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This journalist started owning her identity at work when covering anti-Asian violence


Tomorrow marks one year since a white man opened fire at three spas in the Atlanta area. He killed eight people. Six of them were Asian women. These killings brought national attention to the violence that Asian Americans have faced for years, especially since this pandemic began. And the crimes also brought into focus the sexualization and stereotypes that Asian women constantly have to confront. A recent survey published by National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum shows that 62% of all hate incidents nationwide are reported by Asian American and Pacific Islander women.

We wanted to take some time now to talk about what this feels like for Asian American women, and so we've called Amara Walker. She's a correspondent and fill-in anchor for CNN. Welcome.

AMARA WALKER: Thank you for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: So Amara, I want to go back to a year ago because - I want to be very honest with you - I was appalled that shortly after those killings, police seemed to take at face value the killer's explanation for what happened. He denied targeting these victims because of their race, but instead claimed that he did what he did because he was struggling with a, quote, "sex addiction." And I thought to myself, how can you so easily separate misogyny from racism here? Like, the only way you could do that is if you were not an Asian woman. And so I'm curious. For you, how did you feel as a journalist reporting this story in the early days after the shootings?

WALKER: I just remember being in such shock and then being overcome by fear that it could possibly have happened to me. And then, of course, there was that feeling of anger. And it was a visceral anger because it was very personal to me. And maybe it's because I saw myself reflected in these Asian American women.

And, you know, covering the story and hearing the suspect claiming that this was not racially motivated but at the same time saying that he was trying to eliminate a temptation actually spoke to the fact that he - that you cannot separate gender and race, especially for Asian women, right? And that's exactly what makes us much more vulnerable. Our race and gender together is what makes us vulnerable to acts of misogyny, racism and sexism. And whether you recognize it or not, subconsciously or consciously, this is our reality. You just cannot separate the two.

CHANG: Absolutely. I mean, I had this moment early on in the investigation where I was questioning myself, like, where I was thinking, am I seeing a criminal investigation through my biased lens of personal experience? Because I was so angry that authorities seemed hesitant to name this as a hate crime early on. And if I were bringing my personal lens into this, I was thinking, is that wrong, as a journalist? I mean, how did you grapple with that piece of it?

WALKER: I got a lot of questions about that from viewers. You know, hey, is it fair that you, as an Asian American woman, should be covering this story? And others who were saying, look, this is the only way to do it. We're so glad that you're covering the story as an Asian American woman because you are bringing a perspective that most do not understand, nor do they see.

And that's because as an Asian American female, I've experienced - and I'm sure many of our colleagues, including you, we've experienced racism. We've experienced misogyny and sexism in such a unique way by being Asian American females that have been perpetuated by stereotypes.

CHANG: Absolutely.

WALKER: And so our lens is reality. This is what we experience. And I think it's so imperative that we Asian Americans, who are extremely underrepresented in the media, must cover these kinds of stories to educate the public about what we endure on a regular basis.

CHANG: And to lean into our identity as we cover these kinds of stories.

WALKER: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I embraced myself and my identity during this period, you know. And, you know, I struggled with it in the beginning because I said, well, you know, how can I be a neutral journalist? How do I cover this from a neutral point of view? But by trying to be neutral is denying who I am. And not bringing attention to the crucial aspects of this case and so embracing my gender, embracing my race together and talking about all the stuff - the racism, the misogyny, the sexism - that we have endured and what these women have faced as immigrants to this country working in this industry - the service industry. All of that came together while we covered this story.

And I think what was so heartening was the outpouring of shock, but also support. And, you know, many people admitting that they weren't aware of this experience. And they were grateful. There was a lot of gratitude to learn about it.

CHANG: I had that same range of reactions - people saying, thank you for talking about this. I didn't realize that's what you and other Asian women have been going through. Are you at all concerned - even as you and I and other journalists try to increase coverage of the violence against Asians in America, are you concerned that this is becoming the dominant story told in this country about people like us, that we are hated, that we are under attack?

WALKER: Look; it has become dominant because every day you turn on the news, especially if you live in a city like New York, right? If you're working in the local news industry there, and I have many friends who are covering the Asian American hate attacks that have been happening there, day in and day out, there and in San Francisco, there needs to be a deeper conversation. Yes, absolutely, we need to be reporting that these things are happening. People need to be aware.

And then the next step needs to be, why? Why do they continue to happen and what can be done about it? And what's been so heartening is strangers and friends and colleagues have been asking me, well, what can we do? I mean, how do we support you? That's a very complicated question.

But I think, No. 1, talking about it - right? - is the first step. But that's one step of many. You know, how do we combat these stereotypes that make us easy targets? Well, we got to also talk about Asian American history in this country, not just talk about it, but we need laws to require these kinds of teachings, curriculum, our contributions to this country, how we have helped build up this country along with other immigrants to America, but also the way that we've been villainized, falsely victimized, you know, going back to 1875 to the Page Act, where Chinese women were ostensibly banned from this country because of prostitution.

CHANG: And you and I, both growing up in California as two Asian women, I never learned about that in grade school or high school.

WALKER: No, I never learned that. I learned about that as an adult in recent years.

CHANG: Me as well. Yes.

WALKER: Right? I had to educate myself about this. And then I, you know, I fell into a rabbit hole reading about that and then how that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act. But to also read, Ailsa, about how for so many decades since the 1800s - since - I think it was 1850 is when the Chinese immigrants started coming to this country. And the anti-Asian sentiment, these stereotypes and the myths that they're coming to this country to spread diseases, that they were sexual deviants, all of that that was circulating way back when.

And so why should we be shocked that the spa massacre happened? Why should we be shocked that perhaps this may have been motivated by hate? You know, this doesn't happen in a vacuum.

CHANG: Yeah. That is Amara Walker, correspondent for CNN. Thank you so much, Amara, for taking this time to speak with us.

WALKER: Thank you for having this very important conversation, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.