“Where are you from?”
It’s a question that Jennifer Ho, as an Asian American, is tired of hearing. Strangers have asked her this question her entire life in an array of situations—including while in line for a copier at Staples.
Once, though, a similar question led to a profound experience. Ho, an ethnic studies professor and director of the Center for Humanities & the Arts (CHA) at CU Boulder, was giving blood in rural Massachusetts after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The nurse, an older white woman, was inserting the line into Ho’s arm. “What's your nationality?” she asked.
Ho decided that she wouldn’t protest this time. After all, there was blood flowing out of her arm. She said simply, “I’m Chinese American.” The nurse lit up, “My granddaughter is Chinese!” she said. “And every day, she asks me: 'Did you meet anyone who looks like me?'”
The door was opened.
Jennifer Ho participating in the inauguration of Chancellor Carol Folt at UNC Chapel Hill in October 2014. (Photo provided)
It’s these types of experiences and exchanges Ho is trying to cultivate through a variety of projects at CU Boulder. She feels especially moved to take action now amid widespread reports of anti-Asian discrimination due to the COVID-19 pandemic originating in China.
Ho has developed resources to help people become better educated on why not to use the phrase Chinese or China virus, learn about the history of Asian racism in the U.S., and get tips on how to act and talk in a manner that is anti-racist.
She has begun a blog through the Center Humanities & the Arts called Pandemic Posts, as well as announced Shelter Projects, micro-grants available for the CU Boulder community inspired by the Willson Center’s Shelter Projects. (Applications are due by April 22.). She has spoken out about these issues in a talk hosted by PEN America and in a special episode of the National Communication Association’s Communication Matters podcast.
“There was a constellation of moments that happened in my young life that when I was older helped me kind of think through and shape the things I started to study and care about,” she said.
Combating racism through education
Ho always wanted to be a writer.
She grew up in a working, middle-class family in San Francisco. Her parents took her to the library every Friday, where she’d check out as many books as possible, read them all, return them a week later, and do it all again.
Twelve-year-old Ho would wander down the aisles of books, tracing her finger along their spines until she found her section—where the alphabet hit “H.” She imagined her own work appearing there, but not as Ho—instead, under the pen name Hope. It sounded European, cosmopolitan, and most of all, it didn’t sound Chinese.
It wasn’t until years later in college, in her Introduction to Asian American Studies course at University of California Santa Barbara, that Ho first read anything written by an Asian American author: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.
For Ho, it was a revelation: Asian American people were writing books about their own experiences, and people wanted to read them. She didn’t need a pen name to become a writer.
A few weeks later in the same course, she learned the exact immigration law that brought her father's family from Taiwan into the United States as Chinese refugees. For the first time, a piece of U.S. history felt like it was her own history.
“My mind was blown. That was the most transformative educational experience,” said Ho. “Everything else that I've done educationally can be traced back to that class.”
She changed her major to English with a focus on Asian American Studies, went on to receive her doctorate at Boston University in English literature, and is an award-winning author of three books—with more on the way. She is also the president of the Association for Asian American Studies, the premier international professional and academic organization for the study of Asian Americans.
Racism as a human rights issue
Ho came to CU Boulder in August from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where she was a professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, and the associate director of the Institute for Arts and Humanities.
Living in the South for 16 years made Ho think carefully about how she thought about race and what her own position was as an American of Asian heritage in an area that really only saw race in black-and-white terms.
“One of the things I really grew to love and appreciate about the U.S. South is that it's an extraordinarily complex place and home to some of the most ardent anti-racism activists,” said Ho. “I'm eternally grateful that I got to become a better scholar and a better teacher of race by virtue of being physically and geographically in the U.S. South.”
Ho wrote about what it was like for her to be an Asian American in the South for Oxford American.
Her lived experiences, in addition to her research in Asian American studies, led her to think about racism much more broadly, and to see racism as a human rights issue.
She maintains that being anti-racist isn’t simply about not being racist. Rather, “it’s choosing to act in an anti-racist manner and to talk in an anti-racist manner. It’s understanding that racism is structural, it's systematic, it’s institutionalized.”
Her own lived experiences have also given her a clear life goal: to end racism.
For that to happen, Ho said we must all see an end to sexism as well as an end “to discriminating against people based on sexuality or gender, as well as income inequality. And we must create spaces in which people of various abilities all have access and opportunity.”
“It really means universal human rights for all people.”
Have you experienced incident of racism at CU Boulder? Don’t Ignore It: learn more about what you can do.