Julia Lee is angry. And she has questions.
What does it mean to be Asian in America? What does it look like to be an ally or an accomplice? How can we shatter the structures of white supremacy that fuel racial stratification?
When Julia was fifteen, her hometown went up in smoke during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The daughter of Korean immigrant store owners in a predominantly Black neighborhood, Julia was taught to be grateful for the privilege afforded to her. However, the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of Rodney King, following the murder of Latasha Harlins by a Korean shopkeeper, forced Julia to question her racial identity and complicity. She was neither Black nor white. So who was she?
This question would follow Julia for years to come, resurfacing as she traded in her tumultuous childhood for the white upper echelon of elite academia. It was only when she began a PhD in English that she found answers―not through studying Victorian literature, as Julia had planned, but rather in the brilliant prose of writers like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. Their works gave Julia the vocabulary and, more important, the permission to critically examine her own tortured position as an Asian American, setting off a powerful journey of racial reckoning, atonement, and self-discovery.
With prose by turns scathing and heart-wrenching, Julia lays bare the complex disorientation and shame that stem from this country’s imposed racial hierarchy. And she argues that Asian Americans must work toward lasting social change alongside Black and brown communities in order to combat the scarcity culture of white supremacy through abundance and joy. In this passionate, no-holds-barred memoir, Julia interrogates her own experiences of marginality and resistance, and ultimately asks what may be the biggest question of all―what can we do?
Remember that antiracist work that everyone was doing back in 2020 and 2021? If that was you and you have since neglected doing the work, then this is the book for you. And if you never started doing the work, this is also for you.
In the U.S., we often assume that racism equates to anti-Blackness. We treat race as a binary – Black or white – and ignore Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx peoples in the discussion of racism. Or if we do include Latinx and Native people, we skip over the “model minority” – Asians – as they are frequently considered white-adjacent.
In Biting the Hand, Julia Lee discusses this racial binary and her struggle of growing up Asian American within this culture. In three distinct parts titled “Rage,” “Shame,” and “Grace,” Lee guides readers through her struggle with racial identity, occupying white-centered spaces, finding her footing as a professor of African American and Caribbean literature, and rejecting a compulsory allegiance to whiteness.
Throughout the book, Lee uses works by critical race theorists, diasporic literary scholars, activists, and writers of color. I loved how Lee tied her personal stories with these ideas, philosophies, and theories from the lexicon of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous thinkers. For me, this added depth and complexity to the narrative while also providing context from the broad experience of minorities in a white-supremacist country. It is important to note that Lee discusses these principles in an accessible manner so that readers of all education levels can understand.
In addition, I loved that Lee centers her memoir within the context of America’s racial binary. As a white person, I cannot say that I fully understood race as a binary system before reading Biting the Hand. Lee easily demonstrates this concept by recounting her experience as a child of Korean business owners during the 1992 LA Uprising. Through this and other stories, Lee shows how she struggled in a system that positions minorities to see other people of color as rivals. She further explains how this dangerously exacerbates interracial tension and fails to acknowledge the socioeconomic disparities among the diverse range of Asian American communities.
Because I read Biting the Hand as an audiobook, it is hard for me to comment on Lee’s writing. What I can say is I found the book compelling and intellectually engaging. While I love authors narrating their own books, I particularly appreciated that Lee did not shy away from her raw emotion. This made the book even more powerful.
Overall, Biting the Hand is an important work that merges memoir, social commentary, and race studies while exploring the unique experience of Asian Americans in the U.S. I really enjoyed this book and will be buying a physical copy to read again soon. I highly recommend it regardless of your race and especially if you are interested in dismantling white supremacy in this country.
Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in Black & White America
Humanities & Social Science
April 18, 2023
Note: I received an audio galley of this book from the publisher, Macmillan Audio. Regardless, I always provide a fair and honest review.