I am them, they are us

An Asian American nurse’s reflections on the murders in Atlanta

By Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN

I am them. They are us.

When I first saw the names of the eight people murdered last week in Atlanta, I knew immediately in my gut that this was a crime motivated by racism.

As a registered nurse, I devote myself to valuing life, to upholding human dignity, to seeing and caring for each patient as an individual human being. The huge surge in racially motivated attacks on people of Asian descent and this most recent massacre, which killed six Asian working-class, immigrant women, is the complete opposite of everything we nurses stand for. The Stop AAPI Hate coalition on March 16, the morning of the shootings, issued an updated hate incidents report documenting nearly 3,800 incidents from March 19, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021, with women attacked 2.5 times more than men.

Targeting people for violence because of whatever racial or ethnic group they happen to belong to necessarily involves dehumanizing them, otherizing them, and stripping them of their individual worth. But this line of thinking doesn’t just “happen.” People aren’t born to hate. It is our structurally racist society — through laws and public policy, institutional practices, cultural representations, and social norms — that socializes all of us to devalue anyone who is not white (many people call this white supremacy), that makes it acceptable to harm people of color based on those beliefs, and that largely lets this violence go unchallenged, ignored, or excused.

I and many, many of my fellow Asian nurse colleagues are grieving with the families of the dead and are ourselves processing the deep trauma, fear, sorrow, pain, and anger we are all feeling. As the president of a labor union championing the care work of predominantly women, including many Asian immigrants, these murders strike so close to home because the circumstances of our situations are very, very similar.

As an immigrant, I came from the Philippines, like so many of my colleagues, to the United States more than 45 years ago to attend nursing school in Chicago because I was searching for more opportunities and a chance to better my family’s standard of living. One of the main reasons conditions are so bad at home and we are pushed to leave can be traced back to a history of global colonialism, imperialism, and war, where Western countries exploited the labor and natural resources of people of color. We are constantly in pursuit of a better life.

So were these women.

As an Asian American registered nurse, popular culture fetishizes and sexualizes not only my predominantly female profession, but also Asian women. Double whammy. Again, this can be traced back to U.S. laws, such as the 1875 Page Act (which forbade immigration by Asian women because we were all assumed to be prostitutes), film tropes, and interactions by U.S. military servicemen with locals during wars in Asia — a dynamic that results in rampant sexual violence against Asian women near military bases today. Though I am a scientist, have undergone extensive and often specialized education, training, and testing, and must hold a professional license to practice nursing, I am portrayed in media and Halloween costumes as simply a plaything to fulfill others’ sexual fantasies and desires.

So were these women.

As working people, we all deserve to be treated fairly and to have safe workplaces. Throughout the history of the United States, Asian immigrants have taken on some of the most dangerous jobs for the lowest pay. Today, nurses experience some of the highest rates of workplace violence among all professions, whether it be verbal or physical. And our employers have failed to protect us from the Covid-19 pandemic, even as we risked our own lives to save others. From the limited fatality data National Nurses United has been able to collect, we know that a disproportionate percentage of nurses of Philippines descent in the United States have died from Covid — about a quarter of all U.S. nurses even though we represent about 4 percent of the RN workforce here. These low-wage massage parlor workers were killed while on the job. We are all just trying to stay safe, stay alive while providing for our families.

So were these women.

Nurses know that to heal and ultimately cure a patient, you must resolve the root problem. All other treatments are simply a Band-aid and won’t be effective long term.

So when we consider violence against Asians, against Blacks, against Latinx, against Indigenous peoples, against the LGBTQ+ community, against certain religions, or against other identities, let’s properly name the cause: structural racism. And violence can come in the form of a man with a gun, or it can come in the form of an insurance deductible for a colonoscopy that you skip because you have no way of paying, or in the form of substandard housing next to a toxic fracking site.

Structural racism permeates every facet of our lives and society. Nurses know more police and more prisons won’t do a thing to fix the root problem, and could actually endanger the very communities we are trying to protect.

Challenging and tearing down the racist systems that undergird our entire society, and rebuilding one that is equitable, just, and treats all people humanely, is daunting and tons of work. But it is quite doable. As union nurses, we do it every day at our workplaces, in the halls of Congress, and in our communities through our collective voice and power. I myself realized the power of my union when I challenged a job transfer I was denied because of racism; I won.

Groups in our Asian communities have already been fighting structural racism for decades; Asian Americans have a proud tradition of resisting racist immigration laws since the 1880s and, more recently, political organizing dating back to at least the 1960s civil rights movement in solidarity with Black and Brown activists. That’s why we nurses are wholeheartedly supporting these organizations’ community-based efforts to fight structural racism, such as educational and restorative justice programs that humanize us all; culturally and language-appropriate support services for all affected people; and investment in the basic needs and infrastructure that would eliminate the motivation to turn to violence.

We are not just victims who have things happen to them. We are people who make things happen. When we organize together, it is possible to create a world where all people are valued as individual human beings, and I and other nurses will never stop fighting for that goal.

I am them. They are us.

National Nurses United is planning workshops and other events to help nurses process this trauma and collectively work toward justice. Check out our social justice and equity webpage and social media accounts for updates and how to join.

National Nurses United, with more than 175,000 members nationwide, is the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in U.S. history.