When Korean American author Julia Lee was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 2000s, her instructor cracked a joke about a dog who was taken to the back of a Korean restaurant and eaten. As her classmates laughed, she turned “hot with anger and shame.” Instead of confronting her teacher, the next day Lee wore a bright red “Angry Little Asian Girl” T-shirt to class. “In retrospect,” Lee writes, “putting on the T-shirt was a dumb way to protest, but it was the only way I could tell my teacher ‘fuck you.’”
Lee is now an associate professor of English at Loyola Marymount University, focusing on African American and Caribbean literature—and she is no longer silent. Her memoir, Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in Black and White America, seamlessly blends her own experiences with piercing discussions of identity and racial stratification, serving up conclusions likely to challenge readers across the ideological spectrum. In fact, recognizing the need for constant reexamination in our white-centered society, Lee even challenges her own views. At a 2018 academic conference, for instance, she realized, “My brain had calcified. I was resistant to change. Gender pronouns puzzled me. Land acknowledgments confused me. My immediate response was to react like lots of people do—blame it on woke culture run amok or mock how cringingly earnest my colleagues were. It was always other people’s fault that I felt uncomfortable—not mine.”
In sections titled “Rage,” “Shame” and “Grace,” Lee traces her intellectual evolution through the events of her own life. She demonstrates a knack for meaningful storytelling as she recounts her father’s harrowing escape from North Korea as a child, and her enrollment at a private all-girls school in a wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood while her parents struggled to make ends meet. In L.A., Lee was “a little Asian girl, thrown against what Zora Neale Hurston calls a ‘sharp white background.’” In 1992, at age 15, she witnessed firsthand the riots that occurred after a jury acquitted four police officers for physically battering Rodney King during a traffic stop. Lee writes that it was a “primal scene of racial awakening—for myself and for the Korean American community. We were not white. We were not Black. We were caught somewhere in the middle.”
Later, as a Princeton undergraduate, Lee felt herself “drowning” amid a whole system “built upon whiteness and in service of whiteness.” Along the way, she contended with depression, culturally clueless therapists, an angry mother and feelings of isolation when she became a parent. At Harvard, she got what she calls “life-saving” advice from novelist Jamaica Kincaid: “You must bite the hand that feeds you,” meaning that she must dare to critique the culture of white supremacy even when that culture expects her to be grateful just for being allowed into elite spaces.
Biting the Hand is an exceptional account of an evolving understanding of power and privilege, offering readers insightful new ways to examine their world.