When mass shootings target a marginalized group, trauma ripples through those communities

“There is this automatic melancholy,” Risher said. “Because now you know there is another group of people out there that’s getting ready to go through hell.”

March 16 marked a turning point for many Asian Americans: It was the day their community was stricken by a mass shooting, becoming the latest minority group to suffer an attack that killed several of its own.

There’s a specific kind of grief that arises from being targeted, one that more and more marginalized people in the United States know too well. The shooting survivors and victims’ family members span geographies, races and religions, but they are bonded by the shared trauma they have experienced.

These tragedies often leave many in those communities who weren’t directly affected feeling unsafe and traumatized. After a shooting, many members of these communities say they felt hyper-aware of their race and an escalated sense of fear that the same could happen to them or those they love. A mass shooting seems less senseless or inexplicable when it’s directed at one of your own.

“It’s not a situation anymore where you can just wake up and go out,” said Arah Kang, 25, a Korean American in Atlanta who didn’t know those killed at the spas but now keeps a stun gun in her car and carries pepper spray on her key chain. “You become hyper aware of your racial identity, because the way [you] look is what’s putting a target on your back.”

More than 700 miles away in Chicago, Mindy Hong has been gripping a can of pepper spray as she walks her dog.

“The shooting made me realize that it could be worse than being verbally harassed or physically attacked,” said Hong, 29, a second-generation Chinese American. “You could be murdered.”

Monnica Williams, a psychology professor and mental health disparities scholar at the University of Ottawa, said mass shootings that target marginalized communities can cause a collective racial trauma among members, sometimes manifesting in depression, anxiety and other mental and physical illnesses.

“Part of the grief around it is knowing that you’re in a country where the society does not have your back,” Williams said. “That’s what’s hard to wrap your head around — it’s a sense of betrayal.”

That betrayal was felt in 2012 when a gunman killed seven worshipers at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and then again in 2015 when another gunman killed nine at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. It was felt a year after that, when a gunman opened fire at the Pulse night club in Orlando, killing 49 clubgoers, many of them LGBTQ-identifying and Latino. And in 2018, when a gunman killed 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life building — and a year later, when another gunman fired shots in a Poway, Calif., synagogue. And that betrayal was felt in 2019 when a gunman opened fire in an El Paso Walmart and killed 23 people, most of them Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals.

And then last month, a man with a self-described sex addiction allegedly opened fire at three Atlanta-area spas known for employing Asian American women, leaving eight people dead. Although authorities have yet to label it a hate crime or say that race was a motivating factor, many Asian Americans see the shootings as an attack on their entire race.

Residents paid their respects on March 18 at makeshift memorials outside three Atlanta-area spas where eight people, including six Asian women, were shot. (Ian Cone, Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Bonds have formed between these grieving communities: An El Paso survivor has checked in on a victim’s daughter in Charleston for every tragic anniversary, trial update or subsequent mass shooting — including this one. The Tree of Life synagogue has dedicated itself to supporting other survivors, its rabbi saying in a statement that “we know the pain and stinging loss” Asian Americans are experiencing. Black and Asian American artists came together to paint a mural in Atlanta reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop Asian Hate,” a picture of clasped multicolored hands between them.

In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, Risher’s phone and social media lit up with messages.

“That’s how survivors, all of us, are able to get through. You check in on each other,” Risher said. “You know the person who reached out to you knows exactly the feeling of trauma and grief and heartache you’ve been going through.”

Charleston

The 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church wasn’t just an attack on the victims and their families, said Malcolm Graham, whose sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, was one of nine victims.

“It was an attack on a race of people,” said Graham, a Charlotte City Council member. “And that attack has been going on in this country well over 200 years. That’s something that you just don’t get over, that you can say ‘I forgive you’ or sweep under the rug. . . . You never get over it.”

When another mass shooting targets another set of people based on race or religion, Graham said the trauma resurfaces.

“When these events happen, it brings back so much memories of what happened in Charleston because it’s basically the same pattern of things,” he said, describing the United States as if it were a stuck record, constantly repeating the same verse — the same kinds of attacks, the same groups of people getting hurt.

Risher, the minister who lost her mother in the church shooting, said the Atlanta attack reminded her again of the obstacles she’s faced as a Black woman, and the ones Asian American women face, too.

“Every which way you turn around, America has done something to marginalize a group of people. And they are not wanting to let that power go,” she said. “People will die before they let that power go.”

Pittsburgh

Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said his synagogue practices the “ministry of presence” — a phrase he learned from the Rev. Eric Manning of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. After mass shootings, synagogue members reach out to the affected communities and let them know that they’re present, they’re listening.

The Georgia massacre “increases the fear level now of all Asian Americans who prayed, ‘Am I next?’ And I know how that feels, to have your community wonder, ‘Am I next?’ ” said Myers, a survivor of the deadliest attack against Jews on American soil.

