What Alerts, Alters
Updated: Jun 27, 2020
When reading Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, I feel moved, destabilized, and inspired. In vignettes of prose melting into poetry, I read Claudia Rankine as describing the forgiveness of racial injustice as “a death of the understanding that this has happened, is happening, happens.”
Racial injustice has happened before, though I got the more-than-abbreviated version in history class. Racial injustice is happening as we speak, both outwardly and behind closed doors. Racial injustice happens as comfort is chosen at the expense of protecting lives.
Although I believe allyship is a choice to abandon comfort, I believe it is also a commitment to comprehending complexity. Non-Black allyship, to me, includes recognizing pain that persists through generational trauma. After reading Rankine in February 2020, I now revisit this phrase and reflect on what has happened, what is happening, and what happens in my own immediate community. What has persisted, festering in silence and complicity, to wound people of color?
Reshaping pain into art, I have experienced Black women sharing their stories of triumph and asking for little in return. A “sound child” at heart, I listen to “Fragile” by Eryn Allen Kane, mesmerized by her melodies that sing solemn sorrows of Black women. As I understand it, the song guides listeners through the story of a Black woman, taught by her mother and grandmother to build walls out of self-preservation. Sheltered behind skyscraping walls, there exists a woman who Eryn Allen Kane implores, “Don’t you build [walls] too tall, [they] may never fall . . . you’re still human. . .”
As a Korean-American woman, I’ve built walls myself. Attending a predominantly white public school in northern New Jersey, I grew up holding myself back. Always a people-pleaser, I never expressed any discomfort while attending the school. During a lesson on Lunar New Year in history class, I merely listened to my peers in the back — mocking the ancient celebrations and scoffing, “Why are we learning about this? We’re in America.” I didn’t say a word.
Though I am now more vocal about my beliefs, the consequences of my former silence ring louder than ever. I now realize that my silence did not affect myself exclusively. Involved in student council during my senior year, I sat at my school district’s monthly board meetings as a student representative. Amidst my school’s leaders and policymakers, I fell silent during one meeting when a Black mother had come forward and voiced her fears for her child in the elementary school. As she recounted the experience of her child being called the n-word and threatened by another peer, the mother was in tears. She expressed that in the two years since she had moved to our New Jersey town, she always felt out of place. She said her daughter felt unsafe and dropping her off at school felt like “leaving her in a war zone.” The board quickly dismissed the mother, firm that her circumstances would not be addressed in a public meeting.
I had opportunities to speak out and amplify the unheard. I could have stayed alert and paid attention to Black voices — in poetry, music, and within my own community.
In my past, there is also Taryn. Black, unapologetically herself, and one of the most resilient people I know, Taryn has been my best friend since the seventh grade. Attending the same school, we crossed paths as two fellow students of color. Molded by our otherness, we were each other’s safe spaces.
When told that peers were touching Taryn’s hair because it was “so cool,” pulses of defeat reverberated in me. When a faculty member asked Taryn if she was dressed as a “break-dancer” when wearing baggy sweatpants and a white tank-top, I felt at a loss for words. As Taryn filled me in on her daily efforts to defend herself, her space, and reclaim comfort, the school’s lack of institutional support for students of color became increasingly evident to me. When Taryn stayed home every year for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the one national holiday not observed during our time as students, we shared our frustrations in private conversations. Instead of requesting changes to the administration, we shared with each other about channeling our energy into making ourselves feel valued in more obedient, culturally acceptable ways: by excelling in academics, pouring our hearts into the choir and theater programs, and building a safety net to welcome people like ourselves — the friend group of marginalized misfits.
We became an identifiable group in the school cafeteria as lunchtime seemed to be the one time all five of us could take up as much space as we wanted. All of us sitting together, I felt liberated by our intimate and personal discussions about race and identity. As students of color, we reveled in the sensation of finding mutuality in shared experiences, from feeling like spokespeople for our race to digesting microaggressions served tenderly in morsels of backhanded compliments. We poured our energy into empowering each other, and the smallness of our group seemed to insulate us. By keeping to ourselves, none of our energy would be lost by us trying, and then failing, to change the student culture. I figured institutional change would be a distant pipe dream. If our white peers permit stereotypes and paint fixed images of us, why bother demanding inclusion?
