The car turning onto 20th from Locust Street screeched to a stop just inches from Nydia Han, who was crossing the Center City intersection on foot last Friday.
The driver apparently hadn’t seen Han, and a dispute unfolded about who had the right of way. Han said she had it. The driver disagreed. Then, taking off, the driver, who Han said was white, yelled, “This is America!”
Han, the Asian American coanchor of 6ABC’s Sunday morning show, never got the chance to respond. So she turned to Facebook Live two days later.
“Do not ever, ever see a face like this and make a mistake that it does not belong to an American,” Han said in the nearly five-minute video, which has since drawn at least 1.9 million views and an outpouring of support.
We talked to Han this week about why she spoke out, the discrimination she faces as an Asian American, and what she told her 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son about her encounter with the driver. The responses have been edited for length.
Q: When people see you, what do you think they see first: Asian or American?
Clearly, many people see an Asian first. That’s obviously what that driver saw. What happened to me on Friday is sadly emblematic of the Asian American experience. Especially when I was growing up, but even sometimes today, people ask, “How do you speak English so well?” and, “What are you?” The message is: “You can’t be one of us. Americans don’t look like you.”
Q: What discrimination have you faced as an Asian American, and how have you responded to it?
I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles that didn’t have a big Asian American population. I remember being teased in kindergarten for having almond-shaped eyes. I remember students yelling at me, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!” That racist rhyme was accompanied with a crude gesture. I don’t recall responding outwardly to those kinds of overtly mean and racist incidents. I think I just walked away. I do recall explaining that I was born in America and am of South Korean descent.
But I think, in some ways, even more damaging are those constant, more subtle questions and comments directed at Asian Americans. There is implicit bias in that question, “What are you?” It suggests that I am an outsider or a foreigner and that somehow, I don’t belong. In some ways, that is more problematic long-term than explicit racial-derogatory name-calling.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to speak on Facebook Live about the driver who yelled, “This is America?”
I got the idea to do it before I went to bed on Saturday. I decided to go through with it when I pressed record on Sunday morning.
Q: How did you come to that decision?
I couldn’t sleep Friday night. I kept thinking about all the times I’ve encountered that kind of ignorance and said nothing. I kept thinking about all the ways I wished I had responded in the past and wanted to respond that day to that driver. I kept thinking that I needed to stand up, not just on my own behalf, but especially on behalf of my children and those who don’t have the same public platform that I do.
Q: Had you planned your message beforehand, or did it come together during the video?
I did think about what I wanted to say in advance of doing the Facebook Live video. And just before doing it, I jotted down a few of the points I wanted to make. But once I hit the red button to record, my emotions took over and my response kind of just spilled out. It wasn’t my most eloquent moment, but I’m glad it got my message across. And I am blown away and gratified by all the support and solidarity people have shown on social media. It’s been truly incredible.
Q: What, if anything, did you tell your children about what the driver said to you?
I explained what happened and said that sometimes people think and say things that are untrue. I said we should try to consider and understand why someone might make that mistake and then try to show and teach that person what is true.
Our family often talks about how Americans are of various races and ethnic backgrounds. Our kids don’t have to look very far to see that — just to their own mommy and daddy. My husband is Caucasian. But we also note that many, many of our friends and classmates and family members look different from us and from each other. And while we look different and might celebrate different traditions and even speak different languages at home, we are the same in many ways, too. And one of the ways in which we are the same is that we are all Americans.
Q: How do you prepare your children for what they might encounter growing up Asian American?
I hope I’m raising them to appreciate and embrace their Asian background, and know that they have the same rights and privileges and responsibilities as any other American. I will also warn them that there will be some people who make immediate false assumptions and judgments about them.
My husband and I also tell our kids that our differences are what make us special. Our differences make our community an interesting, wonderful, exciting, and vibrant one. One of the greatest joys in life is to learn from each other. If everyone were exactly the same, life would be boring, right? A one-color world sounds awfully drab, doesn’t it? Those are the questions we ask our children.
Q: What does it mean to you to be Asian American?
It means I am a proud American who is equally proud of her Asian ancestry. I was born and raised in America. In addition to speaking English for a living on TV, I also speak Korean, keep many Korean traditions, send my children to Korean school on Saturdays, and am actively involved in a variety of Asian American organizations and activities. My parents taught me that knowing, understanding, and embracing my “Korean-ness” enriches who I am as an American. And, in fact, my “Asian-ness” is an integral part of my American self.
Q: What can people do to make sure what happened to you doesn’t happen to others?
The more we talk and share and discuss, the more we raise consciousness and heighten sensitivity. I now regret all the years I spent being quiet, all the years I let ignorant comments just pass me by. I mistakenly believed that the best way to handle racism was to ignore it. I thought if I addressed it, somehow doing so would give it more power. I was wrong.
If we want to effect change, we need to speak out and stand up. But we need to do it thoughtfully and constructively. And we need to include and invite everyone into the conversation. That was apparent as I read all the posts from an incredibly diverse group of people on my Facebook page.
We also have to examine ourselves and check our own biases and our own behavior. We need to force ourselves to pause before drawing conclusions about others. We need to ask ourselves, “Why am I making this conclusion and is it correct?” And then we need to act accordingly and change our own behavior if need be.