How a Past Filled With Racist Experiences Made Me an Accidental Activist

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.

I begin writing this with a heavy heart, a feeling that’s become all too familiar in the past year. But today, that heaviness was compounded after I read about 46-year old Yong Zheng. He, along with a group of family and friends had just finished a Lunar New Year dinner. As they walked together, they stumbled upon an attempted robbery at a Brooklyn gambling den that had spilled onto the sidewalk. Because the alleged victims were Asian and anti-Asian assaults have been skyrocketing, Zheng and his friend jumped in to help, but he paid the ultimate price for his heroism. He was fatally stabbed. This Good Samaritan was KILLED for trying to stop another Asian assault. And now, there’s a woman who is suddenly a widow, a 14-year old girl who is fatherless and a 5-year old boy who barely had enough time to get to know his baba. 

This incident is just the latest in an endless number of assaults and crimes against Asians here in the U.S. and around the world. I have been covering these stories and this rise in anti-Asian sentiment for over a year. Beginning in February of 2020 when the xenophobia against Asians due to COVID-19 began to bubble up, I tried to shine a bright spotlight on this disturbing trend in episodes of “The May Lee Show,” on social media, in media interviews, in speaking engagements…any way I could, I spoke openly about it. But back then, the public didn’t listen because 1. I’m not a famous, household name that carries a lot of firepower and 2. Asians and our stories are invisible. Inconsequential at best. 

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No matter, I had a strong enough conscience and moral compass to know what justice and injustice look like, what racism and bigotry feel like, how soul-crushing disrespect and invisibility can be. I needed to speak up and speak out against rampant racism and hate and speak for the voiceless who were growing more fearful by the day. Slowly, and really quite unknowingly, I became an “accidental activist,” but perhaps, it wasn’t so accidental given my vivid experiences with racism that shaped my life.

As a kid, I got called the usual “Chink, Jap, Gook, slanty eyes” growing up in Ohio in the 1970s and ’80s on a regular basis being the only Asian kid in nearly all-white schools. I was asked repeatedly, “Where are you from? Where are you REALLY from?” I was also poked, pushed and slapped a few times, but I didn’t have the confidence or physical strength to fight back. The abuse made me hate being Korean. I wanted to be white. I wanted blue eyes and blonde hair. I wanted to change my name to “Mary”. I wanted to BELONG. There were times when I tried to stand out from the crowd with some confidence, only to be openly shut down. I recall a ballet class when I was about 8 or 9 years old. The teacher was an old, white woman and, of course, I was the only POC in the class. I was actually a pretty good ballerina and had some talent so anytime we would do a routine, I would nail it. Well, the teacher didn’t like that I was better than the others (read: white girls) so she said to me in front of the class, “You’re showing off too much and sticking out so you need to tone it down.” She then told my mother the same thing after class. My mom, with her broken English, thanked her for the information. At home, my mom gently told me I needed to blend in more, especially since I was Asian. “The white people don’t want you to be better,” she said to me in Korean.

All of these micro and macro aggressions left scars, deep ones. How could they not, but growing up in that environment was probably the best thing that could have happened to me and, very likely, had a subconscious impact on my eventual career choice, journalism. The idea of finding truth and seeking justice, focusing on issues that matter, helping elevate the marginalized…all of this inspired and motivated me. But it wasn’t without challenges. I was met with racism throughout my career. I got calls from viewers who told me, “Go back to where you came from,” “We don’t want your kind here,” “F*ck You for Pearl Harbor!”…the list goes on and on. But as an adult who was finding her confidence, her voice and her overall “badass” attitude, I began fighting back. 

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I remember in Ohio where I was working as a reporter for a local TV station, I was covering a protest by union workers outside a ZZ Top concert. I was interviewing concert goers to get their reactions when suddenly I heard a familiar phrase being yelled at me, “Hey Connie Chung, Connie Chung” (she was the only high-profile Asian network anchor at the time.) Those taunts were followed by the usual snicker. I kept my cool and continued the interview. But then came, “Hey Ching Chong, Chang Chung” and more laughter. That’s when I snapped. I dropped my mic on the ground, marched over to a group of five white men, broke open the circle they were standing in by shoving one of them out of the way and demanded, “What did you say?” Silence. “What did you f*cking say?” One man replied, “We didn’t say nothin’.” With a more, how shall I say, animated tone I yelled, “Well I have something to say! There are enough f*cking racists like you in the world. We don’t need to deal with anymore. The next time you think about saying that kind of crap, maybe you should think twice and just shut the f*ck up!” I then calmly walked back to my cameraman who was in stunned silence, picked up my microphone and said to the man I was interviewing, “I’m so sorry, where were we?” 

