first person

Was That Racism?

I ask myself this question almost every day.

Illustration: by The Cut; Photos by Getty
Illustration: by The Cut; Photos by Getty

The class of 1995 exited the ceremony to the slightly flat tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” played by non-graduating members of the high-school marching band. I was caught in a crowd of revelers just outside the chain-link fence that enclosed the track that enclosed the football field. The sun was starting to set. Finally I could be free of this place. But more urgently, I was hot.

I found respite beyond the edge of the celebratory mob. Soon my parents would find me, a flash of shiny black hair in the sea of blondes and browns and reds. I would obligingly pose for a million photos with my cheek-pinching, non-English-speaking grandparents. My mom would direct us in loud Korean to scooch closer, open our eyes as wide as we could, and smile. My halmoni, my dad’s mother, was so proud; on a steamy day in June, she wore a gleaming white hanbok made of stiff, unbreathable silk. My classmates would stare and whisper, and their moms would wonder if the bow was coming undone or meant to be tied asymmetrically like that.

I had made it this far trying to convince myself and everyone else that I was white like them, that we were all the same. We took the same classes, played the same sports, liked the same music. But on this final day of high school, the last day I’d have to keep up appearances before escaping to a college I had chosen in part for its “high” number of students of color — around 30 percent — my cover was blown.

A finger sternly tapped my shoulder; it wasn’t my mom’s. I turned around and my sweaty squint met a pair of piercing blue eyes framed by crusty mascara. I knew these eyes — I’d seen them before from the same close distance. These eyes belonged to the principal, and they meant I was in trouble. I’d seen them up close when she had demanded to know if I was behind the underground newspaper that exposed (among other secrets) a list of books banned by the local school board for their “mature” themes and language. I had lied and said, “I’m sorry, ma’am. You’ve got the wrong person.” She’d summoned me a second time to explain why I felt entitled to petition the board of education for permission to write my senior thesis on Toni Morrison: “There are so many wonderful writers. Can’t you find another?” When I told her that Morrison had won the Pulitzer for Beloved in 1988, she looked surprised. A few days later, the chair of the English department informed me that he had put an end to the controversy and that I should carry on with my thesis, full stop.

At graduation, the principal had one last thing to say to me: “The thing you will always remember about today, young lady, is that you made this graduation a total farce. You should be ashamed.” I knew what she was talking about, but by design, the graduation prank I’d helped execute earlier in the day had been geeky and innocent. Was I really so awful to warrant such harsh words?

I contemplated replying with “Go to hell, you fucking bitch” — school’s out forever, I have my diploma, what could she do? — but I was too scared of backlash against my parents, both doctors and respected members of the community.

Moments later, the principal was gone, but the damage was done. I had inhaled her menacing glow down into my chest, a lacrosse ball of tightness that, more than two decades later, remains “stuck” in spite of all the New Age–y things I do to “release” it. Could she see my shame?

One question I didn’t ask myself that day: Was that racism?

Twenty-five years later, my news feed exploded with breaking news: A white man in Atlanta had gunned down eight people, six of them Asian women who worked at spas. Authorities didn’t talk long before building a narrative around the suspect’s sex addiction, not his racism, as a motive for the killings, and the media amplified the police’s hesitation to call the massacre a hate crime. It seemed the public was being begged to entertain any motive for the killer — sex addiction, the grip of evangelism, he was simply having a bad day — except for racism. On Twitter, Asian and Asian American voices streamed in with a counter-narrative: Stop gaslighting us. This is racism.

The next morning, I opened my front door to deposit a long-dead Christmas wreath in the trash bin outside, and my dog bolted out the door. I called his name, and for a moment I thought he might come, until he noticed another dog nearby walking with its owner and sprinted toward them, barking excitedly. I ran inside to grab my shoes and the leash, which, in all fairness, the other dog owner might have construed as my abandonment of the situation. When I returned to the scene, the man, who appeared elderly and white, intermittently yelled at my dog and mumbled angrily at me.

“Sir, please, I’m sorry,” I pleaded. “Can you help by staying still or walking toward me? If your dog comes, mine will follow. Please!”

His next move surprised me, if only because I’d normally attribute it to someone far younger — a toddler, perhaps. The man started to walk away, picking up his knees as if trotting in jest, looking back at me with disdain and fear that I found inexplicable. His face scrunched in anger. He screamed “No, no! I won’t! No! No!” while sideways-trotting into a four-way intersection fortunately devoid of cars. He tugged on his dog’s leash, which only made his dog lunge more powerfully toward me. Meanwhile, my dog’s barking escalated into full-on panic.

