The Atlanta spa shootings on March 17, 2021, only spotlighted the decades- and century-old racism that has been devastating the Asian community — to both extreme and subtle effects. For example: It took 61 years for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to be repealed, and it wasn't until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that immigration quotas were finally lifted, allowing family members and skilled laborers to enter the country.
I have the privilege of making a living from the comfort of my own home. Or at least, that's been the case throughout the pandemic. One day I'll likely be back at an office building, commuting on an uncomfortably packed subway, and regularly walking down the streets of Manhattan by myself. However, like many Asians and Asian Americans — especially women — I've recently become even more conscious about my personal safety.
Research from Stop AAPI Hate revealed that there have been nearly 3,800 incidents, including verbal harassment, shunning or deliberate avoidance, physical assault, and workplace discrimination towards AAPI people (68 percent of those reported by women) between March 19, 2020, and February 28, 2021. These horrific incidents do not occur in a vacuum, and it's also worth noting that hate crime data released from police departments and federal agencies is historically under-reported and unreliable, so the actual numbers are likely much higher. And while women, sex workers, and the elderly are undoubtedly some of the most vulnerable in our community, no one is immune from racism.
As a first-generation Asian American woman, I've come to realize being Asian means learning from a young age that you shouldn't draw attention to yourself. Being Asian is being taught to put your head down, swallow your bitterness, and expect merit and hard work alone to earn you the success and recognition you deserve. Being Asian American, in particular, also means having to unlearn all of that as you grow older. In my personal experience, that means experiencing a drawn-out realization that my immigrant parents' view of being American — a designation they believe is earned through things like advanced degrees and a steady income, at the cost of personal fulfillment and sometimes physical health — is entirely different from my own.
In fact, I've had to learn the hard way (through my own delayed reckoning with mental health issues) that I deserve the same opportunities as my white peers. Even now, I struggle with bridging the gap between who I was brought up to be and who I have become in order to be heard and gain a seat at the white-dominant beauty industry table.
For many who have public-facing jobs, including myriad professionals in the beauty industry, fears have only been amplified in the time of COVID-19 and an uptick in anti-Asian hate. Allure talked to seven prominent professionals in the beauty industry — including hairstylists, tattoo artists, and acupuncturists — to collect their thoughts surrounding the recent attacks, being AAPI in their respective fields, and how they've been offering support to their coworkers and employees during these troubling times.
Founder of Sundays, a nontoxic nail-care brand with studios located in New York City
When the pandemic hit, a few clients started feeling uneasy about being in the salon. We had incidents where clients asked to switch from an Asian nail specialist to someone who wasn't Asian. We also had employees who were scared when a nail specialist came back from China, despite the fact that she had received a negative COVID-19 test and done the full quarantine period. We had to explain the fact that going to China doesn't [automatically] mean she would have COVID-19 or bring it to the store. We communicated with staff and clients to be supportive of each other during this difficult time.
"We had incidents where clients asked to switch from an Asian nail specialist to someone who wasn't Asian."
From the time I launched Sundays in 2017, part of my mission was to change the stereotypes [surrounding] the nail salon industry. Asian immigrants are a very big part of our employee make-up, but in the industry, they are often viewed as non-English speakers who simply put their heads down to work. But I want clients and specialists to feel equal. So our nail specialists sit on a chair, just like our clients, and we require them to wear name tags — so that people remember their name instead of calling them "salon lady."
We will continue sharing stories on our blog and social media platforms about our employees, especially those of Asian descent, to humanize them. They all come from different countries with [unique] cultures and stories, and we want to celebrate their voices and individuality. Within the company, we have set up talks to provide mental support and send out notifications about safety procedures, such as going home together with other employees.
As soon as I heard the news [about the attacks], I sent messages to all of the Asian women working at our studios to be careful and stay safe. I felt myself struggling to find the right words to say; I knew they already felt sensitive and vulnerable. I didn't want them feeling even more fearful [hearing or seeing] my words. I don't think people know how sensitive people are when they don't speak English well and don't have [access to] information and resources.
Sandra Lanshin Chiu
Licensed acupuncturist, herbalist, and founder of Lanshin Studio in Brooklyn, New York
Profit-generating ingredients, innovations, and indigenous medicine practices [from AAPI cultures] are misappropriated by privileged classes.
