'It Could Have Been Me' – An Asian American Woman’s Worst Nightmare

Stephanie Drenka dreamed of watching more Asian American faces onscreen. Not like this.
Stephanie Drenka dreamed of watching more Asian American faces onscreen. Not like this. Stephanie Drenka

Stephanie Drenka is the communications director for Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation and a Korean adoptee. She is a 2021 Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.
Be careful what you wish for, the old adage warns. My wish was for more Asian American representation in media, to have our stories centered and faces reflected back to us on screen. In retrospect, I should have been more specific. Watching the news and reading headlines about the massacre in Atlanta last week, there is one chilling thought I can’t seem to shake: It could have been me.

My family used to live in Marietta, Georgia, less than 20 minutes away from Young’s Asian Massage spa, where four of the eight victims were killed. When I was 10, we moved to Southlake, where I was repeatedly called a "chink" by classmates and told to “Go back to China.” It didn’t matter that I was adopted from Korea; we “all look alike.”

Instead of honoring the lives of the victims — many of whom were Asian women — people in power and charged with the safety of the community quickly rushed to the killer’s defense, saying he was having a “bad day” or struggling with sex addiction and needed to eliminate the temptation.

Remnants of my own internalized racism and personal trauma wash over me like a flood. How exhausting it is to be an object of someone’s stereotypical fantasy, rather than a person with dreams of my own. Grown men said things to me when I was only a preteen that would turn stomachs at any age. Every comment centered on my Asianness. I was too afraid then to repeat the remarks to anyone and hesitate to do so even now for fear of offending people. Years later, I still carry the shame of someone else’s words.

What some mistakenly refer to as “positive” stereotypes are perhaps the most insidious, because we sometimes trick ourselves into being flattered by them, and, in the worst case, believing them. As Asian Americans, we run the gamut between the high-achieving Model Minority, submissive China Doll, exotic Dragon Lady, perpetual foreigner, and others, but all are tied together by one common thread: otherness.

At Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, where I am the communications director, we often discuss this “false hierarchy of human value” and the countless ways it is used to harm people of color. Lately, I’ve been throwing myself into work to fight this feeling of helplessness. Between Zoom fatigue and the emotional labor, though, sometimes an entire day goes by before realizing I haven’t eaten a meal yet. I’m so tired. But every time my eyes close, the bruised and bloodied faces of my people fill the darkness, an Instagram-like feed of carnage.

When I finally drift to sleep, nightmares come. The setting changes every night — at least my subconscious gets points for creativity. One takes place in a shopping mall. A masked gunman lines up hostages against the wall, but leaves his rifle aimed at me, the only Asian in the store. In another, I’m in my car waiting at a stoplight when a man climbs through the passenger door and stabs me in the chest. Each time I wake up startled, and, for a brief moment, the delirium leaves me wondering if I’m still alive.

Visions of enraged anti-maskers lamenting their business losses — casualties of what the former president referred to as “Kung Flu” and “China Virus” — haunt my waking hours. When the shutdown happened last year, I thought about Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man from Detroit who was murdered in 1982. His death happened during another economic downturn when Japanese car manufacturers were blamed for the declining American automotive industry.

“It’s because of you motherfuckers that we’re out of work,” one of his killers reportedly said before beating Chin to death with a baseball bat in the parking lot of a McDonald's. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were convicted in a county court for manslaughter after a plea bargain brought the charges down from second-degree murder.

I’m so tired. But every time my eyes close, the bruised and bloodied faces of my people fill the darkness, an Instagram-like feed of carnage.

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They were given three years probation, fined $3,000 and ordered to pay $780 in court costs because, according to Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail. … You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”

It’s a tale as old as time: whiteness protecting whiteness. Murderers treated with more dignity than those they killed. If you make people invisible long enough, perpetually portray them as outsiders, turn them into scapegoats, emphasize their otherness, you strip them of more than visibility. You erase their humanity.

Stop AAPI Hate reported a 150% increase in race-based, anti-Asian attacks (nearly 3,800) in the U.S. over the past year, and we know there are still stories missing. What we can’t begin to measure is the collective trauma of a historically unseen community now in the spotlight for the most horrific of reasons.

Friends and family members reached out after news broke about Atlanta. Their support and solidarity — though affirming and well-intentioned — will not keep me safe or help me sleep at night. They ask if I need anything. I need people to believe me when I say language matters, and racist words will always hurt us. I need action taken. I need accountability held. I need policy codified.

There is a proposed national COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act which “seeks to address the ongoing hate and violence targeted toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) by providing greater assistance with law enforcement response to COVID-19 hate crimes and creating a position at the Department of Justice to facilitate expedited review of such cases.”

On March 15, Texas House Rep. Gene Wu filed HCR 66 in the 87th Texas Legislative session. The bill condemns racism against AAPIs, calling on state law enforcement officials to “investigate and prosecute all credible reports of hate crimes and incidents and threats against AAPIs in Texas” and “express its support for public and private efforts to eradicate anti-AAPI racism in all its forms.”

In Congress, Rep. Barbara Lee and Senator Cory Booker reintroduced a resolution last month to form a national Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission that would “examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color, and how our history impacts laws and policies today.”

I hope everyone who sends thoughts and prayers also sends emails and letters to their representatives advocating for passage of these bills. I hope the support they offer me is also extended to political candidates who know better than to reference lynching during Congressional hearings on combatting anti-Asian violence.

Maybe then, would-be racist killers will be more afraid of being held accountable and punished to the fullest extent of the law than I am of their hatred toward me.

That’s my wish now — that, and a decent night’s sleep. In the meantime, I’ll pour another cup of coffee, pull myself together, and hope I don’t end up on the wrong side of someone’s “bad day.”
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