It can be a huge challenge to explain Black Lives Matter to non-Black families of color, especially in immigrant and refugee families in which some people haven’t grown up in America. In this episode, we tackle colorism, the “model minority” myth and how non-Black people of color can be racist and face racism at the same time.
Before diving into conversations about anti-Black racism with your family, it’s important to start by confronting colorism within your own community.
“My mom bought me this skin-whitening cream that she got from China,” says Chelsey Zhu, a 20-year-old college student at the University of Pennsylvania. “And I was like, ‘Who are the people telling you that pale skin is beautiful?’”
Zhu is the features editor of her school’s student paper. In June, she wrote a personal essay about her experiences as a Chinese American talking to her immigrant parents about Black Lives Matter and anti-Black racism.
“It’s been so ingrained — this want to be in proximity to whiteness,” says Leslie P. Arreola-Hillenbrand, the founder of Latinx Parenting. She says it’s “something that we have been exposed to basically from the moment we were born.”
“When you look at novellas and when you’re looking at Latin media and news outlets, all you see are White Latinxs,” says Annie Velasco, a 15-year-old high school student in Santa Ana, Calif. “You never see any Afro-Latino people being shown as the protagonists.”
Whenever Velasco tries to bring up Black Lives Matter with family members, she says she’s very easily brushed off.
“It's like a defense mechanism,” she says. Velasco gets responses like, “‘I've never done anything wrong. What do you mean? I'm Mexican. How could I be holding this privilege?’”
“It comes across to them as sort of an attack,” says Zhu.
We asked experts for tips on how to effectively bring all this up with your family.
Jump ahead to the noted time stamp if you want to go straight to one of these tips.
Confront your personal relationship with racism and colorism and the benefits of proximity to Whiteness that you’ve experienced in your own life.
Arreola-Hillenbrand says she remembers having a conversation with a group of friends who also identify as non-Black Latinas. She asked them, “‘Am I White-passing?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, you’re pretty White-passing.’”
“I had a lot of discomfort just coming to terms with all of the ways in which I've been complicit in white supremacy within my own culture,” says Arreola-Hillenbrand.
“It was actually a survival strategy to be in proximity to Whiteness,” she says. “Our ancestors did survive by aligning ourselves with Whiteness and marrying into Whiteness. It can be really uncomfortable and it can bring up some shame.”
Colonial practices like caste systems predate American slavery and can make it easier for families who immigrate to the United States to internalize perceptions of themselves and others based on race. In some ways, this paved the way for the “model minority” myth to take hold in Asian American communities.
“It’s this belief that Asian Americans, because they are hard-working and they follow the rules and they do all the right things — are successful,” says Soya Jung, co-founder a racial justice think tank called ChangeLab.
The “model minority” myth is a stereotype that started after World War II to reconcile flaws in America’s democracy, like Jim Crow laws.
“Implicit in the model minority idea is that there must be a problem minority,” says Jung. “And so whatever discrimination that Black people are facing, it’s their own fault. It is inherently anti-black.”
A great way to initiate a conversation about race is to ask your parent or family member about their own experiences. If someone says something racist in real-time, use it as a catalyst to ask more questions.
“If you are deeply curious, it's very likely that at some point in their lives they have experienced some form of oppression,” says Jung. “Those conditions force us to see each other as rivals — that my prosperity necessarily depends on somebody suffering.”
Zhu thinks that a part of why she gets pushback from her parents could be because they feel like when she brings up injustice within another racial group, it makes them feel like their experiences are invalidated.
“They worked really hard to get to the United States and to learn English and get jobs and be taken seriously by people here,” she says. When she says that Black Americans experience racism that’s different, she says “they think that I'm saying that there are things that they didn't have to struggle with.”
Arreola-Hillenbrand says to think about the pressures being put on immigrant parents, those who for whom English is not their first language and people who still may not have access to educational resources.
“We have to really understand that we have been living within a racist system and racist institutions basically all of our lives,” she says.
Racial trauma and racial privilege are not mutually exclusive. You can experience racism and be racist at the same time. Instead of arguing with your family member about this, double down on asking questions and try to connect your perspective to their experiences.
“The goal is to fight white supremacy together because it does impact all of us negatively,” says Arreola-Hillenbrand.
“That’s the power of white supremacy. It convinces us that whatever we do have, we are in constant threat of losing,” says Jung. “You want to find those spaces where people can be vulnerable. That's where things are going to change. You're not just trying to change your family members. You're trying to change society.”
“The New Normal” is a series from The Lily and The Washington Post that talks about how to navigate the different ways news affects our everyday lives, hosted by Nicole Ellis.