Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

People stand on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City for a demonstration against anti-Asian violence on March 23, 2021. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

People stand on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City for a demonstration against anti-Asian violence on March 23, 2021. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

On a Quilt of Oppressions and Injustices

Last Tuesday's mass shooting targeting Asian American women working at massage parlors in Atlanta was a horrific manifestation of historically rooted and systematically sustained racism, xenophobia, anti-Asian rhetoric, hypersexualization of Asian women, and misogyny.

An Thuy Nguyen

Last Tuesday's deadly mass shooting targeting Asian American women working at massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia is neither a tragic happenstance, nor an isolated case of a (sexually) frustrated white man having "a really bad day"—as in the words of openly racist Cherokee County Sheriff Jay Baker. Last Tuesday's shooting is the latest and horrific demonstration of what historically rooted and systematically sustained racism, xenophobia, anti-Asian rhetoric, hypersexualization of Asian women, and misogyny look like when they have been diligently interweaved over generations and across borders to form one titanic, timeless, and gruesome patchwork quilt.

In our society, poor and low-income women of color—many of whom have been compelled to work in poorly-paid, dangerous, and often exploitative trades across the globe—are bound to face multi-layered oppressions and injustices, especially in wartime but also in peacetime.

A particularly ugly segment of that patchwork quilt can be found in none other than this country's own war in Indochina more than five decades ago. In that war, racism, sexism, and neo-colonialism coalesced into a monstrous war machine that systematically dehumanized and sexually exploited indigenous women.

While prostitution, or "sex work," was first brought to Vietnam by the French colonial conquest in the mid-19th century, it was the arrival of American ground troops in 1965 that compelled this so-called "profession" to mushroom and flourish. By 1966, hundreds of brothels—dubbed "recreation centers," "Disneylands," or "boom-boom parlors"—had been established around the newly-formed American military bases across South Vietnam.

Plunged into poverty and hunger by a merciless war machine created in the name of "democracy," droves of women and girls were forced to become prostitutes, bargirls, and "hootchmaids" whose livelihoods depended entirely on the American military presence. Their commodified bodies became the very sites of the violence perpetrated against them, both by their patrons and by the venereal diseases that plagued wherever Western colonialism touched. The failure to contain the spreading of diseases was so conspicuous that military brothels hung signs that read "Girls with Tags Are Clean. Girls without Tags Are Diseased."

As such, prostitutes and bargirls were tragically subjected to at once brutal violence stemming from war, poverty, and misogyny, and debilitating social degradation in a Confucian society that prized above all women's chastity and sexual abstinence. Many were hurt and killed by their husbands out of jealousy, their fathers out of shame, and, most of all, by patrons out of anger or mere hatred. By the war's end in 1975, over 500,000 prostitutes had been generated among South Vietnam's population of 18 million. This explosion of prostitution and other forms of sexual violence and exploitation during the American war would forever transform the dynamics of Vietnamese gender relations and diminish women's positions in an already prejudiced society.

In short, one needs not be reminded that violence against women is only the most extreme manifestation and an inevitable result of a world built around male supremacy—just as racial/colonial violence is a product of white supremacy, and poverty a revolting fruit of unhindered greed. In our patchwork society, then, poor and low-income women of color—many of whom have been compelled to work in poorly-paid, dangerous, and often exploitative trades across the globe—are bound to face multi-layered oppressions and injustices, especially in wartime but also in peacetime.

Dismantling, or at least radically changing, the problematic ways we currently view the world and our relationships with one another might just be the only way to move forward without leaving so many behind.

As many advocates and progressive lawmakers have cautioned us, the question concerning supporters of women's rights, in light of what happened last week, should not be about how to better police hate crimes, because ample evidence exists to show that over-policing has only hurt women and people of color more.

The question, instead, should be about recognizing and conscientiously tackling the structural predicaments of our current system, and to inquire among and within ourselves: How might we reposition our perspectives and discourses in order to fully hear and give space to these women's voices? What fundamental changes must we individually and collectively undertake to ensure their voices are answered, their dignity preserved, their lives safeguarded? What steps must be taken so that women and girls —especially minorities and those living in poverty and insecurity—are no longer under-heard and overlooked, no longer trying to over-perform only to remain under-appreciated?

It will take time and a concerted effort to figure all of these out. One thing remains certain: there is no disentangling the ugly patterns without destroying the entire quilt. And dismantling, or at least radically changing, the problematic ways we currently view the world and our relationships with one another might just be the only way to move forward without leaving so many behind.

Last Tuesday was many things, but it was NOT a white man's "bad day." It was, surely, another day of being a woman and an Asian person struggling to leave their marks on a blemished patchwork quilt.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
An Thuy Nguyen

An Thuy Nguyen

An Thuy Nguyen is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Maine and the current Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations' Marilyn Blatt Young Fellow. She has authored various papers on women's and diplomatic history, including an article in the high-impact Critical Asian Studies journal and an upcoming book chapter on prominent Old Left women.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'Political Malpractice': House Democrats' Bill Wouldn't Add Dental to Medicare Until 2028

"I don't want to see it drawn out to as far as the House has proposed," Sen. Bernie Sanders said during a recent press call.

Jake Johnson ·


'How Many More Deaths Must It Take?' Barbados Leader Rips Rich Nations in Fierce UN Speech

"How many more variants of Covid-19 must arrive, how many more, before a worldwide plan for vaccinations will be implemented?"

Jake Johnson ·


To Avert Debt Ceiling Calamity, Democrats Urged to Finally Kill the Filibuster

"The solution is to blow up the filibuster at least for debt limit votes, just as Mitch blew it up to pack the Supreme Court for his big donors."

Jake Johnson ·


Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo