Shrestha Singh (C ’12) loves her husband Eric's family, and they love her. But this love is complicated: Shrestha is the Indian American daughter of immigrants, and she married into a family of Trump supporters.
Since childhood, Shrestha has believed in the power of storytelling and speaking one's truth: “I’m really grateful that I grew up in a family with a strong oral tradition of storytelling. Storytelling is really important to creating social change. If we don’t share our stories, it ends up not humanizing what people are struggling for and why we want change in the world.”
This January, Shrestha told her own story.
She wrote an article for HuffPost about Eric’s family titled, “I’m A First–Generation Indian American Woman. I Married Into A Family Of Trump Supporters.” She describes her love for them, but she also chronicles incidents in the past that left her feeling silenced and suffocated: the $2020 dollar bill with Donald Trump’s face on it that made an appearance at the Christmas gift exchange, the “Kaepernick” football jersey that his family tossed around and sneered at, and the heated arguments about Black Lives Matter that unfolded on social media.
"How could they love me, a brown–skinned woman, if they believed lies that placed whiteness and the power of empire above all else?" she writes in the article. "Could they love me without truly seeing me, in all my identities?"
Shrestha is proud of her identity and her family's history. A month before Shrestha was born, her pregnant mother and older sister flew to the United States from India in search of a new life. Her father was studying computer science and engineering at the University of Maryland at the time. Soon after, the young family moved to Fremont, California, where Shrestha grew up.
Fremont is one of the most religiously diverse places in the country and part of the only Asian–majority congressional district in the United States. “I grew up surrounded by folks of all different cultures. On my street we were Hindu, my next door neighbor was Sikh, the family across the street was Christian, and down the street there was a Buddhist family," she says.
When Shrestha arrived at Penn, she saw for the first time what she’d only been told before: Whiteness is the majority.
“When I was younger, I knew I was the child of immigrants. I knew I was different—it’s not like I had no idea that I didn’t belong. But most of my classmates growing up were also children of immigrants, and most of my friends were, too, which was unique, and I didn’t really realize that before coming to Penn,” she says.
After graduation, she briefly worked at a children’s crisis and trauma center in North Philadelphia, moved back to California to work on an urban farm for a year, and later attended Harvard Divinity School. She worked as a university chaplain at Wellesley College and Brandeis University in Massachusetts before moving to Northern Illinois. Today, Shrestha is an aspiring trauma therapist—she's pursuing her Master of Social Work degree at Loyola University Chicago.
Shrestha and Eric met in divinity school, and since then, he has been an essential part of her journey.
She smiles wistfully as she reflects upon the early days of their relationship. The two were in a class together on religion and immigration, which took them on a trip to the U.S.–Mexico border. They were seated next to each other on the plane, leading them to become friends and eventually date.
As Eric told Shrestha about his small–town, Midwestern, Trump–supporting family, she was caught off guard. “I was really astounded, mostly just by how Eric turned out the way he is. He is super concerned about social justice and helping those who are more marginalized than himself. And I was ignorant, had never been to the Midwest, and had stereotypes about what it was like.” She laughs as she explains that before visiting Eric’s family for the first time, she asked him if there was Wi–Fi in Wisconsin.
Shrestha also believed stereotypes about what Eric’s family might be like: “Folks from the Midwest who are conservative are often portrayed in the news media as uneducated, perhaps not so friendly, and maybe kind of aggressive. So when I met them, I was really surprised. They were this really sweet, kind, wonderful, loving family who has really deeply different political beliefs than I do.”
Eric’s family took Shrestha in with open arms. As a child, she yearned for a large family—aside from her sister and parents, all of her relatives were in India. As time passed, she became increasingly close with her in–laws. Her deep and lasting affection for them is evident. At Eric and Shrestha’s 2019 wedding in Wisconsin, his family sported traditional lehengas and saris, and did so with excitement.
However, Shrestha’s love for Eric’s family doesn't negate the blatant racism and white supremacy that they have demonstrated in the past. “People can be kind and affectionate, and also do and say things that are deeply harmful, oppressive, and death–dealing to people,” she says.
Shrestha reflects upon how, during the Jim Crow era, it was ordinary white citizens and community leaders—people considered "respectable"—who encouraged extreme racial violence.
“Respectable people, or so–called respectable people, can do really atrocious things. We as a country live in very binary terms. You’re either good or bad, supporting this or not supporting this," she explains. "But good people can do bad things, and bad people, whatever that means, can do good things. These binaries keep us from looking at the deeper roots of issues, when it comes to race especially.”
In January, Shrestha decided to speak up. She wrote about her experiences in the HuffPost article, hoping to inspire people to have difficult conversations about white supremacy with their own families and communities.
“If it had been the case that I could’ve sat down and had a rational, loving conversation with his family, I wouldn’t have felt the need to write an article,” she says. “It’s the intersection of family dysfunction, trauma, and differing political beliefs, which makes it such a perfect storm. And makes it so hard for someone like me, the only brown person in the family, to speak up.”
Though Shrestha was hesitant to publish the article, Eric was and still is completely supportive of her choice. Shrestha can't say the same about Eric’s family, many of whom haven’t spoken to Shrestha or Eric since the article was published.
Shrestha believes a time will come when she can start an open dialogue with them. But she also acknowledges that they have to put in the work. If they’re not willing to, or if they want things to go back to the way they were, then she and Eric aren’t willing to have a relationship with them.
After Shrestha’s article was published, hundreds of people wrote to her to share their own stories about how Trump’s presidency and political polarization have damaged their own relationships.
“We’re at this point in our country and societally where all of the wounds that have been festering for so long are being brought into the open. This has led to an opportunity for us," Shrestha says. "Are we going to heal these wounds, or are we going to let them rot? Are we going to let them infect the whole body? Some people say that those wounds have been there, so we don’t need to address them. Others say that those wounds have been there, and they’re killing us all."
Shrestha’s message to the Penn community: Real change comes from changing our intimate relationships.
“Sometimes when we think about making a change, we think about being the leaders of movements or heads of organizations. But really, it’s thinking about the everyday spaces that you’re a part of: your friend groups, families, classrooms, and student organizations," she says. "It’s thinking about where you see certain things being said or certain things being the status quo that don’t sit well with you and bringing them up. Students have much more power than they think they do."