On March 16, 2021, a gunman opened fire in an Asian-owned business in metro Atlanta, killing four people. He then drove about thirty miles south targeting another Asian business, where he killed three more people. And then, he crossed the street to a third Asian business and killed another person. In the span of an hour, eight people were fatally shot, six of whom were Asian women. Two days after the shootings, my favorite teacher from high school, a man I admired, took to social media and declared that race had nothing to do with the crimes.

I was struck by my teacher’s freedom to speak so carelessly, with the certainty of safety, that he could wade into the shallow end and megaphone his uninformed hot take of this deeply complex series of events, in which a minority group is profoundly affected by a majority offender. In contrast, I think about the times in my life when it was to the benefit of my social buoyancy and physical safety to ignore offensive noise, acting as if it had never happened. But in facing this directly, with an eye toward healing, I gained an unexpected view of my own freedom.

The only thing I can liken this new perspective to is what happens in Go Set a Watchman. Of course, what happens in Harper Lee’s second (or first) novel is made extraordinary in relation to what we already know and hold dear in To Kill a Mockingbird. As we understand it now, Lee completed the Watchman manuscript before Mockingbird was ever written. And in perhaps the finest stroke of editing, she scrapped it all, save for mention of a trial. She rewrote the story and changed the heroine from a twenty-something Jean Louise to a six-year-old girl who prefers to go by Scout.

For me, Mockingbird is the essence of dependability. I can always step back into those summers in Maycomb County, where there is a lesson in its pages for every situation. And when things get tough, I picture Gregory Peck, who starred as Atticus in the 1962 film version, reminding me that you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. I still own the original copy of the book that I read in eighth grade. It sits lovingly on a bookshelf next to its new (old) companion.

I consumed everything I could find surrounding the discovery and forthcoming publication of Watchman in 2015. The revelation of Lee’s antecedent voices for her iconic characters captivated me. Among the fanfare, I scrolled past the dread that some expressed about the risk of tainting a classic. I did not sympathize with most of this chatter, what seemed like people grieving that anyone would mess with Atticus. It was not until enough years had gone by that I could look back and understand why I could not relate. It was because I had yet to be let down by someone I adored.

This meta-story is how I have processed the reality that my former teacher is not the noble figure I had built him up to be these many years since I last sat in his classroom. Reading his post was disorienting, like how Jean Louise must have felt when she snuck into the courthouse and found Atticus speaking at what amounted to a “Concerned Citizens” rally. It was simply impossible, irreconcilable. This person whom we all looked up to in high school, who told us about Plato and Nietzsche, who was our Atticus—he was far more complex than I had imagined.

I have long taken the stance of not engaging in debate on social media, but I felt compelled to comment publicly to his post. My response to one nonsense Facebook post and his subsequent replies—which included a private message that doubled-down to explain why my views were invalid— is an example itself of the difficulty Asians face when we choose to engage. When we find the words, momentum, and opportunity to speak we are often reasoned away.

The activity in this one post reflected so much of what I was seeing online: Two completely different conversations were happening, one in which people were finding every reason to explain how the shootings were not fueled by the previous administration, and the other in which Asian Americans were constantly having to prove that their experiences are real. Yes, there is freedom of speech. But what are we achieving when there is talk without the intention to understand?

Instead of using his experiences to interpret something that was not about his experiences, he could have listened to those who have something at stake. In doing so, he might have learned that racism, sexism, unwanted sexual advances, and violence are pervasive and deeply woven into the lives of Asian women. To be clear, hyper-sexualization is racism against Asian women. Instead of using his place as a public-school teacher to espouse a narrow and hurtful point of view, he could have amplified an Asian-American voice.

In the days following the shootings, I received several messages from friends and colleagues expressing astonishment that prejudice and violence against Asians were issues. While I had come to know these as facts of life, I needed to connect the dots, for those who could not see them, of my personal experiences with racism to the broader context of violence in my hometown and across the country. I shared a reflection on social media regarding the exchange with my teacher and other racial awakenings from the past year, and it led to incredible conversations with people spanning my childhood and adult life. The result was a parley of apologies for our shared humanity, affording me the opportunity to make amends with those whom I, too, have hurt in the past.

While on the surface they appear as disparate characters, one reading of the “new” Atticus confronts the possibility that he is the same person in both Mockingbird and Watchman. The difference, as time revealed to me, lies in the eyes of a grown woman versus those of a child. The remembrance of the older Jean Louise alongside young Scout gave me the liberty to reexamine what I thought I knew. The capacity to go back and edit, to refine my thinking, to forgive, is the freedom to be human.

Yang ’07, M.B.A. ’14 is a first-generation Asian American who lives in Atlanta. She enjoys storytelling as a means to raise awareness, generate conversation, and create momentum for change.

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