The response to recent anti-Tibetan discrimination shines light upon systemic issues

Topjor Tsultrim

My family fled twice. Once, in 1959, they fled after the People’s Republic of China rolled tanks into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. My grandparents took all they could carry and crossed the Himalayas on foot. Wandering snowblind, they hid in caves and snow banks as the People’s Liberation Army emptied magazines of ammunition into every shelter in the mountainside. My parents were born in refugee camps in India. There were no illusions of a better life there, just the same cycle of benighted people suffering systemic poverty. Through circuitous routes, they eventually ended up in Queens, N.Y. They came here with nothing: no money, no higher education, no nation. Though they were born in India, Tibetan refugees weren’t awarded Indian citizenship; they were considered stateless people, claimed by no nation, protected by no one. They arrived in the U.S. carrying only their yellow stateless refugee cards issued by the United Nations.

My grandparents and parents didn’t have the luxury of opportunity — much less the luxury of choice. My grandparents and parents could not have chosen to stand and resist the conditions that threatened their future. Instead, their resistance was their survival. 

I, however, have that choice. Williams of 2022 is not Lhasa of 1959 or the Bylakuppe Refugee Settlement of 1970. I’ve been endowed with the tremendous privilege of my Western education and the tremendous cultural capital of growing up in America. Here at Williams, I have oceans of friends from all walks of life and infinitely supportive teammates. Here at Williams, I have the power to finally put an end to this generational trauma. So that when someone steals my statues symbolizing democracy and freedom and throws my nation’s flag across the floor, I have the strength and support to fight back. If the administration is going to equivocate and idle and cower, so be it. Their inaction is telling — and our action will be sweeping and irresistible. 

Some claim that what happened on Jan. 4 does not qualify as a “real hate crime.” This group includes not only students posting vile and hateful messages on anonymous online message boards, but, most significantly, members of the Davis Center and Campus Safety Services (CSS). Both the director of the Davis Center and a CSS staff member called me and commanded me to take down all the flyers the Milk Tea Alliance put up publicizing the incident, claiming that I could not call the event a hate crime because I had “insufficient proof of bias.” Two institutions that are ostensibly present on campus to offer support and security instead functioned to compound trauma and, regardless of intention, accomplished the same work of obfuscation and denial that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is hell-bent upon. 

Returning to the message boards (Unmasked and Yik Yak), Williams students, cowering behind the cowl of anonymity, littered our community with profoundly appalling comments. Students told me that I was making a fuss over nothing; others claimed that Chinese students were the real victims, and equivocated displaying the Tibetan flag in public to saying “the N-word” to a Black student. Further still, one student said that there was no genocide occurring in East Turkestan, and that I was guzzling hand-fed CIA propaganda. As disgusting as it was to read these words, they weren’t comments I hadn’t seen thousands of times over the years, spammed on Instagram, or screamed with spittle at me by counter-protesters. No, what ultimately sent an insidious chill down my spine was the fact that those words — that hatred — had found their way to Williams College. Though I had never actively believed that those sentiments weren’t present at all, I had previously lived in blissful ignorance of their presence. But to hear the haunting echoes of that same hate espoused by the CCP ring across the community of a place I had found such comfort in, I was struck by a hard fear. 

I now know that there are those community members who deny the torture, rape, and forced sterilization of over one million Uyghurs in concentration camps run by the CCP. I now know other community members argue that the systemic internment of this Muslim ethnic group was a justified and legal response. I now know that there are those community members who believe that the erosion of the democratic ideals of free speech and assembly in Hong Kong is justified. I now know that there are those community members who believe that when the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China murdered a sixth of our population, burned more than 6,000 Tibetan Buddhist temples, and forced our monks and nuns to have sex in the streets, it was all justified. I now know that there are those community members who believe that when the CCP kidnapped six-year-old Gendhun Choekyi Nyima in 1995 just days after he was identified as the reincarnation of a significant Tibetan Buddhist figure, or when they tortured and brutally murdered 19-year-old monk Tenzin Nyima for distributing leaflets advocating for Tibetan freedom, or when Tenzin Nyima’s friend, a 16-year-old monk only identified to the media by the name Tsultrim, was sentenced to torture without trial for shouting pro-Tibet slogans and helping Nyima hand out flyers, that those events, too, were justified. 

To these community members: know that I hold no ill-will toward you. I feel compassion for you, and if you are willing to recognize and respect my humanity, I would welcome the opportunity to share my truth and hear your perspective. But — and this is critical — denying genocide is not a perspective or an opinion. I often find that many automatically ask for a “conversation” to take place. However, I refuse to be party to a conversation that requires me to prove my right to human dignity. There are certain red lines, such as the denial of genocide or the invalidation of lived experience, that must be first established before conversation can take place.

I believe we have grown reliant on a set of “woke” reflexive responses imbued in us as members of the College community, and society at large. Moreover, we then take our guidance exclusively from this playbook of responses. For example, because of the tragic frequency of blatant anti-Black racism in this country, we have become sickeningly accustomed to witnessing it and identifying it. Incidents of blatant antisemitism are likewise still far too commonplace in our news cycle. Therefore, when slurs or hateful symbols are scrawled across a public site, we automatically identify them as a “real hate crime,” some perfunctory shock is expressed, some perfunctory statements are emailed by the administration, and it ultimately largely falls on the afflicted parties to undertake the laborious and lengthy process of healing. This happens time and time again because the extent of our community’s response is limited to that initial expression of shock. Rinsing our hands of the gory aftermath, we leave those writhing in trauma to nurse their own wounds. Our playbook runs out of pages, and we place it back on the shelf for the inevitable next time. 

This disgusting reality is treacherous in two ways. 

First, incidents that are not explicitly provided for in the playbook are virtually ignored, including hate crimes against less prevalent identity groups — like what happened to me on Jan. 4 — but also hate crimes of a more veiled nature committed against those most commonly afflicted. For example, our day-to-day lives are riddled with many antisemitic allusions, but because they are not as jarring as a swastika seared into Paresky lawn, no response occurs. No change occurs. The result is that grievous injury is allowed to persist and is not met with a ubiquitous surge of support. 

Second,  because there is no emphatic reaction from the community, the onus falls upon the shoulders of those most personally affected to hold up our trauma for the community to see and provide the support we need. 

I implore the community to lean in and use the critical thinking facilities we labor strenuously to develop. I implore you to discard the perfunctory “woke” playbook and instead hold up bias-related incidents to the light of your own inspection. I implore you to reject the urge to call for conversation as a release valve when that conversation often devolves into the denial of human rights. I implore you to fight against the conditions that force those affected to pick between the labor of embattled action or the pain of silent suffering. 

My intent is to build a coalition — an intent that has, in part, led to the creation of the Milk Tea Alliance, a cross-identity solidarity movement advocating for the collective liberation of all those oppressed by the CCP. If you feel moved by our plight or are able to extend your empathy to our context, then I would graciously welcome you to our community of activists. 

Beyond just the Tibetan context, I hope I was able to show how this painfully circumscribed definition of what our community identifies as discrimination hurts everyone and lets the administration and the perpetrators of hatred, off the hook. If we are provoked only by the most blatant of travesties and allow ourselves to grow accustomed to the expressions of hate that occur regularly, we endanger everyone. I’m not asking for more outrage; I’m asking for you to care more consistently — and thoughtfully. That’s the only way we can be equipped to beat back hatred every time it rears its head. So, please join me and help expand our community of conscientious friends who will be there for each other in our respective times of need.

This time will be different. This time, I’m not running. Hand in hand, we resist.

Topjor Tsultrim ’22 is an English and Political Economy major from Exeter, R.I.