Another man, who also appeared elderly and white, showed up seemingly out of nowhere, also with his dog on a leash. He understood what I was asking of the other dog owner, and much to my relief, he commanded his dog to stay put — which redirected my dog’s attention our way. I swiftly leashed my dog and thanked the man for pausing on my behalf. Then he squared his body toward mine and issued this reprimand: “Lady, you need to get that dog on a leash.” Isn’t that what I’d just done?

I returned to my house perplexed. Was that racism?

I could not know. Instead, I berated myself for not getting rid of the wreath sooner and for stupidly leaving the door ajar and told myself yes, he’s right, you should have this dog on a leash and Why did you get this dog anyway? and Don’t you know better by now than to expect people to be kind? The fault was my own for being mindless and naïve, not with them for reacting with outsize anger.

It’s time for me to admit that I’ve left out a detail — in service of narrative technique or what have you — in the story of my high-school graduation. I did know why the principal was mad, but at the time, I wasn’t sure why she had singled me out. With the help of a few recruits, I had orchestrated a prank during the graduation ceremony that we’d managed to pull off with a level of ingenuity and flawlessness that to this day astounds me. The scheme was elaborately planned with spreadsheets and other run-of-show documents, though let me start by assuring you it was not at all dangerous. It was quite innocent, in fact, and involved graduates depositing on the stage two glass fishbowls, each of which contained one happy and well-fed goldfish that I had bought at Woolworth’s. At worst, it slowed the ceremony by a few minutes and caused the administrators and spectators some confusion, which was exactly my slightly nerdy 17-year-old intent.

I don’t know how the principal found out it had been me; maybe I overestimated the solidarity of my classmates and one of them snitched. Over the 12 years of us growing up and attending school together, I could never be sure where any of my relationships with them stood. In my graduating class: The girl who stole my Umbros in seventh grade and, when I asked for them back, yelled “Gook!” in my face while my stunned peers watched and did nothing. That incident opened the floodgates for this girl and some of my “friends” to fling slurs my way for the rest of middle school. Every time, I stiffened, swallowed my hurt, and remained silent. I told no one; it was too “embarrassing,” and I didn’t want these kids to get in trouble. In a small school in a small town, what choice did I have but to be nice to them anyway?

Also in my graduating class: The girl who asked me how I could see out of my eyes; other kids who confused me with another girl, the only other Asian American student in our grade, commenting on how lucky I was to eat dumplings and lo mein all the time (I corrected their mistake in the most tragic way possible: by forcefully reminding them that my parents were the town doctors, not the owners of the Chinese restaurant next to Burger King); fellow AP students who acted befuddled (aren’t all Asians good at math?) when I turned out to be (very) bad at calculus; countless white boys whom I avoided because I heard they “liked” me. One hundred or so classmates and friends. Were they racists?

The principal said to me, “You made this graduation a total farce.” But here’s what I heard: You, young lady, are a farce. You are a fraud. Not a real person. Fake. You don’t belong here or deserve what you’ve earned. She had said, “You should be ashamed,” and I was.

Two years before graduation, after I had finished tenth grade, a $5,000 check signed by the school-board president and made out to me, Julie Kim, arrived in the mail. The memo line read “Olcott Major Scholarship,” the prize for the school valedictorian. That year, a Korean American girl with the last name Park had earned the top honor; weeks before the check arrived in my name, she had given a speech and had been the first to receive her diploma on the same stage I’d walk across two years later.

My parents and I had an animated discussion about what to do — cash it, return it, burn it — before my dad returned the check in person. He also called her parents — I overheard the conversation, but since I had refused to learn Korean, I couldn’t follow every word — and I remember feeling illogically worried that the Parks might think I tried to steal the scholarship from their daughter. Strangely, I resented the school board for putting me in a position where someone might wrongfully accuse me of theft but not for their “honest mistake.”

On the day I graduated, I clutched my graduation cap, adorned with an extra tassel for scoring high on the SAT. I also cradled a far more meaningful item, a leather folder containing something an Asian American kid like me was never supposed to get: the annual English-essay award, signed by the same department chair who had cleared the way for me to read Toni Morrison and had blessed my thesis with an A-plus. The day before, he’d gifted me the real award, a 30-pound Random House dictionary too unruly for the graduation stage. On the title page, in large, expressive cursive, he wrote: “Julie: You have something to say to this world and you will say it — with power, panache, and grace!”

A gentle twilight descended, and the crowd dispersed enough for my parents to find me. I posed for a million pictures with my halmoni and said good-bye as I looked forward to graduation-night charades with my classmates, the same ones who had unwittingly introduced me to the never-ending work of being Asian in America.

Was That Racism?