The other day I had a conversation with my 10 year old daughter that I have returned to reflect on numerous times. We were in the car on the way home from the grocery store and I was talking to her about how things were going at school. She gave her usual response of “good” as she concentrated on her ipod. I told her about how there had been instances of racism in some schools where some children were being mean to children of different nationalities. I asked if there was anything like that going on in her school and if anyone had been mean to her. She answered, “no, why would they?” Well, I explained to her that she is Vietnamese and that some people are mean to people who are different and make fun of them. I talked to her briefly about how when I was growing up a lot of people were mean to me because I was Vietnamese and people said a lot of hateful things about Vietnamese people and also about me. She said “that sounds really bad,” and that was the end of it.
I grew up biracial in 1980s America, in a small town which was not in any way diverse in nature. Being biracial was uncommon where I grew up. It was also a time when the war was still fresh and raw in many people’s minds. Many of my classmates had fathers, uncles, or family members who were in the war and did not like people like me, and these feelings were made known. There were frequent taunts that I lived with on a daily basis. I can recall explaining to them that my father was in the South Vietnamese army, which was the side the Americans were aiding, though this never seemed to matter and never helped slow the waves of overt racism, derision, and mockery that came my way. I learned pretty quickly that facts and reason are not adequate responses to racism, which manifests itself in the deepest recesses of the human psyche. Hatred and fear are impervious to appeals to logic and reason and are safely ensconced in the darkest regions of the human condition.
I am not going to recount all of the experiences growing up and experiencing racism in 80s and 90s America, but living through this time has left an indelible mark on me. Being Asian is an integral part of my identity and experiencing racial hatred has greatly influenced the way I view America. I am slow to see the advancements America has made. I am quick to see the cracks in the veneer of civility and respect in our society. I am mistrustful of people and about how they really feel about those of us who are the “others” in their midst. I see smiling, happy faces and wonder what is really going on in their minds, what is really being said behind closed doors. These are not necessarily things I want to hold onto, and yet my experiences have shaped my view of reality and my perception of it.
Over the past few years I had slowly started to label these fears as relics of a bygone age, my lingering suspicions calcifying into paranoia. I started the process of letting myself believe things were different now. My children will not experience the same prejudices as I did. We live in a world where the tide is turning towards more equality and acceptance. And I started to feel hope for the future and cast aside misgivings I have held on to for so long.
Then the election of 2016 occurred. The racism of the Trump campaign does not need to explored here, but it has been well documented and is quite frankly, beyond dispute. The election did rekindle and confirm all of my fears and suspicions of America I had slowly been hoping would be able to be put to rest. They were now reawakened and reinforced in a spectacularly strong way. The swath of Trump signs surrounding my neighborhood was a menacing reminder of how foolish I was to believe things really had changed. The naivete of believing that progress was an inevitable force marching on its way towards greater equality seems obvious to me now.
The horror of the election results and then the following stories of hate crimes and racist incidents at schools jolted me back to the harsh reality of America. Awakening to this world, which I was starting to believe was passing into the annals history, has been extremely difficult for me. I think of all the children scared and hurt in our schools, on the playgrounds, on their buses, and on their walks home and the collective pain continued to be felt by a new generation of Americans. The sadness of this situation is of an immense caliber, and the sting is made worse by the unexpectedness of Trump’s victory. This was not to have happened. But it has. And the sleeping leviathan of racism has been given permission to be unleashed. Many of us know the how this played out before, but we would foolish to think we know what direction this will go this time around.
Which brings me back to my daughter. I am terrified of what lies ahead and wonder how and if she will be affected. I want my daughter to be proud of who she is and not be ashamed or fearful because of her ethnicity. At the same time I am aware of the dangers and hurt which lie in wait for her around unsuspecting corners and I want to do everything in my power to prevent her from experiencing the racism which was so much a part of my childhood. I wonder if I am letting my fears and concerns overwhelm her and make her outlook on people unduly harsh. I wonder if I do not prepare her for the brutality of the world I will be doing her a disservice. I am not sure how to proceed in this new reality with all too familiar undertones, let alone how to correctly handle my parental responsibilities in regards to the subject. So I am just nervously and warily watching how all this plays out, looking for signs of danger, and mourning the loss of a reality I had hoped had arrived, but which never existed in the first place.