Kim: A Call for Engagement

by Si Yon Kim | 5/6/15 7:20pm

As a Korean student who has lived in the United States for the last two and a half years, I accept that I do not understand what it is like to be black in America. Despite efforts to educate myself about the struggle for racial justice, I will never truly be able to walk a mile in the shoes of black Americans as they mourn the deaths of Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray and countless others who were murdered by police officers.

Yet I believe I have had a small window into the pain felt by my peers regarding this issue by drawing parallels to Korean experiences of collective trauma — specifically, the Sewol ferry disaster on April 16, 2014. Relating these separate tragedies and the emotional responses they have caused in those affected has compelled me to question the lack of more proactive, broader support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement among students. If you feel like an outsider to the struggle, I urge you to try drawing parallels and considering your perspective.

The Sewol ferry disaster hit the people of South Korea hard. Sitting in my room in the McLaughlin residential cluster 7,000 miles away from home, I was no exception — over the ensuing days, Koreans from all walks of life prayed and wept for the safe return of the 304 victims trapped in the capsized Sewol. As it became clear that none would come back alive, the nation was paralyzed with not just shock and grief, but most importantly, anger — anger because the state had failed to protect its citizens through its negligence of broken systems and corrupt leadership. It was a disappointing moment to be Korean, but the shared grief and sense of injustice was reaffirming to our shared identity and determination to solve the nation’s problems together. We are in the process of learning that no nation should require the loss of even one innocent life for it to wake up and resolve to fight against its failings.

Through the lens of the collective Korean experience of Sewol, I feel that I am better able to recognize the grief and anger felt by many of my peers as innocent black Americans continually die at the hands of police. A human and psychological toll comparable to a sunken ferry disaster has regularly struck the American black community throughout the country’s history, and it is not hard to believe that black students can feel the effects of this violence. Meanwhile, campus has remained largely undisturbed, with the exception of minority student groups. I have been wondering — if such groups were out of the picture, would any other collective of students have publicly lamented the tragic killings happening across the U.S.? Would anyone have cared, let alone have called for action? In the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster, schools and public institutions in South Korea cancelled public events to be mindful of those affected and to grieve together. I can’t help but ask — why is this not the case at Dartmouth? How is everyone carrying on with life? Why is there such a great divide among students that minority students suffer a major traumatic experience and raise awareness about a threat to their right to live while the rest of campus expresses cool concern at most — or even asks that the issue not cause too much fuss, too much inconvenience?

Ultimately, the loss of black lives should not be viewed as a tragedy for the black community alone, but a tragedy for the entire nation. While law enforcement ends black lives and throws tear gas and arrests demonstrators when black America demands justice, I believe mainstream America remains unfazed because it sees black suffering as unremarkable and standard. This mentality pervades our campus culture, too. I find it problematic, and I wish to challenge it. Take a moment to listen when students express grief and anger, then ask yourself — am I exacerbating or enabling racism through my inaction and negligence? We should all strive to be part of the solution to the problem that breaks the hearts and endangers lives in the communities of so many of our peers.