Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
This essay examines racially motivated violence and describes specific violent incidents.
On January 15, 2019, 34-year-old Arthur Martunovich barged into the Seaport Buffet, a Coney Island comfort food restaurant overlooking Sheepshead Bay. He stood by the door, looking around, then took a hammer from his backpack and immediately began striking the Asian man who walked past. “I’m not here for you,” he told a Latino employee, then stormed toward the kitchen.
Apparently, Martunovich had seen an unspecified movie in which Chinese men mistreated Chinese women, and he was “acting out of chivalry by defending Chinese women.” By the time police arrived, chef Fufai Pun, 34, had been bludgeoned to death. Restaurant co-owner Tsz Mat Pun, 50, and manager Thang Ng, 60, died in the hospital a few days later.
A few weeks after the Brooklyn Hammer Murders, actor Liam Neeson gave an interview in which he said that, after he found out that his close friend was raped by a “black person,” he went around with a bludgeon looking for a “black bastard” to “come out of a pub and have a go at [him] … So that [he] could kill him.” Let me reiterate: Liam Neeson walked up and down his neighborhood streets, carrying a weapon, looking for a black man to kill, which to him was an act of chivalry.
If an innocent black man had been at the wrong place at the wrong time, he would have been killed for no reason at all. Just like Fufai Pun, Tsz Mat Pun, and Thang Ng. But no “bad guys” showed up, and Neeson instead went on to an illustrious acting career filled with white knight-savior roles.
I was saddened but not surprised by Neeson’s remarks, or even by the Brooklyn Hammer murders. Neeson and Martunovich were just following the same white savior narrative that all of us breathe in every time we watch a movie or read a kids’ story. It is imbedded into our psyches so well, we don’t even realize it’s a script.
In his interview, Neeson went on to say that he realizes now that revenge is wrong but neither he nor his interviewer acknowledged the deeply entrenched racism of his words until social media criticism pointed it out to him. A lot of people came out in his defense, saying that they’ve thought the same things. And the murders of Fufai Pun, Tsz Mat Pun, and Thang Ng were so confusing to people that it wasn’t even completely obvious to some people that this was a hate crime.
The white savior narrative is seen so frequently in the media that I could fill a phone book just listing example titles. The storyline is always the same: backward, brown savages are being victimized and only a messianic white person can come in and save us from ourselves. What is often left out of the discussion is the highly gendered dynamic of white saviorism. Often, the savior figure is a white man saving a damsel in distress. The white supremacist trope of the helpless white woman endangered by the brutish man of color is as old as slavery.
Since the US began its colonialist expansions abroad, tales of the tragic and long-suffering woman of color, usually being oppressed by the men of their communities, who yearns for salvation in the arms of Good White People, have abounded. We are portrayed as weak and broken victims, completely lacking in agency or strength. We are used in white narratives as props, only existing to suffer, and then be grateful, often in a sexual way. Furthermore, we are often used as shields and alibis, as personal protection from criticism for white men (“I can’t be racist, my wife is Asian!”), and as justification for heinous US foreign policies.
I see these narratives play out in the ways people interact with me all the time, from the therapist who tries to tie every negative experience I have back to my cultural upbringing to the catcaller who yells from across the street, “Smile, you’re in America now!”
This type of condescending microaggression impacts me daily, and I am a person who is supposedly rescued by these behaviors. I can only imagine what it must be like for Asian men. Are they seen as perpetual aggressors, relentlessly terrorizing women? Toxic and backward, unable to ever be fully saved from their cultural and racial deficiencies?
What infuriates me even more is when women buy into this narrative. I remember once arguing with a group of Asian male coworkers about whether an incident we all witnessed was sexist or not. We ended the conversation with me insisting it was, and they not. The next day, they all individually apologized. They each independently discussed what happened with their girlfriends and realized that I was right.
I was really impressed and told my White Feminist friend about it, but all she said in response was, “See, I knew they’d be like that. That just shows they don’t respect women unless it’s their girlfriends.”
I just thought, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Never in my experience has a white man gone out of his way to question himself and actively seek counsel from the women in his life. Meanwhile, even when Asian men were trying to be better, their actions were twisted into an indictment of “toxic Asian masculinity.” Feminists are constantly asking white men to do better, hoping for them be better, and seeking out enlightened “wokebaes,” Yet it seems that our expectation is that men of color never can be, or we don’t care if they are.
Right now, there isn’t even language to describe this kind of gendered racism. That is how little we care about it, but we should. Men and women in every community of color in the US have vastly different racialized experiences, face different challenges, and often have opposing interests.
I can’t speak for anyone, nor should I. The experiences of Asian American men, especially, have been sorely lacking in mainstream media, and they deserve to be heard. They deserve a voice, and bigger platforms. Their experiences are the flip side of a racial oppression that hurts us all.
These racialized gender gaps further prevent people of color from developing community identity, mutual cultural roots, and group political will. Pushing the narrative that men of color are worse than white men, and that women and children of color need to be saved from them, is white supremacy and just kicks the can down the road to the next generation. We have to do better.