Notes on privilege and anti-Asian violence

Eight people were gunned down and killed nearly 36 hours ago at three Asian-owned massage parlors in the Atlanta area. Six were of Asian descent, and seven were women. I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the pain and grief of processing this. One of my white friends said to me last night, “I’m so furious that for one second you’d feel less safe because of these assholes,” and I replied, “I don’t know that I’ve ever truly felt safe.”

I had never said that before. Upon reflection, I think it’s more accurate to say, “I don’t know that I’ve ever truly felt safe as an adult.” I am Korean, adopted when I was four months old by upper-middle-class white parents, and I know that my light East Asian skin and proximity to whiteness have afforded me privilege not shared by other non-white people or even other Asians — especially when I was a child and blissfully ignorant. Being raised by white parents in a 90% white town in the late ’90s and early 2000s, it was almost a relief to hear my white friends say they would “forget” I’m Asian. It was comforting to feel accepted by whiteness, to be told it was “cool” that I was adopted, especially when the less colorblind kids would mock my eyes or envy my straight hair.

As I got older, it got more complicated. People I trusted as friends would make thoughtless or cruel Asian jokes, and while it was discomforting, I didn’t want to be That Girl™ who didn’t have a sense of humor or made a big deal out of nothing. I was reassured that I was “only Asian when it was convenient for a joke,” which I took to mean, essentially, no one really thinks I eat dogs. No one really means what they’re saying. They’ve just watched Austin Powers in Goldmember too many times, right? When someone said, “I know we don’t have those floor cushions your people like, but you can sit on the couch, you know,” I told myself not to take it personally, that it was meant to be a harmless joke. Same way the racist cartoons drawn in my yearbook were meant to be harmless. Same way constantly being interrogated about my grades and test scores was meant to be harmless. But, though I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, none of it was harmless.

I could only convince myself of that for so long, and I think deep down, I always knew the jokes weren’t funny, that they weren’t jokes so much as dehumanizing and disrespectful jabs at people who looked and/or lived differently — including me. Since then I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to learn about all the ways I was wrong and unpacking the dichotomy between my racial and cultural identities, the privilege of my proximity to whiteness, intersectionality, and the specific experience of being an Asian woman in America. For a long time, I felt guilty for ever being upset at racist treatment because it “wasn’t as bad” as what others experienced. I still have a hard time forgiving myself for my ignorance and past complicity. I’m working on healing, on holding myself accountable while also forgiving myself — and while also giving myself permission to validate my own experiences and acknowledge my trauma.

Because ultimately, even though I am well aware that I benefit in ways from being racially East Asian and culturally Western living in a system built on white supremacy, it doesn’t mean I ever feel safe. There are times when the complexities of existing between fixed identities simply don’t matter.

My privilege didn’t stop the white man with an Asian fetish who stalked me at work when I was in college. It didn’t stop any of the men who’ve harassed and assaulted me on the street.

It didn’t stop any of the countless men who’ve messaged me on dating apps from asking, “What are you?” and it didn’t stop the man who grunted, “Ooh, my first Korean pussy,” while we were having sex.

It didn’t stop any of the people who gave me nasty looks last spring in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic on the rare occasion that I left my Brooklyn apartment, and it wouldn’t have stopped a white supremacist “having a bad day” from shooting me at an Atlanta massage parlor last night.

Anti-Asian racism in America is not a new phenomenon. It did not begin with the pandemic, and it will not end with it. Bigotry is so embedded in our culture, and any claim that suggests all Americans are equal and free is patently false. Women, racial minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, sex workers, and other marginalized groups are not a monolith, yet all are expected to monitor and adjust their behavior, to make themselves smaller and suppress their identities so as not to invite violence — and that still won’t and can’t make any of us safe from being murdered merely for existing.

I’ve been hesitant to post anything on social media about any of this, given my aforementioned dichotomous racial and cultural identities and adjacence to whiteness — it’s so hard to explore anything with any nuance in a Twitter thread or Instagram post, and I don’t want to appear to present myself as self-pitying or like I’m trying to represent others’ experiences — I can only speak for myself. I’ve instead opted to share the words and sentiments of others in the AAPI community, but I’m still grieving deeply. I’m still in pain. I still feel unsafe living under the violence of white supremacy and patriarchy, and I still resent it.

