Updated: Nov 13, 2020
College matriculation was the inauguration of a tremendous new chapter in my life. It brought about a whirlwind of transitions, ranging from unprecedented independence and freedom to new uncertainty about the path that lies ahead for me. It was like an entirely different cosmo compared to my childhood, throughout which my Chinese immigrant parents, my teachers and guardians, held my hands through thick and thin. They imparted their wisdom and colorful experiences with every chance they had, drawing lines around the rights and wrongs of the world. Their principles and ethics sketched the blueprint of my sheltered, loving youth, and for many years I happily and graciously nodded along, absorbing every bit of guidance they offered.
However, as I grew older, this protective, single-sided atmosphere now has left me yearning for a moment to share my voice, my ideas, and my stances with them. But every time I try, the small ripples of my new thoughts surrendered to the powerful tides of their teachings.
College gave me the microphone I yearned for, with the necessary tools to engage in open-ended, secular conversations with my parents that were not thwarted in the name of protection.
“You are too young to understand.”
You’re wrong. Adults know more than children.”
Now that the matters we discuss no longer have a binary answer, my parents are no longer able to offer these remarks. The NYC protests that arose from the tragic death of George Floyd and many others is one prime example. I am by no means an expert in the matters of systemic racism, its history, and its impacts on different marginalized communities. But as I participate in this unique social climate with the goal of being an ally to the Black community, I want to speak personally of its internal impact on me mentally and emotionally. The nationwide call for visible actions by people of all races amidst the tense political atmosphere has driven me to denounce my internalized complacency. This change started at the place I hold most dear: my home.
“Black people's crime rates are very high.”
“I do not condone their looting and riot.”
Embedded in those words, I heard hints of implicit bias that cloud my parents’ judgments and views of the veracious reality. As I opened myself up to becoming a better ally to the Black community by learning more about the history of injustices against Black Americans, I realized that those challenges were invisible to my parents. I experienced the word “their” as my parents othering the Black community. I was disappointed by what I heard to be an erroneous association of high criminality with the Black community. A wave of conflicting thoughts washed over me.
Perhaps they don’t understand the weight of these assumptions or the entirety of the issue and its cultural significance. Are they aware that they are harboring internalized racism with these comments? They shouldn’t generalize any race, especially a minority race, like this. WE are minorities, too!
I couldn’t grapple with what seemed to be a paucity of empathetic feelings towards other races. I couldn’t fathom their passiveness toward the protestors’ mission and vision. Most importantly, I didn’t know where to begin to dismantle their misperceptions. Should I start by simply sharing with them what I have gleaned from lessons about history and circumstances? The statistics and research established by professionals? How the life-threatening aggression and fear my Black friends continuously face pain me, or how my parents’ skewed conceptions of races dishearten me?
“I don’t have any racial bias toward any race.”
“I stand on the side of equality.”
Those are the words my parents used at the dinner table when I tried to rebut their remarks. The denial was not at all surprising. Like many Asian American immigrants, my parents do not live free from the racial stereotypes that are so rooted in our country’s complexity. As much as my parents believe their words, I still feel that perhaps, deeply internalized in their subconscious are misdirected fear and misguided opinions toward certain races. I believe that these were the results of multiple factors, from my parents’ cultural values and teachings to the reality they experienced as immigrants in America.
The “America” my parents knew of in their youth was a flawless land full of incredible opportunities and freedom, but that vivid fantasy was not exactly their reality. Their start was riddled with economic obstacles and cultural unfamiliarity, with a new language and way of life for which they had no time to prepare. Self-reliance was first and foremost; they prioritized a means of livelihood, allowing work to override all other needs. When my parents finally stepped into economic stability, they landed in yet another unknown territory: an evolved culture of social activism from the Millennial Generation combined with individuality and freedom of expression from the past generations. I believe that the movements and campaigns for these ideals perplex them because they wholeheartedly believe self-reliance -- through education, hard work, and resilience -- should suffice, just like their adaptation to this country. However, they aren’t cognizant of the extent to which systemic racism continues to plague this country, metastasizing in the forms of racial privileges and lack of accountability. My parents don't see that society has erected a multitude of barriers distinct from those they had to face. In their eyes, self-reliance, an honorable, intrinsic virtue that empowered them to change their lives in America, is a panacea.
