In December 2019, I met with school administrators at my high school in the Chattanooga, Tennessee, area. Inspired by 17-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, with whom I shared age and a passion for youth-orchestrated climate strikes, I wanted to amplify young voices in my community and decided to organize a school walkout. I aspired to create a platform for my fellow students to voice their perspectives and make them feel like they were part of something bigger than themselves. For me, that’s what activism is about: connecting with your community.
It’s an honor to be part of political change, but it can be a burden as well, one that I’ve come to understand better. The unfortunate reality is my stance on climate change and my initiative to integrate politics into my school has made me a public target. It’s not enough for my critics to disagree with my beliefs—they’ve also expressed their disagreement by insulting my identity as a first generation Korean American immigrant.
Months before I’d organized the school walkout for climate change, the Chattanooga Students Demand Action group held a Disarm Hate vigil to honor the victims of mass shootings in El Paso, Chicago, and Dayton, Ohio. As the group’s lead speaker, I conducted a video interview with a local news station.
The segment ran with no issues. My words weren’t twisted around, and the vigil was reported objectively. I went to sleep that night with a satisfied smile and zero concerns.
The next morning, I was taken aback when the group’s adult liaison texted me that the local news channel had posted my interview package on Facebook. The comments section had quickly filled up with hateful rhetoric. Advocating for gun violence prevention inevitably attracts hostility, especially in a red state. Yet, rather than a comment section of typical extremist gun advocate rhetoric, the section became a venue for my neighbors to hurl shameless racist slurs at me.
It seemed that all everyone could see when they saw my interview was my race. Glancing past my English fluency, they focused on my background as a first generation Korean immigrant. That characteristic made me stand out in Signal Mountain, the small town where I live. My race has always made me stand out there, as the town is 97% white; less than 1% of the population is Asian American.
According to some close-minded people in East Tennessee and Facebook commenters, my name should be “Chopsticks.” I needed to “go back to the kitchen and make egg rolls.” There were nonsense references to the popular Asian restaurant chain P.F. Chang’s. My close friend also had an interview posted on Facebook from the same event. Response to her comments? Just the usual extremist gun advocate rhetoric. She’s white.
My Students Demand Action liaison and members of Chattanooga Moms Demand Action reported the comments to Facebook while contacting the news channel. My supporters spent four consecutive hours responding to hundreds of comments.
I read some of the comments, sitting on my cold, tiled bathroom floor. I sank to my knees and just cried. My parents told me to ignore it. My boyfriend told me to never look at the Facebook post again, but I couldn’t do either. Again and again, I found myself looking back at the hateful tirades and wondering, every time I spoke to someone new, if they were taking my race into consideration rather than my words or actions.
I’ve gone nearly my whole life without being directly and overtly attacked because I’m Asian American. That means I’m lucky. Every person of color has a different experience with racism and in this country, discrimination disproportionately impacts Black, brown, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. Asian Americans have long been labeled the “model minority,” and that may have insulated me from the most blatant racism. But the seemingly flattering term makes me uncomfortable, and I’ve realized how harmful the term can become.
I know, from history and now from personal experience, that the story of racism is my story, too. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II, Asian Americans experience different racism, but racism all the same. Right now, hate crimes are spiking against Asian Americans due to xenophobic blame games about the coronavirus. Our problems—or racist Americans’ problems with us—are hypervisible.
While my culture and my political opinions distinctly shaped me as a person, I very rarely led with those qualities. I can’t say whether I bought into colorblind ideology growing up, and it’s hard for me to pin down exactly why my immigrant background wasn’t my leading narrative. All I can say is that I felt normal and integrated.
But in the last two years of being a student activist engaged in the gun violence prevention movement, I’ve had a glimpse of what it’s like being an Asian American, liberal activist living in East Tennessee along the Bible Belt. I have a public presence now, and I’m a young person of color committed to raising difficult conversations. In the process, I have no doubt I’ll anger some people and attract vitriol, some in the form of racist insults.
I won’t be the quiet, invisible model minority that my critics want me to be.
Those experiences have concretely changed the way I view my identity: My race and political ideology are no longer avoidable. I can’t pretend that race doesn’t matter. I’m 17 years old, and my career as a public servant has barely begun. It has been the most difficult journey of my life, but it hasn’t stopped me. For the climate change walkout I organized, I got approval to plant trees on our school’s property as a sign that Generation Z can be the one that reverses today’s environmental degradation. My two friends, Abby and Sophia, gave speeches and while only 30 of 1,500 students at my school came to the walkout, that was enough for my peers to recognize that student voices—their voices—are important. And yet for months after the walkout had passed, seniors I don’t know yelled “Global warming isn’t real!” at me as I walked in the school hallway.
I want to believe, with every fiber in my being, that my path forward will be free of intolerance. Unfortunately, I can confidently say it won’t. And perhaps it never will. Yet through the pessimistic reality I live in, one truth fuels my internal fire to change our world for the better: In the face of hatred, I know I’m making a difference in our flawed culture. That’s all I need to know.