And so, I’m holding space for the victims of last night’s shootings and for their families. For the thousands of others who have been injured or killed in hate crimes. For those suffering from the perpetuation of the model minority myth, particularly the impoverished and homeless. For those struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental illness — especially those who feel like they can’t ask for or receive help. For the non-English speaking, for the mixed race and adopted Asians existing between fixed identities, for the East Asians and South Asians and the white passing and dark skinned. I see you. None of us are free til all of us are free.


“I am not my white man’s name.”

Sometimes I find myself wanting to yell this at other people. One of those times was today, when yet again, I handed my membership card to the ticket seller at BAM, and she looked at me with narrowed, suspicious eyes, and asked, “This is you? Can I see another form of ID?”

The same person has done this to me before there, and she isn’t the first person in the world to do so. Sometimes I say something wry or dryly funny to make it less awkward for both of us. Today I handed her my driver’s license, waited while she processed my credit card, took my ticket, walked outside, and cried.

I cried for a couple hours. I left the movie early (it was I Am Not Your Negro and I feel like there’s probably some kind of irony there) and on the way out, asked the membership representative how I would go about cancelling mine. She asked if I minded telling her why, and through tears, I tried explaining that I, with my Asian face and Irish name, was tired of being treated like I couldn’t possibly be someone who paid $85 for a BAM membership, of having my identity questioned because my race didn’t match my white name.

As I tried to explain, it occurred to me that I sounded like I was making a big deal out of nothing. She tried telling me she was sure the people didn’t mean to treat me with suspicion and that the protocol for confirming member’s ID’s has changed, and so on and so forth. I gave up.

I walked down the street still in tears, feeling guilty and like an overemotional jerk because this was nothing compared to the prejudice and bigotry African Americans, Latinx people, and Muslim people experience on a way more frequent basis because of the color of their skin, their faith, etc. Then I thought of a line from an Everyday Feminism piece I read a while ago:

“I thought because the racism I knew was different from the kind my Latinx and Black friends were familiar with, that it wasn’t legitimate. Wasn’t real. Wasn’t that bad. Yet while our experiences as Asian Americans differ from other groups, we — like all other people of color in the United States — live with the daily ramifications of white supremacy. And that distinguishes us from white America.”

I continually find myself trying to keep my mouth shut about any instance of racial bias I experience, because I find myself placing more value on the experience of other minorities, determining that their voices need to be heard more than mine. I feel guilty for the privileges I experience as a person of color with white parents, for the privileges I experience as that mythical “model minority,” for being of a race that has historically exhibited so much anti-black racism. I struggle regularly to remind myself that I am still a racial minority who experiences racial bias, and that it’s not okay.

Particularly recently, I’m struggling with finding a space in feminism where I feel like I belong. More and more it seems like most calls I hear for intersectionality, for dismantling white feminism, focus almost solely on the inclusion of black and brown bodies. For the most part, I don’t have a problem with this. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, has been vital to raising awareness and affecting change. Still, the emphasis for inclusion of black and brown people makes me hyper aware that I am none of the above. I am not enough of a minority to be included in those calls, but I also am not white, and Asian racism is very real.

It chips away at your spirit. No one is raising awareness about the fact that the Asian homelessness population is vastly understated and ignored because of the number of Asians who won’t admit to being homeless due to cultural ideas of pride. It’s so frustrating that Asians are unfairly held to higher standards in the college admissions process than any other racial group, but are assumed to deserve that unequal treatment. It was heartbreaking to cheer for Chris Rock’s “Oscars So White” monologue, just to have him turn around and exploit Asian stereotypes for a joke. The racism is different, but it exists.

I also struggle with feeling like I am Asian enough to demand that Asians be seen and heard and represented, but I’m realizing more and more that it’s necessary. The ticket seller at BAM wasn’t in the box office when I left, but I wish she had been, so that I could’ve told her that I am not my white man’s name.

I wish I could go back in time and tell all my peers in high school who ever made a joke rooted in my race that I am more than my Asian eyes.

I wish I could tell the white man who stalked me in college that I am more than my Asian hair and skin.

I wish I had known, back then, that it was okay for me to demand to be seen and heard, from this space between fixed identities.

See me now. Hear me now. I’m here.

“Not enough,” and a request for the new year.

