June 7, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Understanding the BLM Movement from a Non-Black Perspective

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I am not black.

So the question I asked myself, over and over again, as I watched protest after protest unfold around the country was this: How can I make sure that when I join in protest, hold up a sign or post a hashtag on my Instagram, I am not merely saying the words “Black Lives Matter,” but representing them? How can I make sure I am doing this for the right reasons? How can I possibly understand the racial discrimination faced by Black Americans?

During my time at Cornell, especially competing for the Cornell Speech Team, I learned a valuable lesson: The best way to understand, the best way to relate to a story that is not yours, is simply to find within your own experiences the same emotions, the same reactions that you are seeing in the ones you want to relate to. This is mine.


These were the first words I woke up to on Sunday morning, Nov. 11, 2018. A voicemail had come from a friend of mine, currently attending a school in Washington state. According to her, she had fallen asleep the previous night and some of her (undoubtedly intoxicated) friends — friends who I had never met nor ever interacted with — stole her phone to leave this message.

I was incensed, I was hurt, I was outraged. But, somehow, and significantly, I was also happy.

I was happy that, finally, I held in my hands recorded evidence of an injustice I have endured for a long time. I was happy that I had something substantive that I could share with the world, something that so many Asian Americans have faced at school, at work and even online. This voicemail, finally, revealed to the world the deep-rooted, long-overlooked societal endorsement of explicit racism against Asian Americans.

As the Romans said, in vino veritas: In wine there is truth. That night, the truth was, “YOU LIKE LONG NAIL, SHORT NAIL?”

With those few “Asian-accented” words, my cultural identity, my heritage, my source of pride and support, was reduced to little more than chopsticks, manicures and poor English. Was this how people saw me? Sure, no sober, rationally-minded American would dare say such things as “CHING CHANG, DING DONG THE WITCH IS DEAD,” but underneath it all, underneath this egalitarian facade of polite smiles and cordial handshakes, was this the hideous caricature representing my identity as an Asian American, an identity I share with some 17 million others?

What is more infuriating is, that Sunday morning, I did not even know the people who so hatefully shamed my culture. They were complete strangers to me. What had I done to deserve their derogatory slurs? I had never said a word to any of them. I didn’t even know what they looked like. Was it simply the fact that my last name is Li?

With this voicemail still ringing in my ears, I urge us to endeavor past the racial misconceptions that have separated and aggravated the American people for so long. Talk to someone about their experiences navigating between their heritage and their citizenship; everybody has a story to tell. Learn about how we enrich the American identity with our unique cultures. Look beyond the wall of racist stereotypes, mindless jokes and easy targets, and wake up from the stupid slumber of that ugly caricature.

I do not pretend to understand every single complexity of the Black Lives Matter movement, but I do know, and will always remember, the frustration and anger I felt that Sunday morning. It is the same frustration and anger that many have felt before, regardless of their race. So let us use that frustration and anger to band together, glean a deeper understanding of, better empathize with the injustices suffered by Black Americans.

I know that I am much more than chopsticks, manicures and poor English. I know that we are much more than the ugly caricatures sometimes forced upon us. We know that we are, in every aspect of the word, American.

Bert Li is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the summer.