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'Biting the Hand': Korean American author calls for weaponizing invisibility

Julia Lee's book cover for <em>Biting the Hand: Growing up Asian in Black and White America.</em>
Henry Holt
Julia Lee's book cover for Biting the Hand: Growing up Asian in Black and White America.

Updated April 19, 2023 at 7:19 AM ET

Julia Lee once had a mentor who told her, "You must bite the hand that feeds you." That phrase informed how she saw the world, as she told NPR's Michel Martin in an interview about her memoir, Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in Black and White America.

The lesson Lee learned from that piece of advice was, "All the structures of power make those of us in marginalized positions feel like we can't speak out, we can't resist," she said. "And one of our obligations is to bite back, to bite the hand that feeds us in order to speak up for justice — for social justice."

Lee's parents are Korean immigrants who landed in Los Angeles and worked long hours at sometimes dangerous jobs to give their children a chance at the American dream: prep schools, Ivy League universities and prestigious jobs.

She was a teenager in 1992, when four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted after savagely beating Rodney King. An uprising followed in L.A. In the weeks thereafter, Lee saw racial tension explode in her own community in the aftermath of another violent event. Soon Ja Du, a Korean American liquor store owner in L.A., was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for shooting an unarmed Black teenager who she falsely accused of shoplifting; but her sentence was suspended and she was placed on probation.

The author Julia Lee.
Tara Pixley / Henry Holt
/
Henry Holt
The author Julia Lee.

Nearly 30 years later, as social justice campaigns rose up spontaneously across the country after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, Lee started to reflect on her own experiences with racism in the U.S.

In Biting the Hand, Lee confronts the way that the Asian America experience is often ignored by the U.S.'s dominant black and white racial binary. In her memoir, she works through the realization that she had been missing out on a sense of who she is and where she fits into a country that sees whiteness as the standard by which all else should be judged.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On constantly being mistaken for an ethnicity other than her own

I'm really trying to figure out why I'm not legible, why I am not visible or readable to other people. When people look at me, they see somebody who is foreign or somebody who is vaguely "oriental." And there's the sense that we're all the same or that we can all be slotted into one category.

On defining her peers as either 'too White' or 'too Asian'

When you're in a position in which you are a distinct minority, then you start to see other people of color as rivals rather than as allies. There is so little space for you — there's such scarcity — and so you fight with other people who are of your same identity in order to get the spoils. It's evil and it's destructive.

On self-loathing in her Asian American community

It's hard to share those stories because and part of me hates often reading about people of color who go through this period of self-loathing. Now that I am older and wiser, I just want to reach out and say, stop it. Don't deprecate yourself. But what I've realized is that it's foolish to blame the victim, because that is what it is. The victim is just trying to survive. And so when they develop this sense of self-hatred, that's because the system has taught them to hate themselves. It's not their "fault" that they don't have more race pride or something like that.

On how she sees herself today

That position of invisibility is actually an incredible position of power. Cathy Park Hong, an Asian American poet, writes about how invisibility can be weaponized. Ralph Ellison, great Black novelist, also writes about this in his famous work, Invisible Man. Asian Americans might reside in a position of existential invisibility and yet that also makes us incredibly powerful and subversive, because nobody is looking at us, and we are looking at everything.

On what keeps her hopeful at a time of rising anti-Asian violence

I find incredible solace and inspiration in young people today. They have this capacity to make connections across race, ethnicity, gender and sexual identity, and an ability to think more flexibly. Seeing a racially diverse group of supporters at George Floyd marches, including young Asian Americans, standing up and saying, no, this hate against black people does not just affect black people. It affects all of us.

Adam Bearne produced the audio version of this interview and Miranda Kennedy edited the digital. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.