Lately, I constantly feel like I’m not enough. I’m enough myself for me, and that’s what matters — should matter, rather. (Self-respect!) But from every direction (i.e. every direction on the internet) and then some, it seems like the world is telling me that the various pieces that make up my female Asian adoptee identity are not enough for me to identify with anyone.

In my gender studies seminar this fall, I was the only “face-value” Asian in a class of 22, and one of six students who was racially “other” in physical skin color. Collectively and individually, we were a tolerant, open-minded, courteous group. As we discussed the myth of the “model minority” as it applies to Asians, particularly immigrants, and Orange Is the New Black and Maxine Hong Kingston and intersectional feminism, I was having an extraordinarily hard time not losing my temper with all the white students around me having this discussion as I sat there without actively participating.

Yet, I felt I couldn’t participate. I am Asian and I am American, but I am not Asian-American, and to speak as though I identify as such felt phony and inauthentic. I could feel myself trying to become physically smaller in the corner of the classroom, wishing I was invisible or even better, just not there. I grew upset with myself for having this reaction: it was no classmate’s fault, but I was, in effect, silencing myself. I felt that though I look Asian, I was not Asian enough to be allowed to partake in the conversation as such.

When Ryan Adams released his full-length cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, I saw multiple comments around the internet from people of color about how white people were about to lose their minds with excitement over it. A famous white male musician, covering a famous slim white girl’s mainstream pop music! I personally was pumped for the release — took him long enough to get it out! — and have no shame about that.

Yet, deep down somewhere, I had this tiny nagging feeling that I was a bad person of color for being excited about it. I tried to refrain from sharing my interest publicly (though failed to do so) to avoid the judgement of my friends. I was afraid I was not white enough to be allowed to enjoy this music.

Recently during a night out of drinking, I was on the receiving end of a one-two punch of brazen, objectifying remarks about my breasts from men I trusted as a friend and a peer. I reacted without thinking, slapping one in the face, and throwing back unambiguous language at both that conveyed my fury. With shocked faces, they separately and repeatedly apologized with some degree of sincerity: I know they listened to me, but I am not sure that they heard.

Yet, not five minutes after these incidents, I found myself feeling vaguely guilty for what I perceived as flying off the handle at them. I know that it was not wrong for me to be angry, but I should have been more calm, I thought. I should have been more reasonable. And besides, they were only words — they did not physically harm me. I was not enough of a victim — if I was even a victim at all — to justify my outrage, and I was not enough of a human to be allowed to command respect.

Why could I not be invisible? Why did I have to have a skin color and shiny black hair, why did I have to have cleavage and a vagina?

When I reflect upon certain things, looking for answers, I often find I am asking the wrong questions. In this case, it’s not a question of why I am singled out for these parts of my identity or why I feel like I am less because they are what they are. It’s, what is it about these parts of my identity that would make me “not enough”?

I know that not every question has an answer and not every question should, and what answers that do exist are not always simple, but in this case, the answer is clear. Nothing about any of these things makes me “not enough.” I am enough. My life and my right to live and experience and feel are enough.

I have a very hard time remembering this feeling of validation. It is one thing to know that I am enough; it is another to feel it. Many days, without thinking about it, I am subconsciously aware that the world as it currently exists can’t help but to unceasingly impress upon me that I am not deserving of the right to own my race, my taste, my appearance, my identity as a whole. It’s the way things are.

In the new year, I ask that you occasionally make active attempts to reach out to your fellow humans on an individual level and remind them, unsolicited, that they are enough. Alienation, unfortunately, does not belong solely to me — in ways, “other” is universal. The world is constructed to be cruel, but we can change that. Everyone deserves to feel like they are enough — because it’s the truth. You are enough.

“I’m An Interracial Adoptee — And My Identity Is None Of Your Business”

When people hear my full name, they expect to meet an Irish boy. Instead they meet a Korean girl. Welcome to interracial adoptee life.

Generally speaking, I love it. I have little identity crises here and there in which I feel like a “bad” adoptee or alienated because the dichotomy between what I look like and who I am is impossible to define in rigid terms. But mostly, I love the fluidity. People often have a hard time when they can’t decide how they want to define me: Asian? White? American? It makes them uncomfortable, and they struggle to place me somewhere familiar. Unfortunately for them, I exist in no-man’s land, in the delicious fog lingering between fixed identities.