While being best friends with Taryn, I hadn’t recognized my complacency in trying to learn about Blackness. Only comprehending the validity of Taryn’s anger for being talked over and undervalued, I could not grasp how that anger could be transformed into openness.
In one of our conversations, Taryn told me about her announcement in health class, when she had invited her fellow classmates to ask questions about being the only Black person in discussions about race, as well as her experience at our high school. Feeling unsettled by the thought of breaking our safety net, I feared that Taryn’s openness would prompt our white peers to transform her invitation into their invasion. By letting the antagonists of our stories in, and in being honest about our struggles, I assumed the worst: that our issues would be put down and diminished as false or exaggerated.
“Aren’t you angry?” I asked Taryn.
“I am angry, but that anger will get us nowhere,” she responded with ambition.
Taryn broke my circuit: my subconscious belief that the term “we” meant only our circle, the students of color. By shattering the walls surrounding our comfort circle, Taryn showed me that “we” cannot be exclusive. “We” cannot be only people of color, whose conversations, in my experience, have played out like echo chambers of the same sentiments and shared experiences on an endless loop. In order to see change, I came to believe we must come clean with our vulnerabilities, instead of building walls around them; we must come up with ways to make conversations about race feel natural and transparent; we must listen, amplify, and act.
Although a social safety net of like-minded individuals served as a crucial healing space, I now realize that I must do more as a non-Black ally. Beyond listening to Black stories, I hold the responsibility of amplifying them. By mobilizing my own privilege, I can use my own power to create space for these voices to be heard, appreciated, and valued outside of the safety net.
As a rising college sophomore, I am responding to the call to reform and diversify school communities. After noticing our former school district’s radio silence on the recent murders of George Floyd and countless others, my closest friends and I are finally speaking up and taking action. Urging our school officials to release a public statement of solidarity towards students of color, we are also holding our town accountable for facilitating discussions about race in early education. As racial disparities in America limit equal access to healthcare, affordable housing, and other necessities, I believe students of color have the cultural competence and power to turn the tide and help dismantle inequity. We need students of color rising to positions of power. By investing in students of color, I believe schools can provide these students with the support they deserve to help them thrive — helping to close the racial achievement gap in America.
“What alerts, alters.” As I echo another quote from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, I urge that allies work to better understand the nuances that underlie the intricate stories told by Black women including Claudia Rankine, Eryn Allen Kane, my friend Taryn, and many more. While the words “alert” and “alter” are made up of the same letters, their differences in arrangement mark their unique meanings: they are no longer equivalent. Skim too fast, and you may miss the message.
When hearing the cries of a Black mother, understand that while you may not be able to heal the wounds, you can certainly help stop the bleeding. If invited by a Black peer to ask about their experiences, I urge you to take them up on the offer — respectfully and gratefully. Evaluate what variables in your environment cause people of color to feel out of place. Learn, and then change for the better.
As often as you choose to wake up every morning, I urge you to choose to be alarmed by your community’s faults. I urge you to provide more space, as safety nets are simply not enough. I believe it is okay to start with small changes. Respond to the alert. Alter.
Pursuing her passions for nutrition and equity in healthcare, Jane is a rising sophomore at Cornell University studying Human Biology, Health and Society. As a summer intern for The Reflect Organization (Reflect), Jane is inspired to make actionable changes and help create more equitable spaces for students of color. Starting with her own community in New Jersey, she hopes to create more equitable spaces as an Asian-American ally. Jane believes in the power of cultural humility and non-optical allyship. As a
firm believer in coffee breaks and naps, Jane loves to decompress by singing with The Key Elements, a co-ed acapella group at Cornell, and by reading her favorite poems.