An Asian American Mother’s Sadness and Hope: Katrina Lee Reflects on Anti-Asian Violence

Speaking out against bias is difficult and exhausting. I do it for my daughters.

Katrina Lee
Community members protested hate crimes against Asian Americans in Bicentennial Park in March.

It happened in slow motion. On a weekday in March 2021, I was walking north on a sidewalk in Downtown Columbus with my two daughters—a sixth grader and an eighth grader. On this busy one-way street, cars swooshed south on our left. We were walking to our parked car.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a black luxury SUV slowly coming to a stop as the light turned yellow, then red. Just as we approached our car, the SUV’s windows started to roll down. I felt a pang of dread that something very unpleasant, possibly dangerous, might happen. I could see young—maybe 20-something—faces of what I identified as white males inside.

If things were slow motion before, they got even slower now. I was in alert mode. My daughters and I kept chatting as we normally do, and I continued my part of the banter. I didn’t want to alarm my kids. I pressed my car key to open our trunk, and the door popped up. My daughters began putting in their things.

Then the racist and sexist taunts came spewing out of the SUV’s window.

I pretended not to see them or hear them. I didn’t look their way. I had been in similar situations before. I knew what my focus had to be: Stay calm, hope that the taunts don’t transform into physical violence and wait for the light to turn green. In those seconds, with my kids present, I was hoping, with every fiber of my body, that when the light changed, the black SUV would drive out of our lives forever and leave us safe.

The incident might not have been memorable at all. I might easily have forgotten about it, as it was unexceptional among my life’s experiences. Except for one thing: In those moments, I realized that my daughters were doing just as I was doing. They, too, were pretending to chat normally. They were deliberately keeping their gaze away from the SUV that they, too, had spotted out of the corners of their eyes.

I was filled with sadness as I realized that my daughters, children of two Chinese American parents, were already conditioned on how to act in this situation. Without my telling them, they knew the drill: Don’t look up, don’t acknowledge, carry on—and hope that the vile taunts pass without any physical violence from the perpetrators.

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My daughters knew what to do. They knew how to carry themselves. They had seen my behavior in similar situations, and they had become conditioned to handle this one just as I had when I was younger. Bear the taunts and wait for the possibility of violence to pass. Don’t let them see you scared. Don’t let them know you hear them.

Though I was upset, I was also proud. On their own out there in the street, without instruction from me, they were being smart and not engaging. They were doing the best they could to stay safe.

The light turned green; the SUV moved on. We got in the car. All of us exhaled. We were relieved, and we were happy to go on with our day.

Before that day, if anyone had asked me if I thought my daughters might experience racism in their lives, I would have said yes, resoundingly. After all, as a law professor, I teach about the structural barriers that persist in the legal profession, and I recognize that our society has a long way to go in addressing them. But that encounter still made me angry as a parent, beyond what I’d allowed myself to feel before.

That incident occurred just one day after a 21-year-old man shot and killed eight people in Atlanta, including six Asian American women: Daoyou Feng; Xiaojie Tan; Hyun Jung Grant; Suncha Kim; Soon Chung Park; and Yong Ae Yue.

Just one day after.

I tweeted about my unfortunate experience with my daughters and about my sadness at realizing this type of situation was not unfamiliar to them. To my surprise, the thread (it was only two tweets) was retweeted nearly a thousand times and “liked” more than 5,000 times. I heard from acquaintances I had not been in communication with for years. I heard from strangers, some of whom debated with each other about how my children and I should have behaved in the situation. I received universally supportive comments, from Black women whose families have had similar experiences and from white colleagues expressing how sorry they were that we had experienced this.

I spoke about the incident in a local San Francisco news segment. It was viewed by many old friends and acquaintances, and I heard from yet more people from the fabric of my life.

For years, I have engaged in the community, and I’ve embraced opportunities to support the diverse Asian American population and work on diversity, equity and inclusion issues. I have long served on the board of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Central Ohio. I have served as faculty adviser for the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association at my law school employer. I grew up in San Francisco, a city with a “minority-majority” population where Asian Americans are the largest minority group. There, I served for several years on the board of Self-Help for the Elderly, a nonprofit focused on providing much-needed services to the low-income elderly Asian population.

But I have found myself even more engaged lately on issues affecting Asian Americans. Just a sampling: An Asian American professor at another law school reached out about collaborating on a virtual conversation with other Asian American legal writing professors—something that has never happened in my career. In another instance, an Asian American suburban mom I’ve known for some time but never worked with reached out and asked for input concerning a letter addressed to the Ohio lieutenant governor about misguided and hurtful remarks he had made. I was invited to propose Asian American speakers for a school panel. I helped draft a few statements concerning anti-Asian violence. And so on.

But speaking up can be exhausting, soul-depleting and difficult at the same time it is affirming, energizing and powerful. I still feel the push-and-pull that I am guessing many of us feel: Do I speak up this time and tell someone about what I experienced, or should I just move ahead and not say anything? By speaking up, do I risk everyone not seeing my whole self? As a lawyer and professor, I write all the time. Yet, on my way to having this essay published, I wrote to my editor, “I’ve been thinking about the essay, and I have decided I would just rather not write on that topic. I’m feeling increasingly uncomfortable and exhausted about it as I reflect. … It’s just too deeply personal.” And there are so many layers to all of this. It’s not even a simple task to explain my family’s history in America because I am at once the child and grandchild of Chinese immigrants, and also the great-grandchild of a Chinese immigrant who was a U.S. citizen. In addition, I sometimes find myself surprised about what is emotionally harder or easier to talk about. For example, I find it easier emotionally to share about an incident of racial slurs from strangers than about, say, how anti-Asian bias operates in my place of employment.

I am still adjusting to this interesting new phase in my life and career. If you had asked me in my college years if I would have found anything positive in any of this, I would have said no. But I have. I’ve found it in my kids and in community. My children are seeing me speak up and speak out. They are seeing that others’ hateful words and behavior directed against Asian Americans don’t have to control the media narrative about Asian Americans. I will not speak here about what I tell my kids about being Asian American and about staying safe and realizing their dreams, because that’s between us. But I can say I’ve learned from my kids. I see them persist as their whole selves and not let the world define them. I hope with all my parental heart that my daughters can blaze a path for future generations that is less burdened with anti-Asian bias and racism.

I give myself permission to hope for that and more. I hope that the joy I’ve experienced reconnecting with old friends, and the happiness and immense relief I have experienced in conversation and sisterhood with other Asian American women, stay with me. I hope that my daughters can find, define and create spaces where they feel seen and can be present as their whole beautiful human selves. I hope that I can have more moments when I can just be.

This story is from the September 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.