UPDATED: Dec. 1, 2015 at 12:07 a.m.
Can’t you see? I’m hurting.
Last October, someone threatened over email to kill hundreds of Asian female students at Harvard. The series of messages sent to our college email addresses, promising to “shoot” and “kill” us individually—us “slit-eyes”—was unsettling, to say the least. I remember forwarding the email to my resident dean immediately upon receiving it, my fingers trembling. People assured us: It’s not a credible threat. But just in case, here are the active shooter safety recommendations, developed with guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Read about how to duck behind a door. Now move on.
I tried to move on. Yet just last week, more than a year later, the same person took advantage of Internet’s anonymity and messaged me in German. The content itself wasn’t threatening: “Kannst du deutlich sprechen?” or, “Can you speak clearly?” It felt like déjà vu. Fingers trembling again, I called HUPD. An officer came, wrote down the information, and stated that a detective might—just might—get in touch with me. Some friends showed their support, from liking my status on Facebook to sending me a quick text to talking to me in person. Others, not so much: Don’t worry, he’s just some lone wolf in Europe. You’re safe here.
I put on my mask, pretending that everything was truly okay. I went to class and even office hours that day, discussing abstraction in Albrecht Dürer’s “Knots” series as though I had no concerns besides academics.
This time, though, I came back to my room at the end of the day, and I broke down. Never mind the fact that he had singled me out, or that he knew I spoke German. Or, as somebody suggested, that he was insinuating that I couldn’t speak clearly because of my accent.
But as we all should know, this is far from the only racially charged event that has taken place at Harvard and its peer institutions in recent history. Black tape crossed out the faces of black professors at Harvard Law School. A fake final club punch stated “no fucking Jews. Colored OK.” Larry Summers supposedly questioned the academic standards of Cornel R. West '74, a former professor of African American Studies. These incidents are rampant throughout the rest of the country: how about that time swastikas were drawn on Yale’s Old Campus? Or when the members of Sigma Phi Epsilon and Alpha Phi at University of California, Los Angeles held a “Kanye West” party and wore blackface this past October?
When we get upset after any of these events, it’s never about the event itself. It’s about the culture of injustice in which these specific events are embedded. As an Asian woman, I face subtle or explicit forms of racism on a regular basis. Worse, I am expected to accept these incidents and put on a brave face. I will never forget what a white guy my age once told me: “You’re an Asian woman. You are at a disadvantage. You either suck it up and deal with it, or you can be a loser.” These words replay in my mind, nonstop. I can’t help but believe him. Whenever I’m hurt, I ignore my pain and force myself to forget it. I busy myself with writing my term papers, doing supplementary reading for a seminar, or working away at my thesis. I edit my fellowship applications. I can’t afford to be anything less than perfect when I’m already at a loss due to my race and gender. Even as I write this article, I wonder if I should instead be spending time doing homework. Worse yet, I worry that I sound too whiny.
A bus driver calls me an Orient? He doesn’t know better. A professor urges me to not be too polite despite my ethnic inclinations? She didn’t really mean that. My romantic interest tells me in a drunken haze that he likes Asian girls because he’s disenchanted by blonde bombshells? That’s a compliment. A friend says nonchalantly that he could easily break my fingers because they are tiny and Asian? That’s just a joke. Move on, I tell myself—don’t let it get to you.
The moment I am bothered by these statements, the moment I expend unnecessary time or energy, I become the loser.
But as I have learned, we all reach breaking points. This is mine.
This is my humble request: When we try to talk about our experiences or our pain, don’t dismiss us by saying that Erika Christakis’s email shouldn’t have triggered outrage, or that the message I received wasn’t threatening. Don’t label us as whiny, privileged Ivy League students. It’s already hard to talk about how vulnerable we feel when I’m supposed to be gleeful and grateful all the opportunities Harvard has to offer. When I finally decided to send my professors an email about what happened two weekends ago and how distraught I felt, I cannot tell you how many times I obsessively checked my email for their responses. Did I just affect my academic career? Will they think less of me? Do they care?
The more we hear that these discussions are “better had by people of color,” or that, as a white person, you couldn’t possibly understand where we are coming from, the more we harden our façades and hurt inside. It’s incredibly difficult and tiring to continue this conversation when we feel that our voices aren’t being heard. I become tempted to take my mom’s advice and “stop angering white people.”
Yes, the conversations are uncomfortable. We will both make mistakes and inevitably hurt each other in the process. But that’s the whole point. Neither of us will be on the winning side of the argument. Just because I may not understand your experiences doesn’t mean I won’t try to. If you feel that I invalidated your argument because you are white, that’s all the more reason for us to talk. Only through these challenging and tearful dialectical discussions can we move forward.
I understand that Harvard’s hands may be tied with my particular case, especially if it has been passed over to the German authorities. But it still distresses me that the person who wants to kill “slit-eye” students is messaging me “individually.” And it distresses me even more that behind my smile and my stacks of notes on Marcel Duchamp is a painful racial undertone telling me not to show any weakness.
Talk to me. Hear me out.
Adela H. Kim ’16, a former Crimson Arts executive, is a History of Art and Architecture concentrator in Lowell House.
This op-ed has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: December 1, 2015
An earlier version of this op-ed misidentified one of two fraternities at University of California, Los Angeles that held a "Kanye West" party in October. In fact, the fraternity is Sigma Phi Epsilon.