I did not glimpse the program beforehand, so the Princeton Glee Club concert in March surprised me with its first piece. The music was distinctly non-Western. The singers did not chant or sing in Latin, but in Telugu, Tamil, and nonsensical syllables. The soulful turns of phrase haunted me. The piece unlocked my imagination, evoked in my head images of places I never have visited.
The piece was called “Gaanam,” and it was an ensemble-take on South Indian classical (Carnatic) music. I watched in awe as different faces appeared at the mic. Yet as I sat transfixed, I tottered between appreciation and unease. I could not shake a cynical voice in the back of my head, whispering: There it goes again. White man brings exotic culture back from previously unknown lands to spice up his program. I could only imagine what would be next, Chinese operatic music?
This unease remained, distracting me from immersing myself in the music fully, until the end of the piece. Audience members stood up to applaud and holler. A Glee Club singer ran backstage and reemerged with a bouquet of flowers, which she handed to another singer on stage left. At that moment it clicked. I looked at the program and realized that the composer of this music was a student named Shruthi Rajasekar ’18. For better or for worse, my heart breathed a sigh of relief. I thought: Thank goodness this piece is grounded in someone who knows what she is doing and who is not a foreigner seeking to appropriate cultural music. It was a beautiful picture to me, to think that the Glee Club conductor had lifted up a student by performing her composition, to think that it gave Shruthi the opportunity to navigate the Glee Club through a new genre of music. If only I had discarded my unease earlier to hear and enjoy the product of such an endeavor. Instead, I had judged what I saw prematurely and pessimistically.
This tendency to judge prematurely has cost me more than the opportunity to listen. It has cost me the opportunity to tell my own story. But slowly, with the help of my Christian community, I have begun to shed this defensive impulse in order to both speak and listen.
One afternoon early last semester, I sat down for lunch with some friends, and one of them mentioned reading Claudia Rankine for class.
“Claudia Rankine!” I said, “Were you reading ‘Citizen?’”
She pulled the very book out of her bag, glorious in its all-white cover with a single black hood in the center and the word “Citizen” in block letters.
“What’s it about?” someone asked. I kept silent, wondering what my friend, a white woman, an English major analyzing the text from a distant intellectual standpoint, would say.
“Well it’s basically this woman Claudia Rankine telling about her experiences as a black woman,” my friend said.
“Well not really,” I said, “It’s about a lot of black women.”
“Well kinda,” she said.
“I mean, she talks about Serena Williams in that book,” I said.
“But in the beginning she talks about herself.”
A thousand thoughts ran through my head. You mean the famous prose poems at the beginning of the book? No, you’ve got it all wrong! I thought indignantly, the individual testimonies only flow together so well because they are the experiences of many individual black women who found each other's experiences to resonate with their own. Claudia Rankine, who shattered the glass roof and carved out a space in the literary canon, now has the burden of speaking for them all under her name ...
What pounded in my head was: You don’t understand what it means to be colored. I was guarding my experiences as a person of color selfishly and assuming that because my friend could not possibly inhabit the colored person’s experiences, she had missed the point of the prose poems entirely.
The conversation continued, and my friend commented on how eye-opening the book was. She admitted: “I didn’t ever think about race. My old school was predominantly white.” In response, I sat with my lips pursed. I remained silent. Of course you didn’t think about race, I thought. (Translated: You will never understand my experiences as a colored person.)
In that moment, I turned my friend into the enemy because of the color of her skin. I used her inquisitiveness to alienate us.
Did I have the right to turn her curiosity into something negative, rather than engage it and discuss more? When I passed up the opportunity to speak, I passed up the opportunity to view myself in a light other than “oppressed” or “marginalized.” I sank back into my perpetual pessimistic narrative of “we colored people will never be understood.” Is this not an affront to myself? Staying silent deepened the rut I was in, both as an individual and as part of my group.
I am learning to tell my story and resist the impulse to give up on my listeners. Coming to Princeton and immersing myself in a multi-ethnic church and Christian community has worn down my walls. Out of genuine interest, my brothers and sisters have asked me how my experiences as a woman and a colored person inform my faith. The love of my listeners coaxes me to speak.
I have also learned to tell my story because the cost of silence is too great. Everyone carries his or her cultural, historical baggage into his or her faith. Refusing to share this past with others works against the integration and unity of the church.
The church has taught me to listen more carefully as well. Recently I learned that African-American churches often identify strongly with God as a victor, protector, and defender of the oppressed. I realized that my previous church, a completely Chinese-American church, had never taught much on this aspect of God, most likely because it was not as relevant to the Chinese-American experience. Reflecting on the Claudia Rankine incident now, I realize that allowing myself to be dominated by the narrative that I was “oppressed” inhibited me from parsing the finer details of how my experience as a Chinese-American is fundamentally different from those of my non-Chinese-American counterparts of color.
That moment was about “Citizen,” but I made it about myself, as if I knew the suffering and oppression of African-Americans just because I am colored. To act as if I can know the suffering and oppression of African-Americans is not only presumptuous, it is itself oppressive. That afternoon, warding off my hostility not only would have prompted me to tell my own story, it would have opened my eyes to the experiences of others.
Allison Huang is a first-year from Princeton, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.