I enjoy it, truly, but it can be hard to embrace my adoptee identity in day-to-day life, where I’m frequently plagued by a number of obnoxious inquiries including but not limited to:

  • “Where are you from? No, I know you’re from New Jersey, but where are you from?”
    • Variation: “What are you?
  • “Are you Korean?”
    • Variation: Someone just starts speaking Korean to me automatically assuming I’ll understand.
  • “How much does it cost to adopt a baby?”
  • “Do you know who your real parents are? Like, have you ever tried to find them?”
  • “Why did your parents want to adopt?”

I’m from the Jersey Shore. I’m from New York. I’m from the United States. My identity is not determined solely by the fact I was born in South Korea, the same way anyone’s birthplace or current place of residence is not the only shaper of his or her identity. And yes, I am Korean, but no, I can’t understand or respond to you in Korean; I’m adopted. “Oh! Adopted! How old?” I was four months old when I came to the United States. When I was a baby, someone in a grocery asked my blonde-haired, blue-eyed mother if I would be able to speak English when I grew up. True story.

People have also obtusely asked, how much did I cost? I can’t answer that. I don’t know what monetary exchange was made that allowed my parents to bring me home. I also know that I don’t routinely ask anyone how much it costs to go through pregnancy and labor. In terms of publicly available information, I know it’s considerably more expensive to adopt internationally than domestically, and that adoption and transfer of guardianship aren’t exactly the most regulated things. I know that I’m incredibly lucky to have the amazing parents I have.

These amazing parents, the man and woman who raised me, are my real parents, and it pains me that anyone might consider them to be anything other than “real.” Biology isn’t everything. I may not have my Irish-Norwegian father’s blue eyes, but I have his dry sense of humor, his interest in the humanities, his love of a good story. I don’t have my mother’s blonde hair, but I have her insatiable need to help others, her need for laughter, and, I hope, at least a fraction of her thoughtfulness. They give me their unending love and support. These are my real parents.

And, my real parents, like all other real parents, deserve their privacy. We don’t ask people why they decide to procreate. Society insists we live by this myth that all people want children and a person’s life is incomplete without experiencing parenthood, yet people feel the need to question why adoptive parents want to raise children. Both this myth and line of questioning are problematic, to say the least, and to demand specific reasons a person wants children is intrusive and flat-out rude.

Perhaps some adoptees have asked their parents what circumstances led them to adopt, but I strongly believe it’s none of my business, why my parents chose to adopt. Besides, how is that conversation supposed to go? “Hey, did you decide to adopt because you were molested as a child and haven’t been able to have a sexual relationship with anyone since then? Just curious.” Some people stammer, “Oh, I thought they might just have told you.” Told me what? “Hey honey, in case you were wondering, I’m sterile, so that’s why we decided to adopt you. Have a good day at school!” No. This is no one’s business but theirs.

That’s the bottom line. It’s none of your business, who an adoptee’s birth parents are, where an adoptee was born or why their adoptive parents chose to adopt. If an adoptee offers to tell their story, they deserve to do it on their own terms and share only what they are comfortable sharing.

There is a difference between asking to learn about the adoption process and probing the deeply personal details of someone’s adoption, and the latter is — or rather, should be — socially unacceptable. I don’t need to share the history of my adoption with you just so you can determine which label fits me best, which box I belong in, which cultural and racial identity you want to assign me. My identity is my own, and this is my story, on my terms. I determine where I fit, and that’s here, in the United States, with my real parents.

Any questions?

(Reposted from MTV Voices)


Kristina, and the quandary of giving

It’s my last night of vacation in Chicago, and I can’t sleep. I spent five lovely days here visiting two close friends, enjoying the beautiful weather, and seeing bits and pieces of the city. It’s been five days of bonding, relaxing, and unwinding, and altogether, it’s been very pleasant.

The last three days, though, the contentment has been mingled with distress. One of my friends is in DePaul University’s PhD program, and another member of his program is caught in a bind that is nothing short of heartbreaking. Kristina is a young woman rendered disabled from a lifelong struggle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and, as a result, chronic pain. She can’t work in the U.S. due to her immigration status, and on top of everything, her fiancé was recently diagnosed with two aggressive forms of cancer. As of this fall, DePaul is no longer offering student health insurance because “premiums have skyrocketed as a result of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act” and Kristina will have no health care or income to cover her medical costs, which are mainly for pain management medication (and given the stress of her situation, most likely for antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications as well).