Being AAPI myself, I'm in conversation with AAPI staff about what they've been experiencing. We feel heartbreak for the victims of hate crimes more than concern for our own safety. We're grateful to be in a safe neighborhood and haven't had to be overly cautious coming and going. Over half of my current team is BIPOC, so the topic of hate crimes is understood from their lived experience and the atmosphere has naturally been supportive. I'm grateful and proud of that. The support gives us strength that allows us to focus outward, where the AAPI community most needs it. I've committed five percent of monthly profits to organizations working to support the AAPI community.
We have open dialogue and communication about what's affecting us and our communities. I use my life experiences, when relevant, to help my younger team members through triggering situations that they encounter in their life outside of work. For a team that's majority BIPOC, none of this is new. It's normal to discuss these issues and provide guidance and support for each other.
I think the recent uptick in physical violence against the AAPI community has begun to help those outside of the community see and understand other forms of racism that are present.
AAPI cultures contribute a lot to the beauty and wellness industries, but the recognition and awareness around profit-generating ingredients, innovations, and indigenous medicine practices are misappropriated by privileged classes — rather than benefiting the AAPI brands and cultures they come from. For example, gua sha is a prized and valued East Asian medical practice that has been culturally appropriated by countless Western brands in the name of profit, resulting in the almost total erasure of the culture it comes from. That's a prime example of racism supported by the beauty and wellness industries. My hope is that it will be corrected in the months to come, as issues affecting the AAPI community continue to receive attention.
California-based hairstylist at Roil Salon
I am still trying to understand how to turn the grief and discomfort into something powerful and positive.
I have always enjoyed working at the salon but the pandemic has really made me extra grateful to be in the salon surrounded by peers. It feels good to do hair [and spend] time with clients, and I'm energized by the work people around me are creating.
I feel overwhelmed with emotion — like a big flashback of all the racism I've experienced in my lifetime. I remember just recently seeing a Korean model on the window of Sephora, which made me cry. I felt seen in this world for the first time. I'm still processing everything that has happened and [continues to] happen. I am still trying to understand how it makes me feel and how to turn the grief and discomfort into something powerful and positive. The fetishizing of Asian women is something I've dealt with my entire life. I only hope that we can continue to expand our ideas of beauty. Again, still emotional — trying to figure it out.
Resident artist at Blind Reason Tattoo in New York City
Due to the pandemic, the shop hours became shorter and I couldn't take in as many clients as I would have pre-COVID. Because I can't tattoo as many people in one day as before, my books seem to fill more quickly, too. There was also a limit placed on the shop's capacity, so no additional guests are allowed for the time being. Traveling clients became trickier to book as well. One thing that didn't change is that I definitely take the time to clean thoroughly.
The situation now [with NYC lifting restrictions] has gotten a bit better in terms of traveling clients; however, there hasn't been much overall that has changed. We still do not allow guests to come inside during appointments and we still require masks to be worn at all times. As for the capacity, however, we are able to have more clients inside at the same time.
We were officially asked to close on March 22, 2020, but our shop decided to close a week earlier on March 16 because, despite our asks, clients weren't following mask guidelines at the time. When the lockdown first started, [my coworkers and I] reposted each other's works to get people to see different artists and to spread awareness of different styles and such. Since we couldn't tattoo, it was difficult to actually do much, but we also participated in drawing challenges to help us stay creative.
We were allowed to reopen on July 6, 2020. The announcement was very sudden, but the shop took great measures to make sure everything was set for reopening, including retraining the staff and [stocking up on] PPE equipment.
I really, really appreciate everyone who has supported me through this pandemic — and in general. I collaborated with other businesses such as Inkbox and Love Your Mom, which was great because I got to create things that weren't [necessarily] an act of tattooing. Some clients reached out and offered to book an appointment for when the shop did reopen, which I was very grateful for. Some people even asked for commissioned drawings as well. After we reopened amidst the recent violence against the AAPI community, I decided to host a fundraiser for the cause. An overwhelming amount of people came out in support.
Recently, [I found out that] the owner of an influential tattoo brand used racist gestures to describe us. As an individual artist who loved their products, it was extremely disappointing to see this sort of behavior. While the video was from a few years back, it still left an impression, and the apology that followed was even more upsetting. However, there still has been a lot of support for the AAPI tattoo community.
