We are GOLDEN

When you looked at my face
And shied away from my gaze
People were terrified in 2020
Of my mask and two eyes
Used to regard me 
by my Asian persuasion
I remind us that 
we’re all part of one nation
We’re spreading animosity, 
said the Black Eyed Peas
Can I have some peace, 
survive with my black eyes please
Let’s come together as a world, 
let’s inspire
Yet still I rise 
shouts to Maya Angelou, and Yuri Kochiyama
It’s time for some introspection
Take a look at yourself for that personal reflection
Remember the sun doesn’t 
shine in only one direction
And instead of hate,
we can shine in one direction [and make some corrections]

Memorialize Lives
Heroes Sherose They rose, They rise, we rise
Still we rise, to remember and celebrate these lives

(The victims’ names are currently not shared due to reports of family members wishing to keep the names private.)

We remember them alongside so many fellow Asian American lives lost, and we will honor them today in our community and our joy.

My name is Alice Tsui (spelled T-s-u-i, and pronounced TSOY) and I am an actively anti-racist and decolonizing public school music educator in Brooklyn, New York. I am a lifelong New Yorker, grew up in Brooklyn [went to public school in NYC] and I am an ABC – American born Chinese daughter of two immigrants, two immigrants who are my elderly parents. I serve predominantly Black, Brown, Latinx elementary school students in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. 

In February last year, I was walking upstairs when a 5th grader stopped me and said “Ms. Alice, someone said you had Coronavirus.” I found out that it was another 5th grade student of mine who I had taught for many years. This week, a 4th grader called me “China” in my face. In those moments, I could feel my extreme rage – not at the student, but at the systems of our world that have led my students to say this. I was mad at the toxicity of systemic racism that we breathe in, and specifically – white supremacy for dividing the two Black girls who said this and me, an Asian American teacher [and woman] in this world. 

A month ago, when I started to see the rise of anti-Asian violence yet again, but this time specifically against elderly people, I discussed anti-Asian racism with my fourth grade class. One of my 4th graders, a Black boy, told me “It [Asian hate] won’t be on the news until there are more people who die.” What does this say about what my Black and Brown students have already internalized about our society? I saw this same student this week who said “it’s on the news now”, but I reminded my students that it is important to question how the story is told, who is telling it, and what isn’t being said. Another 4th grader asked me if my parents were vaccinated and I said yes, they are, but I am scared for them to be outside and so I ask them to stay home as much as possible – because they’re Asian. 

These are a few of the many, necessary conversations on race and racism that must occur in ALL schools – elementary, middle, and high schools. My call to action to you, everyone here, is to find the emails of the principals and teachers that either you, yourself, have gone to, are connected with, or are in the neighborhoods you live in, and not just the Asian neighborhoods.

These are the demands that are listed out in a letter I have already written and are available in a letter with resources at bit.ly/aapilettertoschools 

  1. Acknowledge and teach Asian American history, lives, and arts – including and beyond Lunar New Year
  2. Create mental health spaces for AAPI educators and children to feel, process, and heal without the burden of educating others on [their trauma] and what racism is
  3. Empower classmates and colleagues of AAPI community members to learn and speak against anti-Asian racism

Our children are counting on you. 

Last year, one of my Asian American students said “To me, what Black Lives Matter means is that Black Lives are brightly illuminated. I want her to know that her Asian American life is also brightly illuminated. To the 13-year-old Asian American boy attacked by a group of teens throwing basketballs at his head in Flushing – your life is also brightly illuminated.

To my Asian American community, I see you, I hear you, and we are HERE. To my fellow Asian American educators – take up SPACE. To my fellow AAPI women,  I feel your pain and my heart cannot stop feeling grief, and my racially occupied mind POUNDS with rage. I am here with you. I am worthy of safety, respect, and love. You are WORTHY of safety, respect, and love. To the allies, accomplices, and co-conspirators, I see you as we stand together in solidarity – and I hope you are doing everything you can, including the action item I named before, to support us beyond this moment. 

To all AAPI children, including the children of the victims, I am here for you, and you can feel whatever it is you are feeling. Please cheer for the AAPI children who are bravely here today. As a teacher, and a fellow Asian American person, I want to tell you that you matter. Your feelings matter. Your identity matters. Everything about who you are matters. You shine so bright with your GOLDEN LIGHT.



Everyone, say this with me, for our children – “I shine bright with my golden light”. Teach the AAPI children in your lives to say this – for themselves. 

I didn’t know what an affirmation was until I started teaching them to my public elementary school students, because no one ever told me or taught me that I mattered. I share these affirmations with you all for yourself, ourselves as a community who is healing, and a community that can celebrate our AAPI joy because our community that is GOLDEN:

I am worthy.

My voice matters.

I matter.

You matter.

We matter.

We are GOLDEN.

We are WORTHY.

I want to end with this final note. My parents emigrated to the United States in the 1980s. They are in their 70s and 80s now, and after working so hard their entire lives to support my brother and I, I cannot stay silent, and I must speak out to protect my family, and all our families, so that they do not need to live in fear. I must use my voice, because I know my voice has power. Our voices have power. 加油 【Jia you – Add oil, let’s go!】 

Thank you. 

