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UNLV Professor Breaks Stereotypes While Teaching Literature

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Julia Lee
Julia Lee/Twitter

UNLV professor Julia Lee breaks stereotypes by teaching African-American literature.

Literature by African-American writers is woven into the greater cultural fabric of American society. But the fact that other ethnic minorities teach African-American literature still confuses some people.

Julia Lee, a daughter of Korean immigrants and a professor at UNLV, knows the reaction well.

“I’m used to getting strange looks when I walk into the classroom. I teach African-American literature. And I am Korean American,” Lee wrote in the Huffington Post recently. Her article, “Why I Teach Black Literature,” brought quite bit of attention.

Lee believes the reaction is tied to the students’ preconceived ideas.  

“I think I don’t fit the image of what they think their professor should look like,” Lee says. “If I were African-American that may not be so much of a surprise. If I were white I don’t think that would be so much of a surprise because they are used to seeing white professors.”

But Asian woman teaching Black literature isn’t that common, Lee suggests. Asian-Americans presumably should be interested in teaching Asian-American culture and literature.

“The default is, you're just going to study people you look like,” Lee told KNPR’s State of Nevada.

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When she was a teenager, Lee witnessed the riots in South Central Los Angeles following the verdict in the Rodney King case in the early 90s.She said that experience was part of the reason she decided to dedicate her life to the African-American Literature. 

Lee said there are many narratives in Black literature that resonate across race, ethnicity, geographic location and time, but she admits she will never, “fully know what it’s like to be a black American.”

However, she points out she will never fully know what it’s like to be a white Englishman, or a Jewish Holocaust survivor, or a Russian exile -- but that doesn’t mean she can’t teach Shakespeare or Wiesel or Nabokov. 

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