Upon first meeting Dr. Julia Lee, I thought we might have a lot in common. Though I was intimidated by her list of accomplishments and her knowledge about literature, I knew the nature of her work intuitively aligned with my own passions. Though we discussed vastly important subject matter, from the L.A Uprising to Jim Crow segregation to the lack of women in leadership positions, there was a charming and casual intimacy to our interview. In our heart of hearts, we were two L.A-born-and-raised girls with humble beginnings and a love of scholarship, chatting the morning away in Loyola Marymount’s University Hall. Her vulnerability and openness marked some of the most poignant moments of our interview, and I am proud to be given the opportunity to share an oral history of her life.
Dr. Julia Lee is a diversely accomplished writer and professor of African American and Transatlantic literature at Loyola Marymount University. Dr. Lee was born to Korean immigrant parents and raised in Los Angeles, CA. She attended Princeton to obtain her undergraduate degree, and received her PhD from Harvard. Dr. Lee has written several critically acclaimed books; The American Slave Narrative and The Victorian Novel, Our Gang: A Racial History of “The Little Rascals”, and her most recent fictional novel By the Book. Due to her expertise and writing, she has been interviewed by Robert Siegel of NPR, Elvis Mitchell of KCRW, Tony Valdez of FOX 11 News, and more. Her research revolves around race relations in America, narratives of underrepresented and marginalized people, and of course, African American / Trans-Atlantic literature. Her research in these areas has been featured in publications like the Huffington Post, Diverse: Issues of Higher Education, and the Atlantic.
Childhood & Early Life
Dr. Lee’s father and mother were both Korean immigrants, but consequently met in the U.S, where they raised their daughter in West Los Angeles. Her father came to the East Coast on a student VISA, but ended up overstaying after he ran out of money to pay tuition. He worked as an elevator attendant until the INS pursued him over his expired VISA. That’s when he met Dr. Lee’s mother – a nurse, equipped with her own green card to work legally in the U.S. Dr. Lee explained to me perhaps one of the most defining moments of her early development and childhood. She had been raised to speak only Korean, which is how she communicated with her grandfather who did not speak English. When her parents enrolled her into preschool, she was traumatized by the fact that she didn’t know the dominant language. She explains:
“My parents say that within the matter of just like months, I started refusing to speak Korean anymore. Just very quickly I lost all the Korean that I had. I would only speak English at home, and then my grandfather moved back to Korea so I didn’t have anyone there to communicate with solely In Korean. Which is something that my parents, you know, my mother is still heartbroken about. It’s just, she thinks that she should have done it differently.”
This was a disheartening loss for Dr. Lee’s family, and for her. For the first time, she was faced with an education system that catered to the dominant culture, where she must have felt ostracized and betrayed. While prioritizing the education of students who fit this hegemonic mold, these institutions systemically cast aside English learners. Additionally, by devaluing other languages, the education system teaches young people that their family’s culture is somehow less important than the dominant one. This is why the “melting pot” immigrant narrative, in which the immigrant child denies their own culture to blend with the new, is a traumatizing process. Dr. Lee’s shock when faced with the reality of English being the indoctrinated language at her preschool, is not an uncommon experience. In writer Kit Yuen Quan’s memoir “The Girl Who Wouldn’t Sing”, she remembers her own trauma as an immigrant from Hong Kong. She writes, “The only English I knew was the alphabet and a few simple words: cat, dog, table, chair. I sat in classrooms for two to three years without understanding what was being said, and cried while the girl next to me filled in my spelling book for me” (Quan 14). Later in her memoir she writes, “I was so traumatized that I could not be creative” (15). Here, the trauma of not knowing the dominant language in school is almost unexplainable by the child. The child cannot be expected to fully process or understand why they’re unable to communicate, or why the institution is failing to recognize their speech. Dr. Lee went on to explain:
“I was super stubborn about it! I just did not want to speak Korean. So, neither my sister or I, I have a younger sister who is about a year and a half younger than me, and she doesn’t speak Korean either. I mean, we recognize phrases here and there, but we do not… I mean I could never communicate with somebody in the language.”
I want to highlight this from Dr. Lee’s story: The loss of one’s native tongue is a hurtful experience for both the individual and the family. At the time, Dr. Lee was so traumatized by her experience in preschool as an outsider, as someone who wasn’t able to understand, that she no longer wanted to speak Korean. I had a similar experience growing up in L.A as an immigrant from Buenos Aires, Argentina. My life in Buenos Aires was happy – everything was familiar, comfortable. It was traumatizing to attend school in America with little to no guidance. Not only was everything about the culture shockingly different, but no one understood what I was saying. I remember my first day at a public school in Torrance, where I was placed in a class for children with developmental disabilities because I refused to speak. The child who sat next to me in that class was El Salvadorian, and we both confided in each other that we weren’t actually disabled but immigrants. It wasn’t until lunch time, when I had misplaced my lunch, that the teachers realized I could not speak English. In hindsight, my mother must have told the administration. It seems like negligence on their part, and that the situation had been grossly mishandled. My homeroom teacher shouted at me in front of all the kids, screaming in broken Spanish that I had ruined lunch for everybody, that my inability to find my lunch was the reason no one else could eat. I cried for the remainder of the day and had to be sent home early. I understand very deeply the trauma felt by Dr. Lee when she realized she could not “communicate with anyone” at school the way she could at home.