(This is a transcript of my speech made at the Stand Against Hate Rally in Chinatown, NYC on March 21, 2021)

“Safe Space”

So often, educators throw out this sentence to students, colleagues, families, and other stakeholders in education:

“You are in a safe space.”

What IS a “safe space”?

What does it mean to be in a “safe space”?

According to Crockett (2016), the history of the term “safe space” stems from the LGBTQ+ community:

“A ‘safe space’ is a place where LGBTQ people don’t have to think twice about whether they can show affection for their partners — and whether they can just be themselves.

It’s the same basic idea for other groups, like women and people of color, who tend to be less well-represented or well-respected by society at large. People whose voices are quite literally heard less than those of white men, since white men still tend to dominate conversations in mediaclassroomsboardroomspolitics, and everyday life.”

When I first started my teaching career, I thought a safe space was a place where students felt safe to learn – physically. As long as no one was hurting each other, and all students were able to sit quietly, listen to me when I spoke or gave directions, then we must have been in a safe space.

“You are in a safe space, and you are safe to take risks.”

After a few years, I started to learn about “feeling safe to take risks”. How could I encourage this in my classroom? Maybe if I just narrated “do not be afraid of mistakes; mistakes are part of the process”, students would feel safer. According to Harvard Politics, this attempt could be labeled as working towards an “academic safe space”:

“The idea of an academic safe space stresses the end goal of encouraging individuals to speak. In this type of space, people are still made to feel uncomfortable, yet it’s ‘safe’ to take intellectual risks and explore any line of thought. Here, ‘safety’ protects your right to make others uncomfortable with ideas and rational arguments. It’s important to note that in this setting, free speech is the end goal. This type of safety is commonly emphasized in classrooms and discussion groups, where open dialogue is particularly valuable.” (Ho, 2017).

So I adjusted my narration. I encouraged students to have what I thought were critical discussion points, and to explore disagreements in music and the music-making processes – all while respecting each other’s opinion by having politically correct and careful conversations. One student could express their thought, and as long as another student responded by starting with “I disagree because” in a mild-mannered, polite way, students could express their free speech and meet that specific end goal of having valuable, open dialogue. I was convinced that this was enough for intellectual safety because with this shift in my narration, students could be in a physically AND intellectually safe space.

“You are in a safe space, and you are safe to take risks and express your emotions.”

Just because my students were “nicely” (read: calmly, tracking the speaker, not being disruptive) disagreeing, does not mean they were able to express their emotions behind their words. According to the New York Times,

“In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions… so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity.” (Shulevitz, 2015).

So my next adjustment was to ensure that students would agree to a set of behavioral norms in order to have productive conversation. Upon reflection, perhaps it was even less of an adjustment and more of a restatement of being politically correct in order to avoid discomfort.

Thus emerged a tension between academic and emotional “safety”. Ho (2017) wrote,

People begin to have bloated and unclear understandings of how academic spaces should be considered “safe”. A new iteration of the concept has emerged—some students advocate to expand emotional safe spaces to encompass the campus as a whole. This new space is a false extrapolation of the originals, mistakenly operating under the unshakable credo that in an academic setting, people should feel emotionally secure.

A problem arises in this case. There exists a tension between emotional safety and academic safety. If the goal of an academic setting is to keep people comfortable, then the acceptability of speech will be determined by how objectionable it is. And if arguments are limited based on how offensive they seem, people are expected to adhere to an implicit set of polite ideological norms. Speech is allowed so long it doesn’t appear to conflict with the socially accepted opinions on certain touchy topics. In this way, new safe spaces become less about respecting and empowering individuals than sanctifying certain ideas. Provocative speech is censored, which has pernicious effects on the academic tradition.

Most people understand the value of protecting disagreeable ideas in a classroom, and they appreciate the existence of cultural groups and organizations… But in a dorm or house, what should be the priority—courteousness or freedom of discussion?

In a recent discussion with Juliet Hess, Hess named that she did not believe there could be a truly safe space; rather the question is:

“How can we be as safe as possible?”

We can NEVER assume the space we are in safe, and it is up to each of us to ensure that the space is made as safe as possible by those of us within the space. As we continue to walk the fine line of encouraging safety while also upholding the norms we (ideally collaboratively with stakeholders) may set in order to have discussions that are productive, can a “safe space” truly be inclusive of the physical, intellectual, AND emotional? Are we taking on too much with this one term? Is this term meant to take on so much?

In our continued attempts to define what a “safe space” in our work, with our peers, our families, and everyone else we interact with in life is, I wonder how many of us can/will/reject the following questions:

“When I say “you are in a safe space”, what does that mean to you?”

“What should be the priority—courteousness or freedom of discussion?” (Ho, 2017).

“How can I help create space a space as safe as possible for us both?”

“What do you need in order for the space to be as safe as possible?”

Some words of advice from #44:

“You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. … So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.” (Obama, 2016).

Crockett (2016) concluded,

“Inside or outside of safe spaces, the real problem is usually a failure of empathy, and the real solution is treating others with humility, respect, and compassion and being willing to learn from our own mistakes.”

I can learn from my mistakes, but can I truly create a safe space? Can you?