Kennedy: New UTC graduate reflects on violence aimed at Asian-Americans

Kalani Cannon, a recent University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate, says she believes her generation will call out racial discrimination. UTC photo by Angela Foster.
photo Kalani Cannon, a recent University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate, says she believes her generation will call out racial discrimination. UTC photo by Angela Foster.

In some of her University of Tennessee at Chattanooga classes, Kalani Cannon, 22, was the only non-white student.

When the topic of diversity came up in her classes, Cannon sometimes noticed students glancing her way, as if to invite her to step into the center of the discussion.

For the Georgia-born, Hawaian-named, California-raised daughter of a Filipino immigrant, Cannon found the attention odd, as if she were being pressed to fill a role.

It wasn't that she was uncomfortable conversing about race and ethnicity - in fact she is extremely thoughtful on those topics - but as an Asian-American with Pacific Island heritage she had never personally felt the sting of prejudice.

Then, in the past year, things changed. The March shootings of Asian massage-business workers in Atlanta, coupled with reports of random physical attacks on Asian-presenting people in big cities around America, gave Cannon a lot to think about.

"When the killings happened in Atlanta, that really scared me," Cannon said in an interview. "For the first time in my life I was personally scared. It was [also] scary to see the hate crimes and beatings in big cities.

"It was personal. I realized it could be me or someone I love."

Suddenly, Cannon said she felt as if only her African-American friends could truly understand the emotions she was feeling.

"I felt like they were the only ones who understand my rage, hurt, confusion and sadness," she said.

Cannon, who graduated from UTC earlier his month, said she spent much of her childhood in coastal California. Her microbiologist mom, who came to the United States from the Philippines as a child, is a hula dancer and her physician dad is a surfer.

Just before she entered high school, Cannon said, her father felt called by his faith to move the family from California to Memphis, where Kalani attended a private school. She moved to Chattanooga to attend UTC, noting that many of her high school friends felt pulled to attend bigger Southern schools that emphasized football and Greek life.

Cannon was drawn to Chattanooga partly because of its proximity to the Tennessee River, but also because of an inclusive vibe she picked up on while visiting the city.

"If you can't have an ocean, this [river] is second best," she said.

She labored to decide whether to study science or art, believing the two disciplines are actually intertwined. She settled on science and has landed a job next fall teaching sixth- and seventh-graders at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.

Meanwhile, she worked through some of her emotions by speaking about race issues at her church, City Collective, which meets at The Signal music venue.

"My pastor had seen me post a lot [on social media] about Asian hate crimes," she said.

Shortly after the Atlanta slayings, a prayer of lament was read at her church, along with prayers for change.

While she has never felt she was a target of overt racist behavior, Cannon said she has a Korean friend who has endured a lot of stereotyping and derision.

Still, Cannon said, she sees change on the horizon and believes her generation is highly motivated to end racial injustice.

"People are being pushed toward awareness of racism and calling it out," she said. " I think it's a generational shift."

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