Adolescence and Young Adulthood
Though Dr. Lee jokes that she “hated high school because… everyone hates high school!”, she is grateful to have attended an all-girls Catholic institution during her adolescence. She said that being surrounded by “really strong” and “really assertive” young women was good for her personal growth. Though she grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, notions about intersectionality and race relations quickly began to trickle into her life. She began to find that issues relating to race and politics not only interested her, but ignited a kind of quiet passion. Her father owned a liquor store in Inglewood, where crime was on the rise. Though her father loved being a business owner, the family began to fear for his life. After her grandfather was “pistol-whipped” by an assailant, the family decided to move into different business ventures. They bought a franchised Pioneer Chicken near Leuzinger high school (in the very neighborhood where I grew up) and owned it for many years. It was the Los Angeles uprising that changed everything for Dr. Lee’s family. She said about the turbulent time: “That was a really scary time because my parents were scared their store was going to burn down. I remember watching on television, all the footage of the looting and fires in Korea Town. You know, you had these Korean business owners, like, on the roof with guns trying to defend themselves because the LAPD wasn’t coming out.” She then explained how her intersectionality as an Asian American woman played into her engagement with social justice:
“As an Asian American they talk about how you’re this sort of model minority, you’re sort of… You know… Somebody who is not politically vocal. Work hard, keep your head down. Just try to not cause trouble, all this kind of stuff. So, for me, the LA Uprising was this moment where it was like.. Oh my god, you know, you can’t just slip under or not engage with political issues or racial issues because they are just so pressing.”
The L.A Uprising, also known as the L.A Riots, was a series of protests in response to rampant police brutality in America, following the beating of Rodney King. Dr. Lee describes the scene, like most other Angelinos, as post-apocalyptic. While driving home from school after her high school’s closure, she remembers “there was smoke everywhere” and “people running across the street with, like, stolen goods and you know, buildings burning”. Watching the riots unfold her were just one of the incidents that introduced her to the “pressing” immediacy of social activism and political involvement. She was also struck by the Latasha Harlins case, in which a black youth was murdered by a Korean liquor store owner. Of course, young Dr. Lee was expected to side with the store owner. After all, her own parents had experienced crime in their liquor store which was in a predominantly black and latino neighborhood. However, she thought critically about the tragic incident and began to recognize the complicated nature of race relations. She remembers being accused of stealing in a liquor store before as fourteen year old. She recalls how the funny incident could have ended in her own death. Even though Dr. Lee had this hidden passion for social justice, she did not have an outlet in college. She attended Princeton, where neither African American or Asian Literature classes were offered. It wasn’t until she attended graduate school at Harvard that her interests began to blossom into a full-blown passion and career path. She remembers her first African American Literature class:
“Again, I was always interested in these issues. I went to grad-school and took my first African American Lit class, and my professor was awesome because I had this sense like…Oh, I don’t belong in this class because I’m not black, but he welcomed everyone with open arms. I think that was the first time where I was like, wow, this interest of mine is something I could actually study and explore.”
Views on the Intersection of Race, Class, and Gender
Talking about Dr. Lee’s experiences as a first generation student with working class parents led us to her views about the intersection of race, class, and gender. She felt alienated by the elitist culture of academia, in which most of her professors were insulated by privilege and unaware of their own insensitivity. Between having to hoard food during Thanksgiving because she could not afford to fly home and navigating the student culture of social clubs, she says this about her experience:
“Princeton was really hard for me. Because I came from Los Angeles, which is way more diverse than a place like Princeton, which didn’t feel diverse. I mean, I think they’ve made great strides in diversifying their population but I think, not just did it not feel racially and ethnically diverse, it also felt very much not socio-economically diverse. I mean, I grew up really privileged in so many ways. It’s not like we didn’t have enough food, it’s not like we didn’t have electricity, things like that. But, despite all of the privilege I came from, I went to Princeton and was like, oh my god – I’m like really poor!”
Though Dr. Lee had never considered herself poor, and was actually privileged in comparison to most, she felt the immense socio-economic gap at institutions like Princeton. She admits that activities she partakes in now, like luncheons and dinners, were once foreign to her. When she felt desperate for money to cover her dental health expenses, she went to one of her professors for help. Because he was looking for a research assistant, she opened up to him about her financial struggles and expressed her interest in the position. He responded that she should only take the job because she “actually wants to” rather than for necessity. Dr. Lee points out the “privilege of being able to work just because you love the subject” versus needing to work to survive. Dr. Lee felt the impact of poverty on the body when she desperately needed dental work upon entering grad-school, but was only living on less than $16k per year. Not only was this an important moment because it demonstrated how “out of touch” these professors were due to the aforementioned lack of diversity, but it was also a transition to our conversation about women in both academia and in leadership positions. She comments about leadership roles in the university setting:
“It’s better here than it was. I used to teach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and I was in a department that had never had a female chair. It was all white men chairs. And it’s still, they’ve never had a female chair. LMU is at least more progressive in that we’ve had more female chairs, not just one but a couple.”
