March 16th 2021 was a dark day for the Asian American community. That was the day of the spa shootings in Atlanta, Georgia left eight dead; six of the shooting victims were women of Asian descent. The shooting came at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in which fear-mongering by former President Trump and others like him drove scapegoating of Asians. President Trump repeatedly referred to the virus as “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” – a textbook example of disease racialization that (predictably) helped drive racist violence against Asians in America.
The Atlanta shooting made national news and sparked urgent conversations about racism and misogyny. But those who are familiar with the brusque churn of the news cycle knew that if this moment wasn’t documented and preserved, it would be forgotten.
Gina Kim, executive producer of the new PBS documentary Rising Against Asian Hate: One Day in March, told Reappropriate that she was determined not to let that happen.
“As horrible as it sounds, it’s like a shark attack that gets 24/7 coverage and then all of a sudden, you don’t hear about the shark attacks anymore. I knew it was going to fall off the radar – they were going to stop talking about Asian hate when it’s obviously not gone away,” said Kim. “I want people in the future to remember and not make the same mistakes again.”
Rising Against Asian Hate: One Day in March premiered on October 17th. It is an hour-long PBS special directed by Titi Yu, with narration provided by actor Sandra Oh and original music composed by Jon Batiste and Cory Wong. It takes viewers through the initial shock and horror of the deadly attack, the reverberation of pain that sent tremors throughout the local and national Asian communities, and the ways in which the attack energized Asian Americans in politics and community organizing to push for recognition of anti-Asian hate and measures to combat it.
It is a heartening program, one that highlights the resilience of Asian Americans who were expected to keep their heads down and try to be model minorities, but who instead choose to make waves, make noise, and fight to live without fear. The film didn’t hold back on revealing some of the major obstacles before us – including the struggle to designate anti-Asian violence as hate crimes as well as law enforcement and mainstream media’s tendency to lean into racialized stereotypes to victim blame and humanize white perpetrators as sad loners.
In particular, the film highlights how the issues faced by the Asian American community are not unique to us. They are experienced by all who suffer system harms of white supremacy. This is why it is important for Asian American communities mobilizing around the country to not only protect and advocate for ourselves, but other communities of color as well; only then are we truly tackling racism as a systemic problem.
The story of Dr. Robert Peterson, son of Atlanta shooting victim Yong Ae Yue, is woven throughout Rising. His story clearly demonstrates why our anti-racism efforts must be inclusive and in solidarity with the Black community.
Peterson, who is of Black and Korean heritage, describes the childhood exclusion he faced from Asian Americans, but that he felt embraced after his mother’s killing galvanized our community. Despite the grim circumstances, the warmth and care he received from both Asian Americans and Black family members helped him get through this dark time. Peterson’s experience serves as a tragic, yet powerful, metaphor: both of hope for the future, but also of the work that has yet to be done if Asian Americans are to rise up against Asian hate and the evil of racism itself.
Rising links the Atlanta spa shooting to the tragic deaths and aftermath of Vicha Ratanapakdee, Christina Yuna Lee, and Michelle Go. Yet, it was also here that I wished the documentary would have dug deeper. A question that kept coming to my mind – and yet that the film left frustratingly unanswered – was what a just and safe future (for Asian Americans and all BIPOC) would look like, and how do we take steps towards achieving it? Peterson mentioned early in Rising that he had marched in the streets for Black Lives Matter, a movement that heavily criticizes police brutality. I couldn’t help but wonder: what does he think of the Covid-19 Hate Crime Act mentioned later in the documentary? That Act has been criticized for relying on law enforcement while ignoring police violence against Black and brown communities. How do we reconcile these two (seemingly polar opposite) visions?
I raised these questions with Kim and director Titi Yu, who agreed that they were more complex than might fit into a single one-hour documentary. Instead, she crafted the film with the hope that it might start a discussion on these pernicious questions, instead of ending it.
“These are rich, rich conversations to be had,” said Kim, who readily acknowledged the importance of these topics. She and Yu had discussed the impact of policing and hate crime legislations on Black communities, as well as the push and pull within the Asian American community on how to move forward. “The biggest issue is time, and we just couldn’t do justice to them in fifty-three minutes.”
“I hope for Asian Americans who watch this to really think about the Asian American project and the Asian American identity,” said Yu. “This is a moment to take a really hard look at our political participation and our political power. What is the long term project? What do we want to accomplish?”
The future may be uncertain, but as Rising shows, we are vulnerable but also resourceful, tenacious, and strong. We will be ignored no more.