In May 2020, when thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black victims of police violence, Julia Lee was on sabbatical from her job as a professor at Loyola Marymount University, where she teaches African American and Caribbean literature.

For Lee, a native Angeleno and the daughter of Korean immigrant parents, hearing the news reports of violence against protestors and watching tankfuls of National Guard troops deploy outside the burned storefronts along Melrose Avenue brought back a flood of memories it has taken her decades to parse. She was a teenager during the 1992 uprising that followed the acquittal of the four police officers who beat Rodney King and the suspension of the sentence of Soon Ja Du, a Korean American liquor store owner who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for shooting an unarmed Black teenager in her store. The shooting occurred just weeks after the King beating and further exacerbated long-standing tensions between Black residents and Korean American business owners in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

In the years since, Lee has written two works of academic criticism—Our Gang: A Racial History of ‘The Little Rascals’ and The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel—that have earned her a reputation for challenging the legacy of mostly white literary scholarship. Her new memoir Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in Black and White America (Holt, Apr.) continues to challenge the disconnect between academia and the culture at large—this time, using Lee’s own lived experience.

Speaking over Zoom from her office at Loyola, Lee explains how the events of 2020 forced her to confront her and her family’s place in America’s long history of racial turmoil. “It did feel like déjà vu,” she says of the helplessness she felt as she shared in the collective grief over lives lost to racial violence in 2020. “And for me, it’s not just individual memories from the past but within a historical context.”

Biting the Hand was born out of seeing history repeat itself in her hometown and focuses on Lee’s own pain and rage stemming from a childhood shaped by white supremacy and poverty, as well as the ways in which that pain is both generational and systemic.

During that turbulent time in the ’90s, her parents worked long hours as the owners of a struggling fast-food restaurant in order to afford her the opportunity to attend a mostly white private high school in the affluent neighborhood of Hancock Park, which sometimes meant going without enough food on their own table. This divide was put into even more painful relief after the LAPD left Korean American business owners to fend for themselves during the riots. Lee remembers watching businesses burn around her in Koreatown. At school, students and faculty were only vaguely aware of the devastation just a few miles away; as she recounts in her book, only one teacher even thought to ask if Lee’s family had been affected. The disconnect between her home and academic lives left Lee feeling like an outsider in both spaces.

Moving from the prep school to Princeton and then Harvard, where she earned a PhD in literature, only served to widen that gap. As a working-class, first-generation American on financial aid and scholarship working multiple jobs for inclusion in mostly white, elitist spaces, Lee struggled to feel American. These institutions, she believed, often treated her as symbolic proof of the American “melting pot,” with little concern for the alienation caused by that tokenism.

Nearly 30 years to the day after she returned to an indifferent school following the 1992 uprising, Lee realized that her training as a scholar of literary history had given her the tools to examine how a lifetime of otherness in the U.S. has affected her, her family, and a great many children of immigrant parents.

Writing the book, Lee says, was her attempt to connect the zeitgeist to personal narrative. In it, she explains the historical context needed to understand her family’s unacknowledged trauma, from the time her father was held at gunpoint in the liquor store he owned in L.A. to her grandfather’s beating at the hands of North Korean border guards as he attempted to smuggle his family south. Growing up, Lee’s family did not discuss these events, but they were always in the background, compelling Lee to achieve in an attempt to repair the wrongs her family had endured.

The gratitude Lee writes about feeling pressured to express, over being not just in the U.S. but also at Princeton and Harvard, was often at odds with the racial disparities she witnessed firsthand. She worked, for example, in the dining halls at these institutions, serving the white students she was also trying to befriend.

Decades later, Lee says she recognizes in her students the same anxiety and rage she felt in those days. Often attempting to balance the inherited trauma of immigrant parents against their own desires, she explains, her students are reticent to criticize the systems they have been told are gateposts to the American dream: institutions of higher learning and society itself. Instead, like Lee, they criticize themselves for failing to thrive in spaces that were not designed to help them succeed.

“There’s a sense of duty and pressure and obligation that young people, especially young people who are maybe the children of immigrants or first-generation college students who come from underrepresented backgrounds, feel to not fail,” Lee says. “And it’s so much pressure.”

Biting the Hand also confronts the ways that she was taught to think of racism in terms of Black and white, both as a child growing up in L.A. and as a woman making her career in academia. In the latter, Lee says, diversity all too often seems like a coded term for filling quotas while leaving white people in the positions of power they’ve always held.

While she sometimes felt alienated from others in her field of British literature, Lee’s mentors, the professors Jamaica Kincaid and Henry Louis Gates Jr., encouraged her to bridge those gaps by studying the intersection of African American and British literature. Likewise, the community she found through these professors, whether she was studying or helping Kincaid pick asparagus from her garden in Vermont, taught Lee that she didn’t have to choose between her passions and her studies. Lee says these professors taught her a “both/and” mindset.

A lifelong fan of Regency and Victorian romances, Lee realized she didn’t have to devote her writing life to purely academic pursuits. In 2018, she published a romance novel, By the Book, under the name Julia Sonneborn. The campus comedy features a will they/won’t they straight out of an Austen novel, while also offering a bit of humorous autofiction in its details about the tenuous nature of academic employment.

As Lee has found balance and even humor in her journey to hold on to her identity while pursuing her passion for literature, she hopes to foster in her own classroom the same sense of community that she found in the classrooms of her mentors. And carving out space for those communities often means challenging the status quo.

Biting the Hand encourages a new generation of students and scholars to raise questions about who gets to criticize racism and why immigrants and BIPOC Americans are all too often expected to be grateful for systems that are inherently unequal. Asking these questions, Lee says, is a fundamentally American act. “We elevate the founding fathers for defying British tyranny,” she explains. “We call that rugged American individuality. But who gets to have that? And so often, especially for immigrants and people of color, it’s like, oh, you’re just ungrateful. You’re just uppity. You’re expecting too much.”

Though Lee says her parents have still not read Biting the Hand, she hopes her family’s history will provide the context to younger BIPOC readers that she never had, and encourage them to examine the ways generational trauma and systemic oppression exert pressure on underrepresented communities to uncomplainingly assimilate to white culture.

As Lee puts it, “Forcing eternal gratitude on someone because a country took their family in is also a form of tyranny.”

Emily Alford’s work has appeared in Gawker, Jezebel, and Longreads. She is currently working on a memoir.