This Is Us

I Can’t Protect My Parents From Racism, and It Hurts

On anti-Asian hate, allyship, and protecting our moms and dads

Photo: Flickr/mrhayata

Like many thoughtful humans, I’ve been overcome with rage as I witness story after story of Asian American elders being pushed, kicked, and slammed into the ground just because they had the audacity to walk to church. But as an Asian American immigrant, I also felt something more.

Bizarrely, even though I would never engage in such hateful violence, I found myself feeling responsible.

I know I share this feeling with other immigrant children who have carried the burden of holding our parents up when they have been dismissed in their new country as being stupid, greedy, and unworthy. As being “less than.”

“You think I’m a dummy because I don’t speaking English?” my father would rage at me when I came home from school. As a five-year-old who was struggling to learn the language herself, the thought had never crossed my mind until then.

“I graduated from Ewha Women’s University, the oldest women’s university in Asia,” my mom growled at me when a child pulled their eyes tight at the sides and spat at her feet, running away yelling over her shoulder, “Chinese, Japanese… ”

Of course these things happened to me, too, but they never hurt as much as when they happened to my parents.

The true harm of systemic discrimination almost always lies in the details.

As the daughter of Korean immigrants, it was my job to make up for all the respect they weren’t getting elsewhere. To not only carry but to erase the hurt heaped on them by others. An immigrant child is never really a child. She is too busy wiping away the stain of racism in every corner of her home. But just as I moved to cover one soiled spot, another, even bigger dirt bomb would land. It was, and is, an impossible, never-ending job, this work of protecting our parents. Our home was never safe.

My parents’ obsessive efforts to push me toward the best educational opportunities — along with unlimited access to whatever books I wanted — paid off in the form of two Ivy League degrees. On the surface, my accomplishments helped provide a veneer of protection. My father’s Princeton Dad sweatshirt (or hat, or scarf, or any of the endless gifts that came out of the university store in the four years I spent in New Jersey) was like woven armor. It allowed him to say, most importantly to himself, “I am not the dummy.”

But none of my fancy, expensive degrees have given me the power to shield my own parents from the pain of feeling of mushi-hae, or looked down on. And they certainly have not given me the power to protect other Asian American elders from physical violence.

Over the past year, as my Asian American friends and I have witnessed, like you, a rising tide of violence against our disparate, diverse community — even in what we’d hoped were safer places — we’ve been at a loss for what to do. We’ve been talking more about what makes us a “we” when we are from Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, China, and Korea. What positive meaning can we make as a united “we”? How can we be better allies to our Black friends and colleagues?

Together, we came up with four actionable practices that each of us can do every single day, starting right now. We hope you find these ideas helpful.

First, help us protect our elders. Join us in helping them up the stairs, carrying their groceries, and sharing an extra kindness. We should really be doing this for all elders, but it’s an extra act of solidarity to do it for our elders today. It apparently doesn’t go without saying that you should help an elder who has experienced violence instead of closing the door on them, so I guess I’ll say that, too.

Second, in the event that you don’t witness acts of violence — as most of us won’t — shine a light on the good work being done by women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) members of your community. Follow and retweet them, patronize their businesses, underscore a helpful comment made in a meeting. In my strongest parenting moments (of which I wish there were more), I’ve used this strategy to reinforce positive behaviors I wanted to encourage in my children. Doing so always ends up changing me more than it does them. When you look for good, you see good.

Reading about and discussing anti-Asian racism is a start, but to root out the unconscious racism and misogyny in ourselves, we’ll need to examine oppressive systems and understand how they function. We’ll need to build a habit of turning on the light, of seeing what society doesn’t want us to see. And then calling others over to see the same. Making allyship tangible also helps build and reinforce new community norms so we can all keep growing in the right direction.

Proactive action also has the benefit of filling up our tanks so we’re ready for whatever the future may hold. It’s not enough to stand with us when times are tough. Recognize us in the good times, too, so we can all be on stronger footing when the next set of waves start rolling in.

Third, get curious — especially when you hear a story that is suspiciously close to a harmful stereotype. Is that Latino colleague late because he is lazy and doesn’t care about his job? Is that woman really abrasive? Begin to ask yourself, “What is an alternate story?” The true harm of systemic discrimination almost always lies in the details. It takes several layers of “why” to bring the root cause to light.

Finally, don’t be afraid to be wrong. To be worried about being “canceled” is to fall prey to the anti-democratic, right-wing narrative that those with the least power are somehow silencing those with the most. If you make your allyship tangible, you will for sure feel uncertain and uncomfortable. I worry about what I say every day, and I’m a woman, immigrant, and person of color. But let’s not let that be an excuse to stop us from engagement, because that’s what the ruse of “cancel culture” is all about. We can, and must, be willing to survive some embarrassment.

Please help us protect our moms and dads.

Entrepreneur + Essayist. CEO of sustainable gifting company: Speaker, writer: Addicted to making meaning.

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