March 18, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Your Face in Mine

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It’s a strange thing to mourn strangers — six women I’ve never met and will never meet. For hours after I first read news of the shooting in Atlanta where a white man killed eight people, six of whom were Asian American women, my throat stiffened with a sadness I couldn’t swallow. I didn’t understand the very real grief I felt when I read their names: Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Hyun Jung Grant, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Yaun, Daoyou Feng and Paul Andre Michels. 

I kept thinking their names were just another headline in a year long newspaper reel of attacks against Asian American elders and women. I told myself that it was a privilege to read of their deaths from a distance understanding that, as a Cornell student, I enjoy the insular privilege of a family background and an Ivy League education that separates me from older working-class Asian American women. There was a part of me that even felt like I didn’t have the right to mourn them, that it was overdramatic to feel real sadness over their deaths. After all, I didn’t know them. Not really. 

In my mourning, I feel like I don’t even have the right to grieve. I am forced to justify and rejustify my grief to myself, depoliticize it, reclaim it.

To my Asian American friends, my peers: give yourself the air to grieve. Give yourself the time to radically empathize and mourn for our community. This grief is real. I know it’s real because, even though I’ve never met these women, I know them. We all know them. 

By nature, our tongues know how to shape their names because they’re our names too, passed down by generations until they become generic, familiar identifiers of Asian heritage. Our peers and our professors who don’t come from marginalized backgrounds may never understand that those are the faces of our sisters, our mothers and our grandmothers. The elderly Asian man who died in Oakland, C.A. after being assaulted and robbed —  he has my father’s face. The Asian woman who was called “Chinese Virus” and spat on three times while holding her baby in Queens, N.Y. — she has my mother’s face. 

When I look at the photographs of the six women — and of the countless other Asian American women and elders who are victims of hate crimes and racist violence — I wish I could say this to them: “I know you. I see you. I see your face in mine and mine in yours. And I know it by heart.” 

To Cornell, I have many things to say and too many to articulate in one Sun guest column. So, I’ll just say two things:

  1.  Let students grieve, please. Create time and grace for us. 

Professors, I’m talking to you. Do you know how many Asian American students populate your classes? How have you offered them support, kindness and empathy? The recommendations from the mental health review’s final report recommend that Cornell should “require that faculty and staff attend at least one mental health training opportunity every two years.” 

To the members of the Executive Accountability Committee: firstly, this recommendation should have been implemented as soon as the pandemic started and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arberry and many others that have left so many of our BIPOC students in mourning as well. Students are hurting because of the lack of impetus and real action on the administration’s part. 

Secondly, one mental health training opportunity every two years is not enough. Faculty should be required to attend a mental health training opportunity at the beginning of every semester. Requiring faculty to attend more mental health training opportunities (just a few hours out their entire year!) would only serve as a benefit.

  1. Cornell, your reliance on policing is pathetic. 

To my white peers at Cornell — especially white women — who believe the police keep us safe: Look at Sarah Everard whose death at the hands of a police officer in the UK is sparking global conversations about gender justice. She was white. She was a woman. A policeman killed her. Your privilege that benefits from policing at the expense of your BIPOC peers will go so far but it will not save you.

To my Asian American peers who believe that the police protect us: Look at Christian Hall. Christian was a 19 year old Chinese American boy, suffering from a mental health crisis. He was shot by the police 19 times. They killed him

Look at Angelo Quinto. He was a Filipino American man, and a Navy veteran who sustained a head injury and needed mental health support. His mother hugged him on the floor until the police arrived and when the cops arrived, they killed him. One put a knee on his neck for 5 minutes, while another officer held his legs and Angelo suffocated to death. 

Look at these faces. Don’t you dare turn away. 

Is it starting to make sense to you? Are you starting to see what we see? 

Meanwhile, pay attention to whom the police have managed to save and defend — not our Asian women but instead, the white man who gunned down eight people, and was still armed when the police found him. Even the police’s press conference pitied the killer. The killer’s justification was that he had a “sexual addiction,” and  had to eliminate his “temptation” as a “form of vengeance” against these Asian women. 

Even worse, Captain Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office excused the actions of the Atlanta killer by saying that this murderer’s racist and sexist actions were a result of him “having a bad day” and that he had just been “fed up.” 

There is a clear imbalance of priority in who the police “protect,” and it’s because these racist sentiments are not lost within the police departments themselves. It’s of no surprise that the same Captain Baker was found to have repeatedly posted racist images concerning China and the coronavirus on his personal Facebook. 

The police are not here to protect and serve us. But we already knew this because, sadly, we’ve seen how the police treat our BIPOC peers and family. Cornell’s public refusal to even consider disarming its police department is embarrassing. It’s an embarrassment and it’s a shame that Cornell will prioritize the supposed comfort of white students over the literal safety and lives of their BIPOC students. 

So pardon me if my language isn’t delicate or diplomatic enough. Excuse me if I sound angry or “fed up.” Forgive me if these judgements are “too harsh” but I’ve kind of just had “a really bad day.” Because, fundamentally, I’m tired of Asian Americans having to apologize for our grief and our anger, and for taking up the space that we deserve. I’m tired of speaking into an echoing cavern of grief, where the only voices that respond to me are the voices of other Asian Americans or BIPOC who are all hurting in similar ways. Why am I seeing faces turn away from us and away from our grief? Please, can’t you see your face in mine, and mine in yours?

Catherine Huang is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and currently serves as the President of the undergraduate Student Assembly. Read more about proposed demands to support the Asian American community at Cornell here. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Rooms runs periodically throughout the semester.

Update, March 20, 10:10 a.m.: This columns has been updated to include the since-released list of victims’ names.