I took a risk by doing what I did, but I had to regardless of the threat. Oh, but there’s more to this story. Later after that encounter, a group of protesting union workers led by a very large, bearded man approached me. The man asked, “Are you May Lee?” I cautiously answered, “Yes, I am.” He then threw his burly arm around me and said with a slight twang, “We heard about what happened to you with some punks. If we’d been nearby, we would have kicked their asses for you! That’s a brave thing you did, and we think that’s great!” I was shocked, amazed and thrilled. Because I had taken a stand with courage, I had been heard loudly and clearly AND had made an impact on people who very likely would have never been exposed to an Asian woman fighting back against racism. 

It reminds me of another time when I chose not to be silent in the face of open racism and it happened at the most unlikely place….Auschwitz in Poland. It was 1994 and I was on a trip through eastern Europe with a friend. One of our must-sees on the list was Auschwitz and Birkenau where millions of innocent Jews and others were killed by the Nazis. It was a frigid day and as I walked around the sprawling former camps, I couldn’t even begin to imagine the pain and suffering that took place for years. You can’t help but be horrified and moved by the experience. 

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Image via xiquinhosilva (CC BY 2.0)

Because of the chill, my friend and I headed into a small café to get some coffee. I went to the counter to order when a group of teenage boys who were part of a school field trip came up next to me. I sensed them staring at me and then suddenly to my horror I heard, “Ching chong, chang ching” and that familiar laughter. I was paralyzed for a moment for I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and where I was hearing it. I grabbed the coffees and went to sit down with my friend, but I was shaking. I could barely tell her what happened and when I started speaking, my voice shook with such anger. Then I noticed the group of boys were with their other classmates and teacher. I didn’t even think, I just headed straight for the teacher and briefly told her I just had a negative encounter with some of her students and that I would like her to gather her entire class and bring them all over for a talk. I asked her to translate every word. Here’s what I said.

“Just a few minutes ago a group of you ridiculed me because of my race. What you did was humiliating and degrading to me, but what’s worse is the fact that you did it here, at the very place where millions of people were killed just because of their race, ethnicity and religion. The students who made those racist comments to me should be ashamed of themselves. The rest of you should learn from this and realize that the world must never again go down that dark road. I want you to leave this place and be forever changed by this experience, and to treat others with respect and dignity.”

The room was dead silent for a moment. And then they all applauded. As I looked at the faces of the students, I could see serious contemplation, some shame, and most importantly, better understanding. I’m sure it was, for many of them, the first time they had heard an Asian, a woman for that matter, speaking so boldly about racism. I sometimes wonder if I had a long-term impact on any of them. I hope so. 

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There comes a time when we are faced with a chance to take a stand for something bigger than ourselves. There is always fear in doing that because, like in the case of Yong Zheng, it can lead to unimaginable tragedy. It’s agonizing to think that Zheng, who immigrated to the U.S. at age 19 to live out a dream, according to his godsister, was just trying to do the right thing. Taking a stand is hard, it’s scary, it’s risky and I know it’s not for everyone, but we as Asians and Asian Americans cannot ignore or turn away from the explosion in anti-Asian hate. We’ve had enough of being dismissed, belittled and mistreated. We are not a punching bag, a scapegoat, a bad joke. We must not be silent now or ever again. 

So I wear my “accidental activist” label with some trepidation, but with honor as well. I will continue to speak up and speak out because I know the power of our stories can change the world. I’ll end with this eloquent quote by researcher and author Brene Brown: “One day you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through and it will be someone else’s survival guide.” May we all survive and thrive together.

About the Author: May Lee has been a broadcast journalist for over 30 years, becoming the first anchor of Korean descent at CNN. She has covered some of the world’s most newsworthy events, including the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong, the 9/11 attacks in New York City, and Hollywood’s “Me Too” movement. “The May Lee Show” debuted in February 2020.

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Feature Image via @imagebysam

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