized for centuries. For example, I remember an older man called me ‘exotic’ when I was fourteen to my face. It made me feel so dehumanized. The man who killed those women is said to have a sex addiction, and he wanted to rid himself, by murdering them, of the temptation. He killed those Asian women in part because he fetishized them. It makes my skin crawl.”

“Racism against AAPI people increased by 150% in the past year. 68% of the 3,800+ reports were from women. My awareness of that really changed the way I think about the Atlanta terrorist attack. I have been constantly thinking about the anti-Asian sentiments since last March, when the rhetoric really started increasing and becoming more obvious in its discrimination and racism. For example, I used to be dehumanized by a former friend who called me ‘Mayo’ (like the burger condiment) instead of my Vietnamese name Mai as a ‘joke.’ When I called her out it was just a week and a half of brutal gaslighting where I was going to report the incident but her friends just got so angry about it ‘ruining her college experience,’ so I never did. As far as racism goes, that wasn’t nearly as bad as the woman at Meijer who tried to ram her shopping cart into my body because she wanted to ‘kill the Chinese virus.’  Both incidences were traumatic for me, but I feel like the anti-Asian incidences just became more aggressive and more difficult to just ignore by putting your head down and walking through it.”

“My point is, racism against AAPI is not new. It’s been happening since the first Asian person stepped in this country. The Atlanta shooting made headlines. That’s why people know. So many incidents this past year never did. The elderly being assaulted. The man on the bus getting his face slashed with a knife. It is not new. The Atlanta terrorist attack is a big part of a large problem. Until we realize this and begin to dismantle it from its roots, it will continue happening.”

What should the Hope community be doing to help? “Learn how to say your Asian friends’ names,” said Zobeck. “Don’t make fun of them. It’s dehumanizing. My name is Mai. Not Mayonnaise, Mai.”

“Call your friends or family out when they say racist things…EVEN when it is just crossing that border of ‘well it wasn’t THAT bad.’ No. Call it out.”

“Educate yourself. If someone calls you out for gaslighting them (learn what that is if you don’t know), showing microaggressions or saying something racist, fix it! It isn’t a POC or AAPI person’s job to teach you. There are so many resources and books to read. Read them! Learn history. It’s amazing what you might learn.” 

Hope needs to come together as a community right now. We need to do better. We need to try. As Zobeck said, “It starts with us. We can teach our kids differently.”

The Center for Diversity and Inclusion has anti-racism resources and a microaggression toolkit that students can use to educate themselves and/or to locate resources and strategies for responding to racism. 
If you or somebody you care about is struggling with these events and the issues surrounding them, please reach out to CAPS (616.395.7945) or the Asian Student Union (asu@hope.edu). If you or somebody you care about experiences or witnesses discrimination or harassment, please use this reporting form to notify Hope administration.

Carole Chee ('24) is the editor for the Beyond section. A double major in English and Women's & Gender Studies, you can find her around campus in the Keppel House, behind the library's research help desk, or in the theatre props shop! She is passionate about uplifting each person's unique story and voice.

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