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UNC professor Jennifer Ho will discuss Asian American identity at Bull’s Head Bookshop

For Jennifer Ho, associate professor of English and comparative literature, being Chinese-Jamaican-American has always been a part of her identity. 

This identity shaped her latest book, "Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture," from which Ho will read today at Bull's Head Bookshop. 

Ho said she was always aware of being Chinese-Jamaican-American, but she noticed how others’ interpretations of her race changed throughout elementary, middle and high school. 

“Kids start to recognize racial difference in a sense that they are associating it with different values," she said. "It wasn’t until middle school or high school when I really started to put it together, when I started to understand that what they’re saying is I don’t look black.”

Ho’s book focuses on interpretations of Asian-American identity in the United States, exploring the ideas of identity through prominent figures such as Tiger Woods, whose racial identity sparked her exploration. 

"I knew he was half Thai and half black, but he was only being talked about as a black golfer,” Ho said. 

Woods fought the erasure of his identity as a mixed-race man, which black activists interpreted as denying his blackness. 

Ho says that this disconnect between peoples’ interpretation of race and racial identity is reflected in her own experiences and also in her students’ experiences. 

“I’ll have students say, ‘I know I look Latino, but I’m actually mixed race.’ Or I’ll have a white-appearing student say, ‘I’m actually Colombian, but I look white.’ And I also have students who are Asian or black say, ‘I know I look Asian,’ or, ‘I know I look black, but I was adopted by white parents.’”

Junior Julia Zhang, who is Chinese-American, said she has struggled with racial ambiguity and racial identity and is excited to hear Ho speak on these issues. 

“(Asian-American) is an ambiguous race. Some of my friends have told me, ‘You do look half Asian and half white. You totally could pass for white.’ There is a very weird perspective on it,” she said. 

Zhang expressed frustration over racial stereotypes.

“From my childhood experience, a lot of my classmates — because I had a shy, quiet demeanor and personality — a lot of my classmates tried to extrapolate that and make it an overall Asian thing,” she said. 

Zhang said that peers’ perception of her as a “quiet Asian girl” led to her anger. 

“You think that I’m not even a person, and I’ve experienced this for most of my life.”

Kyle McKay, marketing and events manager at Bull’s Head Bookshop, said the bookstore has a place in social conversations. 

“We try to establish ourselves as a bookstore that doesn’t just sell books," he said. "We are invested in engaging the campus, the community and being a place where (Asian-American issues) can have a platform.”

Ho hopes that her book reading inspires genuine conversation about race. 

“Students at UNC are really polite and don’t want to say the wrong thing or offend other people," she said. 

"By and large, that’s great, right? People say we talk about race too much, but the reality is we don’t have productive conversations about race.”


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