New York City-based hairstylist at Three Degrees Salon
Work has felt unsafe since the pandemic began. We only take the customers who have appointments, no walk-ins. Fortunately, our door is always locked — and when our customers come in, we unlock the door. We changed our business hours because sometimes the city is scary in terms of strangers after 8 p.m. We set up partitions between each chair. We also try to work with at least two hairstylists in the salon as much as possible, even when one of the hairstylists has finished their own job. We try not to remain alone.
Thankfully, we and our customers have respected each other. But it's very scary because there may be people who try to imitate [hate crimes] and cause turmoil in the wake of those racist incidents. But I think children are better educated nowadays.
[Now that NYC is opening back up,] we have been keeping the same rules [in terms of] hours and setup, but we can have 75 percent capacity and I'm able to work with three coworkers. That's so reassuring for me. Also, I got pepper spray just in case. I never thought that I would need it, which is a bit sad, but it's getting crowded everywhere, and I feel like I still need to be careful. Most of my Asian customers told me that they [still] don't take the subway and try to take Ubers because of the hate crimes happening.
Fortunately, I have been busy these days. Since vaccinations are on the rise, a lot of people want to get their hair done before the summer. That is so wonderful and creates a lot of positive energy.
Founder and CEO of Wink Brow Bar with locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York City
As a member of the salon industry, we already had a large reduction in the number of customers coming in. I think the pandemic has hit us, nail salons, and massage parlors deeply and made us vulnerable, considering that we mainly employ minority women. Even though we put a lot of check-in procedures [in place] to ensure the safety of our guests, increased our disposable supplies, and limited our occupancy, we have still seen sales dramatically reduced.
"I hope we do all that we can to bring our communities together and acknowledge the challenges we face as Asian Americans today."
On top of all this, as an Asian American spa owner who employs people from Nepali and Asian backgrounds, I have never before been so worried about safety and the impact [the rise in anti-Asian hate] may have on my business. After the spa shootings, I considered adding buzzers to my spa doors for safety and not [staying open] late.
Although we hire anyone who is a great fit for the brand, we currently hire mostly women from Nepal, Egypt, Pakistan, and South America, as well as China and Korea. When Asian-related hate crimes started spiking, some of our staff were very scared to come into work on the subway. We gave them the space they needed and allowed them to stay home until they felt comfortable. We also offered to have them Uber'ed over at the company's cost and were never dismissive of their concerns — and we absorbed all costs of any outstanding services that the women were not able to perform. We also added extra security cameras in the salons.
The general consensus we have seen is that customers are aware that Asians (Chinese people, in particular) are not to blame for the pandemic. We also find, though, that customers do tend to err on the side of caution and not know what to say to the staff members. They show their kindness by overtipping the staff and being super polite.
My particular spa and industry at large have led with threading, a skill that mainly comes from the East, including India, Pakistan, and other Asian countries. Many young women have moved away from salon professions and don't feel comfortable working in spas anymore — hence [there's been] a reduction in the pool of talent.
I currently serve as a Lotus Circle Advisor for the Asia Foundation, which serves [women across] 18 different countries in Asia [in the fight] against violence and gender discrimination. As an Asian American woman, I hope to see economic opportunities, growth, and futures for entrepreneurs and women from our backgrounds both in the U.S. and across the globe. As a mother of two, the Long Island caustic acid attack really scared me. I see my daughter in that girl and hope we do all that we can to bring our communities together and acknowledge the challenges we face as Asian Americans today.
Founder and CEO of Ada Lip Beauty
[Anti-Asian racism] isn't anything new; it's been happening right under everyone's noses.
I think people are starting to understand our frustrations as more and more stories come out. People just have to be open to see and listen. I think the Asian community is very, very tired though. [Anti-Asian racism] isn't anything new; it's been happening right under everyone's noses. But it's just now getting noticed because it's been jet-fueled by wrong notions set forth by really bad people. It had to take [a mass shooting] for the rest of the nation to wake up.
Also, more specifically, that fox eye trend has got to go! Asian people have been mocked for so long for slanted eyes and other races pulling their eyes back while hurling racist phrases at us. All of a sudden it's a beauty trend? I still see beauty influencers posting tutorials during these times; please educate yourself.
Voice your concerns. See if upper management listens and takes action. If nothing is done, at least you understand the lay of the land now. Make plans to secure a job at another company that has initiatives that are in line with your values. You can have a bigger impact there.
These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
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