IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How to talk to your Asian immigrant parents about racism while considering their lived experiences

“In Asian families, there’s a lot of this rhetoric of ‘don’t make waves’ and ‘respect your elders.' Having a conversation where you will make waves and challenge your elders is the first barrier of entry,” one expert said.
Image: Demonstrators raise their hands at a protest outside of the White House on May 31, 2020.
Demonstrators at a protest outside the White House on May 31, 2020.Samuel Corum / AFP - Getty Images file

Kat, a 24-year-old New Yorker, has been talking to her parents about racism since she was 11. As she grew up and made friends of different backgrounds, she says she became more acutely aware of their colorist and anti-black remarks.

“This was really traumatizing for me,” Kat, who chose to use a pseudonym for this article, told NBC Asian America.

After tearful, frustrating conversations, Kat said, she realized she needed to take a different approach. She considered the fact that her parents, Chinese immigrants to Malaysia who didn't finish high school, may have lacked awareness and been subjected to white supremacy throughout their lives. So she educated herself about systemic racism and about her parents’ background. Though things aren’t perfect, she says, she’s made progress

“It’s exhausting, but I feel like we’re getting there,” she said.

For Asian Americans across the country, the past two weeks of protests and collective rage after the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police have been an opportunity for self-reflection. Conversations have ignited because one of the officers arrested for Floyd’s death is Asian American. Many who are marching, donating and speaking out on social media have recognized that doing their part to support black communities involves untangling the deeply rooted anti-blackness in their own. And what has dominated the timeline for young Asian Americans looking to be active in the movement is one plea: talk to your families.

“We have a responsibility to contend with the internal anti-blackness in our own communities,” Deepa Iyer, a lawyer and activist, said. “We have to have those conversations with our uncles and aunties and in the WhatsApp group.”

While starting at the dinner table might seem like a good step, young Asian Americans trying to uproot generations of biases often run into roadblocks.

“In Asian families, there’s a lot of this rhetoric of ‘don’t make waves’ and ‘respect your elders,’” said Yuki Yamazaki, a psychotherapist studying Asian Americans and colorism at Fordham University. “Having a conversation where you will make waves and challenge your elders is the first barrier of entry.”

Yamazaki and other experts say young people seeking to challenge biases in their families and communities are often met with generations of deeply rooted beliefs, sometimes formed in their home countries under a white imperialistic influence.

“When we look at the history of the subcontinent where South Asian immigrants are from or originally from, you have colonialism and long legacies of internalized notions of beauty and worth attached to skin color,” said Monisha Bajaj, a professor of international and multicultural education at the University of San Francisco.

Even those who spent their childhood or young-adulthood in the United States have been implicitly fed anti-blackness because “we live in a system that is racist,” Yamazaki said.

“From the language that people might be growing up with to implicit biases like ‘Oh, I won’t go into that neighborhood because it’s dangerous’ is often the euphemism for ‘it’s a black neighborhood,’” Iyer said.

These discussions can be difficult, so here, three experts and a young person share how to begin, while also taking into consideration families’ lived experiences in their home countries and in the U.S.

Be humble and realize you need to educate yourself first

It’s no use going into a conversation with family members not fully informed yourself. Don’t just say “systemic racism” without knowing what it means. Presenting concrete evidence of structural racism and police brutality will make the stories, videos and articles easier to understand in a broader sense. Read and research and come into the conversations armed with knowledge of what you’re going to talk about. Consider that your parents and families simply might not know as much about U.S. history and the centurieslong history of anti-blackness if they weren’t educated here.

“It’s like making a case,” Iyer said.

Realize that you might be changing someone's worldview

Racism should be met with rage, and seeing family display overt anti-blackness is rightfully enraging. But putting your emotions aside while you try to educate them can be the most effective approach, according to experts. It makes it so that “you’re in control,” Yamazaki said.

According to Kat, talking to her parents became easier when she put her anger aside.

“When people feel like their moral values are being judged and set of beliefs compromised, they automatically go into defense mode and stop trying to understand and learn,” she said.

Yamazaki said that police brutality and white supremacy might be hard to digest for an Asian immigrant parent who feels that they have never directly experienced it. And blackness may not be in their worldview at all. Understanding their internal frustration might make it easier to communicate with compassion.

“You’re talking about something that’s going to inherently alter someone’s worldview,” she said.

