Essay by Lecturer John Han
As a Korean immigrant, Knoxville was my first American "home." My father is a University of Tennessee Knoxville alumnus who earned his Ph.D. in Microbiology. While he was a graduate student here during the late 70s, my family endured our share of racism. My mother was denied job opportunities because her English wasn't "up to par" and was forced to work at a sweatshop. When my 80-year-old grandmother visited us, she chased down an ice cream truck because it refused to stop for Asians. While I was too young to understand the epithets hurled at me and my family, our cultural experiences in the States taught us to keep our head down, not to engage, and hope to be "invisible" to those who wished us ill.
After moving to different parts of the country (New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Indianapolis), I understood that our experience in America as Asian-American necessarily came with discrimination no matter where we lived. But again, I felt invisible in largely white communities. Decades later with some measure of serendipity, I returned to Knoxville as faculty for the English Department at UT. But the Knoxville I remembered had fundamentally changed: it had transformed into a more diverse and culturally sensitive space where I wouldn't have to chase down an ice cream truck.
Unfortunately, 2020 exposed the racism that still exists in this country and that has been targeting minorities: African-Americans have been victims of police brutality; Hispanics face immigrant detention facilities and forceful removal; and now Asian-Americans are beginning to become "visible" for all the wrong reasons. Yesterday, I learned that even putting our heads down would not spare us from the new pandemic of racism as we learned that six Asians were gunned down in Atlanta, four of whom were Korean-Americans like my parents who were trying to carve out a life in this country.
Over the next few days, news outlets will report on this incident as a watershed moment for the increasing vulnerability of Asian-Americans. However, I worry about the way "Asian-American" will collapse the experiences of the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipinos, and other Asian populations that each have their own distinct racial history into one name or label. This is still a form of discrimination. Likely, the shooter did not observe those distinctions as well. Thus, it's important to recognize the many historical layers of Asian-American racism (Chinese-American rail workers, Japanese-Americans interned in camps; Koreans targeted in the LA riots). We should endeavor to untangle the interconnected, complex, and historical roots of racism for all minorities. Don't turn us into a news bite or let us be swept into a narrative that effaces the multiculturalism of Asian immigrants. We've been invisible far too long, and now we know what that visibility looks like in 2021.
I earned a Ph.D. in English precisely to speak for my mother when she couldn't, to teach UT students the power of language and the value of the humanities to staunch America's wound, and hopefully to help usher in a new generation of sensitive, ethical, and sympathetic Volunteers.
By John Han