This is upsetting to me for a number of reasons. For one, by terminating health care coverage, a university is not taking care of their students. It’s difficult enough for students to have to deal with red tape in securing financial aid, registering, repaying debt, etc. Many schools are gaining notoriety for responding poorly to student victims of sexual violence and offering them little support or justice. Ceasing to offer student health care is just another example of schools showing more concern for money than for their students’ physical and mental well-being. For another thing, I’ve struggled with getting medication—in my case, solely antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication—without insurance and frankly, it’s a bitch. Even with insurance, I’ve had to go through hours of phone calls with the provider, my pharmacy, and psychiatrist in order to get full coverage of all my medication. I can’t imagine what Kristina will have to go through to make this work without them.

Perhaps the most upsetting thing to me, though, is realizing how little support Kristina is receiving from other people. Forget the school—the entity—the lack of individual support is astonishing. What if this was you? Your family member, your friend? Wouldn’t you look to others for support? So many of us proclaim our support of gender, racial, and LGBTQ equality, of equality in general. Equality for the disabled is also a thing, and even though having open dialogues about equality is incredibly important, so is taking action to do what we can to help those who are negatively impacted.

And yet, this raises a difficult question: what action can we take? I’ve been working in various nonprofit fundraising offices for about four years, and now I’m about to start a graduate degree program myself. I’m extremely busy, I live paycheck to paycheck, and I’m pretty broke. I hate feeling like I need to stop working for nonprofits in order to give more time and money to nonprofits and other charity causes. Most people I know are in similarly tight situations in terms of finances and time, and the reality is, we don’t have money or time for everything. Plenty of us can give $5 to a cause and buy one less beer next time we go out, but we can’t give money to everyone for everything. How do you choose?

I don’t have an answer for that. Some of Kristina’s fellow graduate students have started an online campaign to raise funds for her, and I’m happy to see a pretty solid chunk of change has been secured so far. I got to spend some time with her this week; she’s lovely and her courage is admirable. Asking “why her?” or thinking “she doesn’t deserve this” serves no purpose, in my mind. Even if there were answers that could suffice, these aren’t the right questions. What can we do going forward? How can we help each other? What can we give of ourselves and how? In the same way it doesn’t matter at the end of the day if we say we love someone unless we treat them with love, it doesn’t matter if we say we’re allies of marginalized groups if we aren’t taking action to educate others, raise awareness, and find solutions to help these people. I’m not sure what to do next, but I’m going to keep trying to figure it out.

“Personal tragedy”

Is there a right way to write about personal experiences that have affected you profoundly in ways that you have trouble verbalizing to even yourself? When self-consciousness settles in, it traps you in a sound-proof room where you can’t hear — or be heard. How does one write with honesty, with respect for one’s feelings and experiences, without sounding patronizing? Hemingway kind of had a point when he told Fitzgerald, “Forget your personal tragedy…be as faithful to it as a scientist — but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.” But, Hemingway was also kind of an ass.

There’s a certain beauty in that particular facet of the human experience. Everyone has his or her own personal story, but there is a universality to it all that connects us, and everyone’s story is valuable. My “personal tragedy” is not worth more than yours — but it isn’t worth less, either. We all have voices that deserve to be heard, and so many of us are silenced on a regular basis. Here, in the technologically democratic world of the internet, I am free to speak, and theoretically, I have an audience. In the real world, I often feel bad when I unintentionally hop on some kind of social justice soapbox, but here, it is easier for you to ignore me should you choose. And so, having taken 235 words of your time beating around the bush, I press forward unapologetically.

I talk (i.e. write) about identity a lot, and how mine is very fluid and murky in color. At times I feel my experiences are invalidated because I am not enough of any one thing to lay reasonable claim to them. Technically I am a person of color, yes, but my experience as part of the Asian minority is much different than that of an African American, Latino, or other race. I am a person of color, but not socioeconomically disadvantaged the way so many others are. But, I am still a person of color. I am still a woman of color. I am still a woman.