Image: Demonstrators raise their fists in solidarity as they protest in Washington Square Park in New York City on June 6, 2020.
Demonstrators raise their fists in solidarity as they protest in Washington Square Park in New York City on June 6, 2020.Scott Heins / Getty Images

Ask about their experiences with oppression and discrimination in their home countries and the U.S.

For many immigrant parents, views on government institutions, racism and white supremacy have been shaped by their experiences in their countries of origin. Work to understand the social and political situation they grew up in and how they still carry that with them.

“In my parents' generation and older, there was a lot of government turmoil, political turmoil, colonization, decolonization, a lot of unstable government,” Yamazaki said. “So I think when you look back in your own family’s history, [you can see] how the government protected or didn’t protect or even fear-mongered.”

Kat said learning about the oppression her parents faced in their home country of Malaysia helped her understand their mindset when it came to whiteness and government institutions in the U.S.

“After reading up on how they were raised, how the British implemented divide and rule … I could understand and empathize with my parents better,” she said.

If immigrant families are coming from a country with palpable corruption and disorganization, their instinct might be to trust a U.S. government and police force that, for the most part, has protected them.

Whether in their country of origin or in the U.S., it’s likely immigrant parents have experienced some type of discrimination. Even if they can’t understand the systemic oppression that black Americans have faced, use their experiences to help them empathize.

“Your family likely in some generation went through something, some hardship, and for a lot of Asian families it was because of race or culture or native language or specific ethnic group,” Yamazaki said. “What do they think of that? What did it feel like to have that taken away?”

For Kat, her mom’s personal experiences with xenophobia in the U.S. have been helpful in explaining the experience of other minorities.

“In Chicago, a white man said to me and my mom ‘this is not China’ when we spoke to each other in Cantonese,” she said. “She felt unsafe and discriminated against, and I said ‘this feeling you have right now, the feeling of being attacked for your identity, is exactly what other minorities go through.’ My mom nodded in agreement and I felt like we were making progress.”

Explain the model minority myth

Though this may not be a task for your first conversation about race in the U.S., dismantling the model minority myth might help families understand how their own preconceived biases came to be.

“Asian Americans are fed this narrative,” Yamazaki said. “‘Look at Asian people, look at how well you’ve done.’ That narrative has been perpetuated by white people and internalized by Asian people.”

Though some Asians have long benefited from this idea, it’s a narrative designed to pit minority groups against one another, according to Iyer.

The stereotype was created to make geopolitical gains from the growing Asian immigrant population in the U.S. and wielded to stop black social movements, Ellen Wu, a historian and the author of “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority,” told NBC Asian America last week.

White liberals in the 1960s weaponized the experiences of Japanese Americans post-internment, branding them as “success stories” and proof that people of color had equal opportunity. This tactic was employed as an attempt to weaken the civil rights movement, Wu said. Though it gave Asian Americans room for more social mobility than black Americans, it only fed into a system of white supremacy.

Speak from a personal and empathetic standpoint

“All conversations have two elements: the content itself and the delivery,” Yamazaki said. “That’s really different depending on who you’re talking to: grandpa vs. mom vs. older sister vs. dad. Knowing who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about are really key elements.”

Your family members care about you, so tell them why supporting the protests and learning about anti-blackness is something so important to you.

“I realized that whenever I brought up my personal experiences with racism, they were more inclined to listen to me finish. I realized it was harder to get my parents to empathize and care for others, but it was a lot easier to make them care about my experiences because they care about me,” Kat said.

It’s not just one conversation. Follow up

“We need to rally ourselves and say ‘this probably won’t go well the first time,’” Yamazaki said. “Having that awareness before you go in will help you frame what you’re going to talk about.”

Take small steps. Centuries of systemic racism can’t be tackled all at once. Even just broaching the topic and why this is a relevant moment is an important first step.

“It’s not one conversation, it’s not one WhatsApp message,” Iyer said. “It’s a series of conversations and to be invested and committed to doing that could take some time.”

Make sure to consistently send along articles, videos, readings, etc. that could help their understanding.

Take care of yourself and understand your limitations

You’re likely not a therapist or an expert, and dismantling deeply rooted preconceptions in your family members is a large task that may not end up the way you imagine. Recognize the limitations in your knowledge and in your ability to sway your relatives. If tensions get too high and a conversation gets ugly, take a break. Pick it up again later. And if a relative refuses to be receptive, that presents another opportunity for self-reflection.

“If you get into a situation where it becomes combative, you also have to take care of yourself,” Bajaj said. “If that relationship doesn’t make sense to continue because it’s affecting your health and well-being, then it may make sense to cut it off, as well.”