The murders of eight people at Atlanta-area spas, six of whom were Asian women, has taken place amidst a wave of violence directed against people of Asian descent in this country. The attack, by a white gunman whom a Georgia sheriff’s captain described as having “a bad day,” has been the most high-profile case in a wave of anti-Asian violence, much of it documented on social media. This violence has long historical precursors. It has increased with the relentless racialization of the virus as Asian, which draws on deeply-rooted tropes of Asian people as vectors of sickness, if not sickness itself.
Princeton’s Department of Anthropology affirms its solidarity with Asian American communities. And in doing so, it reaffirms its commitment to research, work, and pedagogy that makes sense of racism as it operates and as it is lived, now and over time.
Importantly, this recent violence requires a reckoning with institutionalized white supremacy and catastrophic imperial projects in Asia that have fueled recurring waves of violence against Asians going back 200 years. This moment of spectacular anti-Asian racism needs to be witnessed and documented ethnographically in order to understand the heterogeneous mechanisms of racialization and power. Recent events challenge us to consider the vicissitudes of US empire and racial violence, powered by slavery and the active decimation of native territories as it spread West eventually across the Pacific in search of more markets, labor, land, and resources. Asian American histories are catalogs of American empire that unsettle any clear distinction between the native and the foreign, just as they force us to situate both immigrant and refugee Asians in the US in direct relation to two centuries of imperial incursion by the United States in Asia.
Anthropology, as a discipline that enjoins its practitioners to be moved and destabilized by the worlds they enter, offers an approach to knowledge production that allows us to think through the past and present as a way to hopefully end white supremacy in the future. That is not to say our discipline has not been imbricated in the power dynamics contemporary anthropologist are attempting to unravel. That the response of authorities to the Atlanta attacks were characterized by near-reflexive sympathy for the gunman, and not for his victims, returns us to questions that are urgently anthropological in nature. What vision of humanity defaults toward apologia for the killers and the powers that they mobilize? How do we track the everyday racisms, spectacularly bloody and usually much less so, that characterize life for many, and not just Asians, in the imperial ambit of this country? And how do we think through grief, that starkest injunction of the ethnographic project?
Department of Anthropology