I can talk for hours about the instances of the unintentional racism, blatant racism, and racial stereotyping I’ve experienced. Often my white friends (which is to say, most of my friends), even the many good liberal-minded among them, are either deeply uncomfortable with or mildly dismissive of these conversations and feel under attack when I try to explain the inherent sexism and racism that exist in America. They are uncomfortable when I say that I get frustrated when people ask “where are you from?” and are not satisfied with any answer that isn’t “Korea.” They are dismissive when I say that I get frustrated when people ask me if I’m Chinese or Japanese and tell me those people don’t know that they’re being rude or offensive. To stories like those, they say, “that’s stupid, don’t listen to them.” I appreciate the advice, but it doesn’t exactly work like that. I know it’s stupid, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel like I am being categorized as “other” and “less” because of the difference in my appearance.

The males among these same friends are also uncomfortable when I speak of the many instances of street harassment that have infuriated and frightened me. They are uncomfortable when I tell them about the man who approached me on the street at 4 in the morning one Saturday as I was walking home alone from the subway, who asked me for directions then pressed me to get a drink with him, asking repeatedly, though all the bars were closing. I walked three blocks out of the way so he wouldn’t follow me to my apartment building. They are uncomfortable when I talk about the guy who stalked me at work on my college campus, who’d tried to talk to me about being Asian then came back looking for me frequently and occasionally followed me around campus. I’d rather my friends be uncomfortable than dismissive, though. They’re often unintentionally dismissive when I mention how a guy outside a bar drunkenly demanded, “Do a little dance for me, baby!” Dismissive when I say a group of young men cat-called and harassed me on the street as they passed me early one evening, and I immediately regretted my automatic reaction of telling them to fuck off, hoping they wouldn’t turn on me. Dismissive of my story about a man who followed me for 5 blocks making lewd comments from twenty feet behind in broad daylight. They tell me I should carry a knife or pepper spray. They care, but they don’t understand that that isn’t the point.

I sometimes wonder, would they be dismissive if I told them that there are times when I go out purposely wearing conservative clothing or extra layers so no one leers at my body? That I don’t take especially good care of myself physically, I think, because I subconsciously do not want to appear attractive or garner any undue attention? That my general goal in terms of appearance is not to look good, but to not look terrible, because I don’t want to stand out for either reason? That there are days when I don’t want to leave my apartment because I feel like I only exist to others as an object?

Would they be dismissive if I told them I was sexually assaulted last year? That I told an acquaintance repeatedly that I did not want to have sex, yet still found him repeatedly trying to pull my legs apart? That when I told him to get off or I would kick him in the face, he laughed, climbed on my chest, and forced his penis in my mouth? That I never reported it because there would be no physical evidence that he had done this to me and because I didn’t think I’d be taken seriously because I had been drinking earlier? That I had a hard time not blaming myself, even though I understand that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault? That I still see this guy around, and every goddamn time, it feels like someone has shoved my heart into my stomach and wrapped my intestines around my windpipe?

Would they be dismissive if I told them that I am terrified of sexual assault not only because I am scared of being violated and overpowered in such a way, but also because I am terrified of pregnancy? That I have a deep-seated fear of becoming pregnant and not wanting my child, the same way someone didn’t want me? That this makes me feel like I am a bad person, like I am worth even less than the marginalized person I am treated like? I’ve never spoken or written about most of these things, perhaps in fear of being dismissed, but also because 1) I feel like I can’t, and 2) I don’t want to. And yet, I feel like I have to: I shouldn’t feel like I can’t, because I have a voice.

One day when I was ranting to a good friend about some instance of racism or misogyny or another, I apologized for being a Debbie Downer, and my friend said to me seriously, “Corey. Never apologize for being passionate or feeling strongly about something.” I appreciated that. I still appreciate it. I apologize less for my soapboxing these days; my temper is a lot more volatile than it used to be. It’s terribly frustrating to talk to a guy about the Rolling Stone debacle, UVA, Emma and her mattress at Columbia, or any such issue, and barely be able to hold their interest with it when I am clearly emotionally invested in these stories, and I hate having to back up my investment with testimonials of my own experiences. I should not have to out myself as a victim of sexual assault in order to get people to care about victims of sexual assault. I should not have to tell and retell the stories of racist experiences I’ve had in order to get others to understand that all people of color experience what I do — usually much worse than what I do. No one should have to defend herself or apologize for feeling passionately and strongly about ending racism, sexism, and misogyny.

These are my “personal tragedies,” but they also belong to every person of color and every woman in America. They may not be as tragic or traumatic as other people’s experiences, and they may not be important to you, but collectively, our personal tragedies are universal tragedies, and we cannot eliminate them from the narrative until they are important to everyone. This is my story — what’s yours?

