I first realized my parents were racist in middle school, when they told me I couldn’t date Black people.
At first I was confused. I thought, You’ve got to be kidding, right?
“Why does it matter if the person I like is Black?” I asked. “What’s wrong with Black people?”
Every answer they gave was vague and didn’t go beyond the fact that it made them uncomfortable. After serious prodding, they ended the conversation with, “We have a different culture than they do! They just don’t mix.”
These words have always stuck with me as the most troubling of all the racist things Chinese friends and family members have said, which have ranged from fears of encountering Black people on the street at night to disparagements of affirmative action because it gives some minorities an “easy pass”—statements many people would call microaggressions, although their psychological effects on those who experience them are anything but “micro.”
But my parents’ insistence on “different cultures” stands out to me because it highlights a huge issue within Chinese American and greater Asian American communities: the use of our culture and “model minority” status to justify racism against other racial groups, including and especially Black people.
I’m writing this because of George Floyd, who died on May 25 after a white police officer pinned a knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, refusing to move until George Floyd lost consciousness and his life. I’m writing this because I believe that during this time—and all the time—Asian Americans have a duty to confront racism within their own communities. I’m writing this because for years I have struggled to confront the racism in the people closest to me, and I hope I can help other young Asian Americans become better allies by sharing my story.
Growing up, my parents’ racism baffled me because they are Chinese immigrants living in an overwhelmingly white area. Like many immigrants, my parents had come to the United States with very little and worked low–paying jobs while raising my sister and me, sacrificing all of their time and money to give us a good education. They understood how hard it was to succeed as a minority, so they should have inherent empathy for the struggles Black people face every day. Right?
But, if anything, their experience as immigrants caused them to downplay discrimination towards other races. My parents, like many people in the U.S., have bought into the model minority myth, which paints Asian Americans as a homogenous and highly successful group that has managed to “rise above” racism through hard work and family values. Among many negative consequences, the myth has historically been used by both whites and Asian Americans to blame Black people for not overcoming the disadvantages they face, despite the fact that the struggles of the two racial groups are vastly different and incomparable.
The argument goes like this: If I came to the U.S. with nothing and worked hard enough to succeed, then why can’t other minorities do the same? If they haven’t, then it must be their own fault. Whenever I have a conversation with my parents about race, that’s what it inevitably comes down to: if I succeeded, why can’t they?
I tell them it’s because discrimination against Black people is entrenched in all levels of society, from schools to housing to the criminal justice system; it’s because anti-Blackness is an ideology that’s been cultivated alongside supposed ideals of freedom and equality from the time the first slave ship came to America.
But my parents’ racism is so strongly linked to their pride in being hardworking immigrants that most of my attempts to talk about privilege and systems of oppression are interpreted as personal attacks.
“You don’t understand what it’s like to be an immigrant.”
“We didn’t need anybody’s help to get by, so why should we help other people? They should want to do it themselves.”
“We gave you everything. Why are you complaining?”
I tried so hard to change their minds, but after several years of trying to explain, sometimes I caught myself thinking that it was easier to just let it go. It was always on me to stay calm and behave rationally in our conversations, even though their assumptions about other races were based on fear and ignorance. If I got too angry, then I would be “disrespecting” them, and they would refuse to listen. Every argument we had led to misunderstandings and hurt feelings on both sides, and I could feel my relationship with them becoming strained.
It made me sad that my cultural community—a huge part of my identity—has such a major problem, one that I didn’t know how to begin to fix. Sometimes, I wanted to stay silent. I wanted to ignore my parents’ racism.
But I don’t deserve the privilege of staying silent. I don’t deserve to give up because it’s hard. The only reason I can choose to ignore this kind of racism is because it doesn’t affect me—and I refuse to be the kind of person who only cares when my own life is in danger. How can I say that Black Lives Matter if I won’t even attempt to stand up to racism that’s right in front of me?
Since George Floyd’s death, I’ve had many, many conversations with my parents about what happened. Some have been more successful than others. I struggle to hold my temper. I hurt my parents’ feelings. Regardless, I’ll keep trying, because giving up is a luxury many people can’t afford.
I want to encourage my Asian American friends to think critically about the racism that’s prevalent in our communities and take action to address it. Speaking out against bigotry is not a sign of disrespect to your family or disloyalty to your culture. It shows that you care enough about your loved ones to push them to be better people, and you care enough about your culture to make it more welcoming and equitable.
Educate yourself on racism within the Asian American community. Reflect on whether you, your parents or others you know perpetuate it. Listen. Confront. Explain. Then do it all again.