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‘Shocking, yet unsurprising’

Chalkboard with 'racism' written on it and partially erased.

Washington State University scientist Sara Waters has chronicled escalating discrimination against Asians and Asian-Americans during the global pandemic, but this week’s slayings in Atlanta still came as a horrifying shock.

“It’s shocking and yet an unsurprising extension of the racism we’ve been hearing about against Asians and Asian-Americans,” said Waters, an assistant professor at WSU Vancouver who last fall authored a research paper along with Ph.D student Suyeon Lee documenting the trend.

The WSU Insider featured their research in a November article and this week contacted Waters, who is part of WSU’s Department of Human Development, to ask about the killing of eight people in Atlanta, six of whom were women of Asian descent.

What follows is a Q&A about her research and the Atlanta murders. Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

What were your first thoughts when you heard about the shootings?

Sara Waters: It was obviously horrifying and there has always been anti-Asian discrimination in this country. The history is there, but it’s not always talked about. There is a myth of “model minorities,” that they don’t experience discrimination. But these shootings didn’t come out of nowhere, we’ve been talking about this for a while. And historians and race scholars have been talking about this for generations.

Reading your paper, which came out last fall based on surveys you did in the summer of 2020, did that change how you saw the news about the Atlanta murders?

SW: There was this sense that ‘Well, that’s where this was going.’ It’s shocking and yet an unsurprising extension of the racism we’ve been hearing about against Asians and Asian-Americans. We surveyed 400 people and heard a lot of stories about verbal assaults and threats of physical violence, so it isn’t surprising that this escalation happened.

The other thing I thought about was who was targeted and killed. They were Asian women, mostly. There’s an intersectionality of who was targeted. There’s an added weight of the treatment of women in this country, so Asian women face a kind of multiplier effect that’s often much worse.

You’ve talked with groups about this topic since your paper came out, right?

SW: Yes, a few. WSU asked me to talk about this paper at a system-wide Town Hall meeting in December. There were people talking about vaccine rollout and staying safe from the virus, and they also asked me to talk about this research on racism and discrimination. I thought that was important because this topic needs to be talked about. This is real and impacts real people, it’s not just an academic study. And now we see that’s it’s not just something that causes anxiety, it’s literally life and death.

What’s next? Are you doing more work on this subject?

SW: Yes, Suyeon and I contacted around 300 people from the original study who had agreed to follow-up questions. 180 completed an online questionnaire in November, well before the Atlanta murders. A lot of them were worried that this country would continue on this road of racism and that violence would increase against people of color. Now looking at those responses, it seems their fears were justified.

For some respondents, the last year has been their first experience being targeted. They didn’t feel discriminated against until recently. For others, they said they always knew the racism was present in American society, but that things have become more open and gotten worse in the last year.

When does that come out?

SW: We’re working really hard on it. Hopefully that paper will publish this summer. I wish we were further along, but we want to tell an honest story with these experiences. People really took their time to write about what they’ve gone through. It was just a text box in an online survey, but some people wrote a lot. They were motivated to tell their stories and share their perspectives. Many, and again, this was several months prior to these shootings, talked about their changing view of what it means to be an Asian-American. They are asking if they belong here, if they feel safe here. It’s heartbreaking to read these stories, but it will be so important to share those and make sure they are heard.

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