Dr. Lee’s experience needing a job during grad-school to survive, and her views about diversity in leadership positions at the university, both pertain to the intersection of gender and class in the workforce. In her book, Feminism is for Everybody, author bell hooks writes, “Groups of highly educated privileged women previously unemployed or marginally employed were able through feminist changes in job discrimination to have greater access to work that satisfies, that serves as a base for economic self-sufficiency. Their success has not altered the fate of masses of women” (hooks 51). Much like Dr. Lee, hooks acknowledges that highly educated women have been able to reach positions of leadership, nearly equal to the positions of men. By placing more female or LGBTQ or people of color into leadership positions, the university fills these socio-economic gaps to better assist marginalized or nontraditional students in their success. Marginalized people in leadership positions serve to change the institutions from within, which in turn facilitates even more progress. However, this does not account for the mass of women who still suffer poverty. In this way, capitalism is in direct opposition to progress, because one woman must generally infringe upon the success of another to succeed. For example, the woman who holds a high-ranking position may employ a full-time nanny to care for her children, who must forego her own chances at leadership positions. Though this increase in powerful women suggests progress, hooks writes that poverty has become “a central women’s issue” (51) and the liberation of women financially has not been fully realized. In her book Under the Bus: How Working Women are Being Run Over, Caroline Frederickson writes about the way progressive laws serve only parts of the population, “Today, the widening chasm between rich and and the growing lower caste of women of color are the illegitimate progeny of compromises, deal making, and Faustian bargains on the road to a better America – for some, but not for as many as we think” (Frederickson 42). She postulates that liberal protections for working women do not function effectively for all women. Implications like unfair treatment in the workplace generally affect women in lower ranking positions – women of color, disabled women, and financially disadvantaged women. It is no surprise that the system of capitalism is selective in who it uplifts, as the already-privileged have significantly more advantages in the climbing the workforce ladder. So, for the purpose of lifting women out of poverty it is imperative that women of color be given equal opportunity for higher positions but also protected in lower ranking positions like domestic work.
“There should be a woman. Or, there should be a person of color. And I think it’s hard to crack that final ceiling and I’m cautiously optimistic”
Even though there were obstacles, Dr. Lee fell in love with literature at Harvard. She made good friends, found a mentor in Louis Gates Jr., and began taking classes like African American Literature. Harvard is where she became fully immersed in the study of race in America and the Caribbean. So, when I asked her about the intersectionality of race and gender in literature. She postulated that Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs are often positioned next to each other as similar slave narratives. However, Harriet Jacobs suffers vastly different issues as a black woman. Dr. Lee explains:
“Harriet Jacobs is very explicit about it, the fear of rape, and sometimes you have these children with these white masters. How do you negotiate the hostility from white women who see you as a threat? And then also how to deal with an audience of primarily white abolitionists who are going to judge you more harshly because you’re a black woman who has “sinned” by having these illegitimate children with your master, and yet….so it’s very easy for them to think you’re just a slut, you’re a hussy. You led these men astray. Instead of being like no, no, no, the institution of slavery is built upon white rape of black bodies.”
The institution of slavery relied on the trauma and rape of black women to carry out its generational abuse. Harriet Jacobs had to be very precise in her portrayal of her own struggles, even having to apologize for being raped, to gain the sympathy of abolitionists. I and many scholars would argue that the institution of slavery has been upheld by the prison industrial complex. Black women in particular have been tragically affected by lack of protection from both the police and the justice system. Dr. Lee brings up antebellum and Jim crow states of mind when approaching The Little Rascals, which also translates to the way black women are viewed in the justice system. In her essay, “African American Women, Mass Incarceration, and the Politics of Protection”, Kali Nicole Gross writes, “Structured by colonial and antebellum judiciaries, laws representing the priorities of enslavers effectively negated and criminalized black womanhood by subjecting black women to brutality and exploitation and by barring them from lawful avenues for redress. Without institutional safeguards, black women seeking security or justice would have to create those circumstances for themselves, which often placed them on the receiv-ing end of harsh sentences from the same legal system that failed them” (Gross 15). Dr. Lee first observed this harshness during her experience in the L.A Uprising, and also her exposure to the Latasha Harlins killing. To see the prison system as enslavement is to acknowledge the way racist institutions are protected by law. Gross suggests that black women cannot be reliant on the justice system or on institutions to protect them, because those very institutions are structured to not only marginalize them, but to potentially enslave. Black women are exposed to “brutality and exploitation” without being give avenues or institutions to trust, thus facilitating the perfect conditions for criminality.
Dr. Lee has dedicated her career to examining race in America, how systems work to uphold both segregation and antebellum values. We see this alive and well – in literature, media, and in our criminal justice system. While Dr. Lee jokes that her white husband has not had to face his own race until being with someone who “talks about race all the time”, she is far from colorblind. She cautions against being “colorblind” and instead urges people to continue talking openly about race, to challenge these unjust systems.