Fliers that Asian American restaurants posted in the synagogue’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood after the 2018 Pittsburgh shooting to show their support for the Jewish community have been recirculating in recent weeks. One read: “Many of our business members have thrived in this city particularly in Squirrel Hill, and if we shared in this good fortune, then we bear the burdens.”

It was a reminder that Asian Americans and Jews shared similar status as minority communities in the United States — and now, communities affected by mass shootings.

The suspected Tree of Life gunman’s animus toward the Jewish community appeared to arise not solely out of traditional antisemitism but also out of anger that many Jewish people are allies and advocates for immigrants and refugees, according to social media posts identified by authorities. Their intercultural spirit was part of why they were targeted, and in the wake of the attacks, it is how they began to heal, Jewish faith leaders said.

“We will never be totally healed — we’ll always be healing. Because when these mass shootings occur it rips the scab right back off,” the rabbi said. “We hope what we’ve learned can be of value to other communities. I wish we never had to post anything or call anybody or say anything. But we are here, and that’s part of who we are now.”

Unlike Black, Brown and Asian mass-shooting victims, many of those affected by the synagogue shooting can choose whether they want to show their identity in public, and how. And after the tragedy — despite the fear it inspired — many Jews felt their faith and pride grow.

Jeff Finkelstein, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said he arrived at the Tree of Life building while the shooter was still inside. Just one week after the tragedy, as he headed to synagogue, he deliberately put on his kippa, a traditional cap, before he reached the building.

“I wanted to show that I’m not scared to be Jewish, because I wasn’t,” Finkelstein said. “This was an incident, it was horrible, but it was one incident and I wasn’t going to let it keep me from living my life as an American and as a Jew.”

El Paso

Luis Calvillo, 34, was recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his time deployed with the Army in Iraq when he was shot five times at Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019. He dove under the bake sale table of the soccer team he coaches to save himself.

That feeling of adrenaline and fear came rushing back to him when he saw the news out of Atlanta.

“I just put myself in their shoes and I prayed they will come out all right,” said Calvillo, whose 61-year-old father, Jorge Calvillo Garcia, was one of 23 people killed in the shooting.

The shootings in El Paso, Atlanta and elsewhere left many pondering what pushed the gunmen to such acts of hatred.

“I keep on wondering, ‘What goes through the head of those people? To start to go and shoot so many people, as many as they can?’ ” said Francoise Feliberti, a volunteer for the El Paso soccer league Paso Del Norte Soccer Association, which includes the team Calvillo coaches.

The suspected Texas gunman, who faces 90 counts of federal hate-crime and firearms charges, had set out to kill Mexicans and Mexican Americans to prevent the “the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” according to a manifesto he allegedly posted online.

He did what many mass shooters have done before him — he cited a previous shooting, in this case the New Zealand mosque tragedy, where 51 Muslims were killed. The result was the deadliest hate-driven homicide event since FBI hate-crime reporting began three decades ago, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

The shooters “still believe on the White empowerment that was given years back and they want to continue with their empowerment,” Calvillo said.

“That’s why we get targeted,” he said, and that’s why they’re not the only ones.

Since surviving the shooting, Calvillo has opted to open-carry a gun to protect himself.

“That’s what we have come to. It’s sad that we have to go to violence instead of just civil matters, but it is what it is,” he said, adding: “It’s very sad who we’ve become.”

Atlanta

These mass shootings follow a similar pattern.: A gunman shows up, and then the police. The news cameras arrive, and soon after, the public outrage. The calls for action rise as the makeshift memorials grow. Donations to families and causes flow from across the country.

And then there are the funerals. And the slow disappearance from the public eye.

The mass shootings follow similar patterns, and Atlanta was no different.

Alexis Suh, 28, recently attended a victim’s funeral in Atlanta. An old Korean ballad played during the service, and victims’ family members spoke about the woman they’d lost: a typical Korean grandmother who loved her children and especially doted on her grandchildren.

“That shook me,” said Suh, who didn’t know the victim or her family, but in many ways felt as though she did.

Since the shooting, Suh, a real estate finance attorney in Atlanta, installed a security system for her home. She has found herself repeating a new refrain to her friends and family: “Be safe.”

Along with recalculating risk, the attack caused many to reexamine cultural norms.

“There is a very big sense of betrayal. Confusion and betrayal. Because we’ve been fed that if we just do the right things, put our head down, work hard, harm wouldn’t be done to us. That we would be protected by America,” Suh said.

That was a lie, she said, and March 16 proved it.

But amid the grief, she is reminded of the Korean word “jung.”

It has no English translation, and it’s difficult to define. It describes a sense of solidarity, connection and understanding even among strangers; an intangible, collective bond between people; an inexplicable desire to care for one another.

Jung is “what defines our community, and that’s what’s come out the most,” said Suh. “Sometimes love is communicated in the Western world and the Eastern world very differently. But there’s still so much love.”