For Eileen Park, Atlanta changed everything.
From Vancouver, her new home since the start of the pandemic, she’s found herself looking at the killings of Asian women in Atlanta last week, and at a reality she says she had spent a lifetime suppressing.
A Korean-American woman who has worked as a TV anchor, a journalist and as the top spokesperson for the mayor of Portland during the Trump era, Park has been in the public eye her entire career. She’s received hate — a lot of it — in the form of comments online, emails, hateful direct messages.
It took finding home in Vancouver, she says, and the awful clarity imparted by the Atlanta shooting, for her to put the words to her own experience.
As she read the news about eight people, six of them Asian women, being killed at three spas or massage parlors, something clicked about a pernicious force in her life: Anti-Asian racism was driving the hate she faced, and that form of hate could be deadly.
“I didn’t have the language to describe what I felt until Atlanta,” she said. “Asian women like me, we’ve been suppressing our rage for decades. After seeing our own killed because of the world’s silence … I just could no longer be silent.”
The eight people who died in the Atlanta shooting were Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng. The 21-year-old suspect was charged with malice murder.
Two days after the shooting, something happened in Park’s life that put her name in the news, and gave her a personal reason to speak out against anti-Asian hate. A profile of her wedding to Vancouver’s former mayor, Gregor Robertson, was published by Vogue Magazine. The photos, with Park in a white dress draped in tartan, walking to meet Robertson in Stanley Park’s forest, were storybook.
Most people who reached out did so with congratulations. But so too came a familiar torrent of hate, mocking their interracial marriage.
“The contrast of what happened in Atlanta to our marriage announcement coming out: The whiplash that came from that was jarring,” she said. “And then to add another layer of hate immediately following our announcement — it was heartbreaking.”
So following the story, she did something new: She spoke about it, publicly, on a video published on social media. For about seven minutes, she spoke frankly about the anti-Asian hate she faced, and her fears that the hatred could be deadly.
She said she had held back from speaking publicly about the fetishization of Asian women for years, not wanting to associate herself with damaging stereotypes. But she had begun to fear that not speaking up could be even more damaging.
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It was a significant moment for Park, who has borne the repercussions of a divided, Trump-era America up close, but so far tried to keep her own experiences out of the spotlight.
Until July, she was the communications director for the mayor of Portland, a city that has been strained by near-nightly protests since the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck.
The situation in Portland was repeatedly referenced by former U.S. president Donald Trump as evidence that protesters were creating anarchy and endangering America. Protesters themselves disapproved of the mayor’s actions, too, which sometimes involved authorizing the use of tear gas.
The result was constant state of inflammation on all sides of the political spectrum. Much of it was directed at Park.
“The volume of hate that I received while in the mayor’s office in Portland was astronomical,” she said. “I don’t think people talk enough about the trauma public servants deal with on a daily basis. That hate, although it comes from strangers, it has a tangible effect on your mental health.”
At the time, she viewed the seemingly disproportionate amount of hate directed toward her as sexist — she would receive sexualized insults unlike anything her male colleagues got. Now, after moving to Vancouver, she says, she has the personal and professional distance to see the racial undertones too — the fetishization of her, as an Asian woman.
She believes the Trump era contributed significantly to what she went through.
“Trump fuelled anti-Asian hate, anti-black hate, anti-immigrant hate,” she said. “He emboldened and empowered white supremacists to not only come out of the shadows but to blatantly and flagrantly display their misogyny for all the world to see.”
Park moved to Vancouver before the borders closed last year, and breathed a sigh of relief. She said that she felt more at home in Vancouver, where there are many more Asian women who look like her than in Portland.
But she knows no place is immune to anti-Asian hate. She reels at the fact that the Vancouver Police Department reported an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes from 12 in 2019 to 98 in 2020.
So she changed course, spoke out, and hopes her story will touch someone, somewhere.
“When someone who harbours biases sees a person like me talk about their own grief and pain,” she said, “It’s my hope that they would find somewhere inside themselves to empathize.”
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen
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