When my mother’s family came to the United States in the 1970s, their experience was far from the romanticized immigrant story we’re often told in America. My mother’s classmates didn’t want to touch her or even stand next to her; they just stared at her. They talked about her features like she was an animal, giving my mother a complex about her beautiful eyes and lovely cheekbones that she still carries to this day. For my mother and her siblings and parents, “go back to China,” was a common barb. My grandmother was already wary of white people in America, after having experienced a similar brand of white supremacy in British Hong Kong, where she would walk by storefronts with signs that read: “Chinese and dogs not allowed.” My mom told me these stories through gritted teeth, as a way to empathize after I shared my own experiences with xenophobia with her. We come from a long line of this shit, was her point.
My mother is a strong woman who taught me to be strong, too. She is resilient, compassionate, and understanding. She’s also a conservative. She gets her information from Fox News; she is skeptical of climate science. She has used the phrase “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” more often than I can count. She may not like Trump as a person, but she believes his policies were good for minorities. As political viewpoints have become more and more divisive in the past several years, it’s become harder for my mother and me to talk about social issues. From her perspective, racism and discrimination are merely liberal talking points, not issues that affect a growing portion of the population. From mine, people with her views are a danger to democracy and equality.
It’s not just my mother and me who are having these types of disagreements. More than a third of Asian voters supported Donald Trump in the 2020 election, despite his xenophobic rhetoric, according to a CNN survey, reflecting the growing political divide within many Asian American communities, one that seems to fall along generational lines. For me, this divide has made it harder to process anti-Asian hate. It’s impossible to think about without considering my mother.
In the past several years, the rate of violent crime against Asians had doubled. During the pandemic, while overall hate crimes decreased by seven percent, hate crimes aimed at Asian Americans increased by 149 percent — and that’s just what got reported. Watching videos of Asian women being attacked by strangers, and thinking about the six Asian women who were murdered in Atlanta, I can’t help but worry about my mother, knowing that her appreciation for conservative policies won’t matter to anyone targeting her, and knowing that situational hate crimes have a long, disturbing history in the U.S. “The racist and xenophobic reactions directed at Asian Americans are not unlike those experienced by Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim Americans after September 11,” says Dr. Jennifer Lee, a researcher and Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Hate crimes against Muslims skyrocketed after the 9/11 attacks and that rate has remained relatively high ever since. The way we talk about race and ethnicity matters, and Lee says Trump’s rhetoric “fueled xenophobic animosity against Asian Americans and effectively put a target on them” — a target that won’t go away any time soon.
It’s hard to fathom, then, why so many Asian Americans would still support the right after witnessing this rhetoric and seeing the consequences that words can trigger. A big part of it is the assimilation narrative: the idea that, as an immigrant, you don’t truly belong here, so you must prove yourself if you want to stay. Despite experiencing anti-Asian hate her whole life, my mom has always felt that the best way to fight back is by assimilating. And, she’s not the only one who thinks like this. For example, Lee found the reason so many Asian immigrant parents nudge their kids into conservative, high status professions (perhaps “hurl” is a better word) is to avoid discrimination. Money and status are how you earn value in a capitalist culture, and if you have value as a doctor or a lawyer, the thinking goes, then perhaps you’ll be accepted. “What they learn, however, is that native-born status, U.S. citizenship, elite degrees, and professional jobs are not shields against hate, xenophobia, racism, and scapegoating,” Lee says. “We’re seeing glaring evidence of this now in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Not only does assimilating prove ineffective in buffering against racism, it may actually make racism worse. One study reported “a general willingness to aggress against immigrants when respondents are primed with an immigrant who is eager to assimilate.” Put another way, assimilation seems to encourage xenophobia rather than prevent it. By kowtowing to racist views, then, we only reinforce white supremacy. I don’t just worry about my mother because she may not take anti-Asian hate seriously. I worry about how much she can be herself in an environment where her value is measured by how much she’s assimilated. I worry about how much agency she has to speak up when she feels marginalized. I wonder, How much space does she have to be the person I know she is?
Despite the fact that I don’t agree with them, my mom’s views are still informed by her own experiences as a minority and as an immigrant. Her faith in the “ideal immigrant” story comes from a place of wanting to protect herself — if you’re good, they won’t hurt you. After years of discrimination, being told there’s a way out through obedience and hard work is a tempting myth to buy into. We’ve gotten into many heated and uncomfortable arguments over these views. I’ve laughed and rolled my eyes and told her she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. But I also realize that scoffing at my mother’s fears and chalking up her worldview as ignorant erases her own struggles with racism, discrimination, and white supremacy. It’s a difficult paradox.
My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother sacrificed so much to be here. My family risked everything and worked for years to even get the chance to immigrate. And they felt grateful for their freedom. But it’s strange to feel “lucky to be here” while simultaneously being told to go back to where you came from. Maybe sometimes it’s easier to simply ignore the discrimination because you can’t bear to think about the downside after all you’ve sacrificed.
It seems there are two ways to talk about social issues in our culture: from a political lens and from the lens of being a human. When I call my mother to talk about anti-Asian hate, I tell her I’d like to talk about it from the lens of the latter. She agrees. She is enraged by what she’s seeing. We talk about other hate crimes. Videos she’s seen with images that sickened her. She tells me about conversations with friends and colleagues during the Black Lives Matter protests last year, how proud she was to see people marching in her city. She tells me about racist experiences she’s had at work, and I regret not being there for her to talk about those experiences when they happened. We talk about our fears and the dueling feelings of gratitude and anger. We still don’t agree on everything, but we agree more than I expect. And most importantly, we’re able to talk again.
As we’re talking, I think about how the women who were killed in Atlanta meant so much to the people who loved them. Hyun Jung Grant wasn’t far from my mother’s age. She was a single mom who worked hard for her sons. “Ms. Grant was a supportive mother who encouraged her sons to carve out their own futures,” the New York Times reported. I think about how my mom encourages me to do that, too. I don’t expect my mother and I to see things from the same perspective because we’re different people with different experiences — but we have a lot of shared experiences, too.
Politics are linked to every aspect of our lives, there’s no denying that. But there’s no hope in getting on the same page about policies until we get on the same page about being human. My mother and I will probably never see eye-to-eye on everything. But we are healing, perhaps the way we’re all trying to heal; and we are trying to look forward together, through a shared vision for our future.
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