Why some Asian families are hesitant to discuss racism

·5 min read

When she was growing up, Annie Tan only heard her cousin Vincent Chin's name twice. The first was when her brother, who was 22, wanted to go out to a bar with some friends one night. "My mom said, 'Don't go out so late and (get) killed like your cousin,'" said Tan, 31, who is now a special education teacher in New York City. The second time came while watching a documentary that featured Chin, who was killed by two White men in 1982. Tan's mother acknowledged that Chin was indeed her cousin and that his mother and her great aunt, Lily Chin, helped grow Asian American activism in the wake of her son's death. Tan was shocked but unsurprised that her parents kept this from her. "To my parents, it's more of an unsaid truth that this is a dangerous world," Tan said. Tan's story is a painful reminder that anti-Asian violence in America isn't new. While some parents have taken this moment to discuss racism with their children, experts believe many Asian immigrants may be hesitant to have those conversations because it betrays the model minority myth — the perception that Asian Americans have been able to overcome past discrimination and achieve high levels of success.

"The model minority myth is saying that society is looking at you positively, even though you experienced this," said Min Zhou, a professor of sociology and Asian American Studies at UCLA. "So it must be on the individual level, it can't be society's fault, so you just have to tough it out."

Annie Tan / Credit: Handout
Annie Tan / Credit: Handout

Tan and her family have always been careful about venturing out of Chinatown but became even more so during the pandemic. Her parents don't speak a lot of English, and they've developed a close-knit community in their neighborhood. Tan said explicit conversations about race are still rare. But they use messaging platforms like WeChat to keep up to date about attacks and rarely go out alone or at night. She said her parents are even more cautious because they know older Asians are being physically assaulted at much higher rates. "I'll get verbal assaults but they're the ones being attacked," Tan said. "I think they knew that very early on, so they only go out during the day." Jessica Owyoung, 37, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, recalls hearing stories of her father being harassed but never reporting the incidents. Owyoung, a college counselor, said her family felt strongly that reporting the crimes wouldn't lead to justice. Owyoung said her great-grandfather was shot and killed in the 1930s when he lived in the Bay Area. No one was ever prosecuted, which made it harder to believe less violent incidents of racism would be taken seriously by law enforcement.

"My family came from the mindset of, 'if you ignore things they won't exist and 'you don't want to make any kind of trouble,'" Owyoung said. "I think that was a necessary way for them to survive and I think that had a purpose."

Jessica and Helen Owyoung / Credit: Handout
Jessica and Helen Owyoung / Credit: Handout

In response to the recent violence, Owyoung helped create Compassion in Oakland, a volunteer organization that provides chaperones to elders in the city's Chinatown neighborhood. "We learn from our parents and our grandparents, and take cues from what they're doing," Owyoung said. "It's almost like a denial of self, to actually speak up and take action."

Owyoung still struggles to find her own voice in her advocacy work but wants to show older generations that young Asian Americans are there to help out —even if they haven't had a chance to talk about it with their own families. In her own family, Owyoung has tried to focus conversations away from violence and towards Asian American pride, so that more people feel empowered by their history, not ashamed of it.

"My parents really pushed away any kind Chinese cultural practices but I wanted to know that part of myself," Owyoung said. "When I learned more about the culture and the history that I never knew, everything about my Asian American identity just started to make more sense."An Bui, 27, said she signed up for aikido and judo classes as a child because her mom said it would be a good way to protect herself. After seeing the uptick in attacks against Asians, her mom has begun expressing concern about why she never continued taking those lessons.

An Bui / Credit: Handout
An Bui / Credit: Handout

"Those were the only two times that any reference was made about potential violence against me because of my race," said Bui, a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. Bui, a first-generation Vietnamese American, said she has rarely had discussions about race with her family and that it's been hard to express worry to her parents about their physical safety. She has tried to explain to them some of the measures they can take to be safer, but they seem more concerned about her than themselves. "I feel like I can look after my parents and protect them, but they're still very much in the mindset that it's their job to protect," Bui said. "They will pretty much never accept worry from me."Owyoung, who has seen how silence about violence has shaped her understanding of her race, wants to change the way Asian Americans talk about race by making it a subject that is openly discussed. "When my nieces and nephews are old enough, I 100% intend to have conversations about race and Asian American history and encourage them to be proud of their history and their culture," Owyoung said.

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