Perhaps my parents have difficulties stepping into others’ shoes because when they had very little, they pushed continuously upward, unhindered by the multifaceted system of racism that the Black community faces. Perhaps it is because the majority of their interactions take place within an Asian bubble permeated by their motherland’s philosophies and values, filtering out both treasured values and undeniable struggles of other races. Perhaps it’s the contorted newspaper and out-of-context video narratives that exacerbated their implicit biases, spattering biased colors on their canvases. In fear of uprooting the stability they have created, they lost sight of their power to actively and peacefully join socio-political campaigns through advocacy and allyship. Their fears are further intensified by the escalations of clashing protests nationwide. To continuously see broadcasts of shops and stores raided by protesters appalled them. To see people’s hesitance to return to an orderly society haunted them like a nightmare in an endless loop, with economic recession from COVID-19 already threatening their foundation. The empathy for the business owners and the trembling fear that the same violence may be inflicted upon those they care for trapped my parents in a prison of passivity; what resulted was a widening dissociation of the movement for justice for the Black community from its righteous mission in their eyes.
These are not excuses for their implicit biases, but rather reflections I wish I had extended to my parents when I engaged in these types of conversations with them. I wish I had shown understanding of their stances origins, just like I have asked them to understand us and the protesters. Like many of my college peers, I experience a more colorful “America” than my parents have had, where I am grateful to be immersed in more cultural diversity and able to rejoice in an ever-growing social network unimaginable to them. But this privilege, the hard-earned fruit from my parents’ unconditional giving and sacrifice, is not mine to own alone. With great privileges come great responsibilities, and my responsibility is to share my worldview with my parents. How could I have expected my parents to understand my perspective and my experiences when I had not endeavored to understand them? Reflecting on my initial feelings, I can see more clearly that regardless of the difficulty of the conversation, my parents patiently listened to my position. Now, in gratitude, I wish to extend the courtesy back to them.
My self-reflection is an invitation for you, the reader, to join me in initiating honest, open conversations with parents, friends, and our community. We can help give them a microphone so everyone’s voices can be heard. It can start within our campuses. This semester, we can advise our peers on our favorite approaches to having these conversations, learning new tips and creative strategies to make connections real, meaningful, and long-lasting. Yes, the exchanges of these ideas may be challenging at first, but I don’t think it is about what is seamless and easy. For me, it is about the courage and willingness to take the first step, to embark on the journey and persevere, and to confront and conquer all the seemingly insurmountable roadblocks. Maybe we will never share the same views as our loved ones, but we can make rippling differences by empowering those directly around us. I encourage you to inform yourself; teach not only yourself but also those who have helped shape you into the person you are today. Be their guiding compass, their backbone, and their ally -- just as may have been for you. By having courageous conversations rooted in empathy, we will establish new points of view. Through conversation, I believe we can take meaningful strides to be better members of a community who actively seek social justice and equality.
P.S. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for making me the individual I am today. I have been truly blessed with both of you. Thank you for showing me the world.
Zilin is currently a junior at Cornell University, majoring in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Neuroscience and minoring in Business. She immigrated to Brooklyn, New York with her family at the age of eight from China. With an aspiration to become an MD, she passionately explores all sectors of healthcare, from the micro level to the macro scale, through research and volunteering within her community. As a summer intern with the Reflect Organization, Zilin discovered the immense power of positive mental wellness support throughout her time with her team, and rejoiced in making deep, meaningful connections and developing professional skills in a time unlike others. Reflect’s provision of a safe, authentic platform for those in need and allies alike inspires her to continue her allyship in the mental health area, starting with the people around her. A firm believer in self-care, she indulges in a combination of contemporary music, cooking, and an active fitness lifestyle as her ways of positively decompressing.