Written by Jennifer Dong.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.

Her name is Chanel Miller.

She is half-Chinese; an artist, writer, sister, daughter, friend, lover of printmaking and comedy.

For years, she was publicly known as Emily Doe or a nameless victim after Brock Turner was convicted for sexually assaulting her on Stanford University’s campus in 2015. Emily Doe’s name was splashed across national headlines, but her identity remained confined to a photograph taken on one January night—never getting older, never getting younger. In her devastating and brilliant memoir Know My Name, Chanel expands on her viral victim statement, ultimately reclaiming the humanity she was denied and converting her pain into art.

Peppered with personal anecdotes from her childhood and adolescence, the memoir is equal parts powerful and vulnerable. The Chanel we get to know is strong, funny, thoughtful, silly, and compassionate, a flesh and blood person illuminated by the warmth of her words. In her beautiful, tear-jerking masterpiece, Chanel describes every mundane object with such elegant, painstaking specificity. When she describes the feeling of utter displacement while sleeping in an unfamiliar hospital cot the night of her assault, she notes the blood on her hands, strange pants from the hospital. She writes, “I was ready to leave this messy dream, to wake up in my own bed, beneath my floral comforter and rice-paper lantern, my sister asleep in the room next to mine.” Reading Chanel’s lush prose feels like lifting your face to warm sunshine, so far away from the cold, medical beeping of hospital equipment, the squeaking of doctors’ shoes in waxy hallways, stark courtrooms. It’s like diving into an ocean of pain, reliving the discomfort of your lungs tightening in all of its specific intricacies and rawness, in which coming back for air is an overdue catharsis—a relief tempered only by the sobering realization that you’ll never be the same again.

At one point, Chanel notes, “I had grown up in the margins; in the media Asian Americans were assigned side roles, submissive, soft-spoken secondary characters. I had grown used to being unseen, to never being fully known. It did not feel possible that I could be the protagonist.” It becomes clear that this is a memoir about racism as much as it is about misogyny. The model minority stereotype many Asian Americans face serves a pernicious role in obscuring the fact that we still experience inequality and racism. As a Chinese-American, I feel an obligation to become connected to a singular heritage while being aware that there is no static heritage for me anymore. The China my parents once knew so well is rapidly changing, and the America I grew up in will view me as eternally foreign. Hearing about my great-grandparents surviving the Nanking Massacre, learning and speaking the language, and visiting my parents’ hometowns, I know that these experiences comprise a large part of me, but to what end? Seeing myself through my relatives’ eyes through a phone screen with bad connection stumbling through words in my accented Chinese, I am hopelessly different, only a foolish American. These experiences were etched into my DNA at birth, and yet I struggle to embrace them, feel dear to them, let alone decipher them.

As a child, I recall despising the moments when I was forced to remember that I was different. I can’t explain the pain of feeling disgusted by the yellow undertones of my skin, of not wanting to be seen in public because of the stereotypes and racial slurs others instinctively assigned to me. For so long, we have been taught to suppress our anger so that the general culture will not have to admit to past wrongs and be held accountable for racist social structures, practices, and policies. Excuses were immediately made: kids are young and don’t know any better, they didn’t mean it, in the same manner the phrase “boys will be boys” is delivered. I spent years carrying the burden of shame, wondering if my skin was too thin, fearing that I would be seen as too fragile if I admitted that it hurt my feelings. But why should I feel guilty for hateful, wrong words that never came out of my mouth? Why should I bear the weight of someone else’s unacceptable racial prejudice? Why should I feel compelled to hide a part of myself that I am proud of and love? Deep down, I tried to erase this experience from my mind because I didn’t want to be reminded of the way I was sometimes seen by the world: as less than human. It was a stain on the whole, complex human I thought I was. Like a teardrop slowly expanding its reach on paper, this stain would course through my veins and bubble under the surface of my skin from that moment on. The same person privileged enough to receive a college education today is a descendant of women with bound feet and of poverty resulting from the Cultural Revolution and the Opium Wars. As my scrunchie-misplacing, ice cream-loving, bad poetry-writing, frizzy-haired self, I am so much more than a racist five-letter slur. We can still be passionate, hopeful, and brave, but also bruised and broken.

When someone gets hurt, the perpetrator gets accused and punished. We forget that the correct response to this is not writing apology letters filled with platitudes in order to protect damaged reputations, but of swallowing our pride to learn from our mistakes and taking steps to extend equal treatment to all. In the case of sexual assault, a victim’s scars are invisible. However, the similarity with racism lies in the fact that we live our lives in pain and suffering, pretending that it’s acceptable for the world and even ourselves to normalize oppression. Chanel’s memoir exposes an unjust legal system in which victims are left to their own devices, suffering the anguish of public scrutiny and psychological torment. She underscores our society’s failure of providing safe environments in which justice is served, criticizing institutions that offer false promises of protection and view assault as an isolated rarity instead of a broader sociological problem. 

The moments of pain and trauma are brutal to even read about, but this memoir reminds me most of love and empathy. Just when life seems to be a never-ending series of losses, the overpowering, unexpected moments of love find you alone in a dimly lit parking lot and blossom in the cold night, warming your heart with such tenderness you didn’t know was possible. Love for Chanel is manifested through simple gestures instead of showy demonstrations, like how it feels to be included, being told I am here for you, or a warm embrace from a friend in which both of you collapse into tears. My extended family and I are connected through airport boarding gates and intercoms as much as we are through blood and genes. And even though customs, culture, politics, and an ocean separate us, love is the common language that we all understand without fail. Whenever we become disillusioned from the bitterness and pain of life, the beauty and kindness of this world reminds us at the last minute that we should stay.

In Know My Name, Chanel reveals that there is strength in being vulnerable, that words are powerful and names are sacred. As a Chinese-American, I often questioned whether I was allowed to occupy space, thinking I didn’t matter. But we do matter. We are not your model minorities, or chinks, gooks, slants, Orientals. Our ability to be accepted in this country should not fall on degree of assimilation and keeping to ourselves even under flaming injustices. Yet we cannot fight for justice by responding with hate. Humanity and empathy are ultimately the driving factors that allow us to expose the brutality so pervasive in our society—as humans, we must fearlessly stand up for what is right and question the status quo, even if it means facing backlash. Know My Name shows us that when we are dehumanized and swept to the margins, we must always push back with the full weight and depth of our life experiences.

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