The language of suicide

One balmy and rainy evening last January, I received a message from one of my dearest friends saying, “I don’t know how you used to deal with this on a daily basis.” Baffled, I asked him to clarify, and he responded simply, “Suicide.”

I previously worked at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), a great organization that specializes in researching and educating people on mental health and suicide, as well as providing resources for those bereaved. I asked my friend to call me, and standing in the drizzle under a tree, I got chills not from the rain, but from my friend’s explanation that a young alumna from the high school in his hometown in northern New Jersey had died by suicide. Madison Holleran had graduated the previous spring and the community was grieving deeply. It was a tumultuous time, not least because of the difficult nature of comprehending suicide and why it is a thing that happens. A few months later, another young alum from that high school died by suicide, creating a growing fear of suicide contagion.

Now, one year later, Madison’s parents Jim and Stacy have released to People magazine the contents of the notes she left before her death, spurring international coverage and a reinvigorated conversation on depression and suicide. As when beloved comedian Robin Williams died by suicide last August, media outlets have latched onto the dramatic, sensationalistic language often associated with suicide, which incidentally is also extremely stigmatic. People’s article is called “Why Did a Popular, Smart, Athletic College Freshman Kill Herself?” while UK publication the Daily Mail published a piece with a title that edges on histrionic: “Parents share tragic suicide note of Ivy League track star, 19, who jumped to her death from a parking garage and left gifts for friends and family members nearby.” Many of these articles have mentioned the Hollerans’ desire to help other teenagers and college students who live with depression and anxiety, their eagerness to encourage a conversation on mental health, and the foundation they started in Madison’s memory to work towards these goals. And yet, most of the articles contribute to building the stigma the Hollerans want to destroy.

I learned a lot while working at AFSP, but if I had to say, the most valuable thing I learned was the importance of talking about mental health and suicide in an open and honest way, because if people cannot talk about the problems that lead to suicide, it cannot be prevented. It is amazing how people are willing to speak candidly about their experiences or losses when they meet someone they instinctively think will understand, that they think they can trust. I was always reluctant to tell strangers at parties or bars that I worked for a suicide prevention organization. Most people remarked that it must be a depressing place to work, that they recently heard a story in the news about a suicide, or that they’ve lost loved ones. One girl told me about her boyfriend who died by suicide when they were in high school. Another told me about his father who died by suicide when he was 12, and how he felt he could tell me this because I would understand how to react – and how not to react.

Even though I grew weary of this, I also was grateful for it. Yes, dealing with suicide on a daily basis was difficult, and on Saturday nights, I really wanted to relax and talk about something else – anything else. But, I also want people to voice their stories, their experiences, and have a conversation about mental health that doesn’t involve phrases like “committed suicide” and “chose to die.” Such language is so heavy with negative connotations and weighty judgements, and indicates a lack of understanding about depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental and mood disorders that too often lead to suicide. When the dialogue includes these phrases, it’s not a constructive dialogue.

During my time at AFSP, I was also in therapy myself for depression and anxiety, and I’ve since learned to speak of it freely and share my experiences with others. I’ve always believed that trust begets trust, and if you open up a little to others, it’s very likely they will open up to you. I admire and respect that Jim and Stacy Holleran shared Madison’s notes, but it frustrates me that the media are sensationalizing their grief and dramatizing their efforts to use their experiences to help others in need. There’s a certain amount of risk in reporting suicide – contagion is always a concern – and there’s a lot of irresponsible journalistic endeavors circulating. Many of these pieces further imply that Madison’s death is more tragic than others’ because she was so successful in her academic, athletic, and social lives, but the real tragedy is that she is one of thousands of people who died by suicide last year, and very few people are talking about it in a productive way.

I sincerely hope that the Hollerans’ willingness to bring about something positive from their loss helps to start honest conversation that doesn’t focus on describing someone’s death as a tragic end, but looks forward at how to eliminate that narrative altogether. I don’t work at AFSP anymore, but I hope I can still contribute to building a world without suicide, a world where no one, be it the track star or the outcast, experiences suicidal ideation or acts on it. It’s still something never far from my mind, so next time you see me at the bar, please don’t hesitate to pull up a seat. Let’s talk.