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Sandi Chai (center) with her daughters, Shalom (left) and Zoe, in College Station, Texas.
Lizzie Chen for Vox

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In many Asian American families, racism is rarely discussed

“I just didn’t want them to stress and not be afraid to go to school. The less they knew, the better it was.”

This article is part of the Asian American identity series.

Sandi Chai immigrated to the United States from Taichung, Taiwan, at 22 to attend college. She settled in a small, rural town in Texas called Brownwood, where she met and later married her then-husband and raised two daughters.

Chai says she never encountered any form of discrimination before moving to Texas, where she not only dealt with everything from being ignored to being followed around in stores as a suspected shoplifter but also experienced racism from her white ex-husband’s family. But Chai never really talked about these issues with her daughters — until recently.

“I have to say, I did raise them white,” Chai told Vox. She didn’t teach them how to speak Mandarin, nor did she talk much about her culture and heritage. “Part of it was because where we were living, I didn’t want them to get bullied. … There wasn’t a Chinese or Taiwanese population in Brownwood, and I didn’t want to push the culture on them.”

In most Asian American households, having frank discussions about race and racism are somewhat taboo because of cultural, language, and intergenerational barriers. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, only 13 percent of Asian adults said race came up “often” in conversations with friends and family, compared with 27 percent of Black adults.

Avoidance was a common theme in a survey Vox conducted in April 2021 about Asian American identity. “Denial is the best word to describe my family’s attitude towards racism,” wrote one respondent from New Jersey.

“My parents paid the ‘immigrant tax’ that Hasan Minhaj talked about,” wrote another from California. “Being ‘let’ into this country and able to live a life with food on the table and [relative] physical safety was considered progress. Any racism encountered by the immigrant was a tax to pay for being able to live here.”

“Older generations of Asian Americans, who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much to provide their children and grandchildren opportunities they never had, are just grateful to exist,” a respondent from Arkansas wrote. “They continually say, ‘This is a white man’s world,’ accepting the fact that dirty looks, racial slurs, and violence [are] just part of the minority experience in the US.”

After more than 6,000 reported attacks against the Asian community between March 2020 and March 2021 — intensified by the Georgia shootings in March that left six Asian women dead, Asian American families like Chai’s are beginning to reconsider whether avoiding conversations about racism is still the right approach.

Vox talked to three Asian families about the conversations they’ve had about racism, what they wish they’d talked about earlier, and how the dialogue has evolved throughout the surge of pandemic-related attacks against Asians across the US. The conversations have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“With the recent movements, it was more like it’s past time to actually say and do something about it”

Sandi Chai, 48, mother; Shalom Brown, 21, daughter; Zoe Brown, 19, daughter — Taiwanese Americans living in College Station, Texas

Sandi Chai talks with daughters Shalom and Zoe about Shalom’s upcoming commencement plans.
Lizzie Chen for Vox

Sandi: By the time I got to the US in ’95, Taichung was more developed than Brownwood was. I don’t think I realized how racist America is. I had more money, I was better educated, but they looked at me and they treated me like I was a lower- or second-class creature, just because of my skin color. That was very surprising to me.

I mostly ignored the racism I experienced. A lot of it. Some of it was just outright aggression in the very Southern way. Sometimes I walked into stores and the owner just pretended I wasn’t there. They made sure I knew I wasn’t welcome. I got followed at Dillard’s [department store] all the time. My ex-husband’s mother’s family said a lot of racist stuff against me.

Getting a divorce and getting out of there was great. I didn’t talk about these experiences at all before my divorce, or actually before Donald Trump got elected. Then with George Floyd and the [Black Lives Matter] movement, I became even more vocal about it.

Shalom: For us three, we started talking [more about racism] after Donald Trump’s election. We were told [by my dad’s side of the family and by neighbors] that we have to pray for him to become president. And honestly, as someone who is biracial, it was scary. The people that you’re supposed to trust and respect are all of a sudden supporting a man who would do or say horrible things about people that look like you.

George Floyd’s death did spark more conversations. Even with Trump, I was still quiet and didn’t really talk about it or post about it. But with the recent movements, it was more like it’s past time to actually say and do something about it.

Zoe: I look more white than I look Asian. Growing up, whenever my classmates would make any jokes or racial slurs against Asians, they wouldn’t think they were being racist towards anyone in the classroom because I look white. When my sister was around, they would say, “Oh, there’s an Asian person here, maybe we shouldn’t say something like that.”

Shalom: Some people I met in high school would ask me about my accent, the food we ate, just frustrating microaggressions. Sometimes I did feel myself being self-conscious. But the biggest thing was more in my personal life, not really in school. Our dad’s mother and their family are very racist. I remember she would always say my sister is really pretty. Don’t get me wrong, she really is. But like, [my grandmother] would always pick on something, like tell me that my ears were too big every time she saw me. I was little and never understood why she picked on me. I never really voiced these things till I got older, when we started talking more about race. Mom faced more racial prejudices than we did.

My mom kind of shielded us from racism growing up. I’m an anthropology student, and I had this project where I had to talk to my mom. And I realized that the whole time she was in our hometown, it was really rough for her. She mentioned it before and everything, but I guess being able to have a long, fluid conversation about it brought up everything that she had to go through. I then realized how she shielded us from a lot, so we didn’t really have to face it.

Zoe: I love that we get to explore more of my mom’s culture [now]. Learning more about it makes me so happy because I get to know more about that side of my mom that was kind of suppressed when she moved to the US. They would tell her, “Don’t do these things, don’t say this, don’t eat that,” and I’m just happy to be able to learn more about the culture with her. Our mom is just such a beautiful person, and I’m really proud of the three of us and what we’ve overcome in the last few years. It’s been such a journey.

“We didn’t have a lot of conversations because I wanted to shield them from the trouble or to protect them from what’s going on in the world”

Willie Saligumba, 58, father; Jo-an Saligumba, 55, mother; Jacob Saligumba, 21, son — Filipino Americans living in Portland, Oregon

Jacob (left), Jo-an, and Willie Saligumba.
Courtesy of the Saligumba family

Willie: We never discussed it. We never pointed out color. My kids were taught with high discipline, to treat and respect everybody and to be polite and obedient, but we never discussed color or racism because they always got along with everybody. There was never an issue until recently.

Jacob: I didn’t recognize a lot of them back when I was in high school. Some were subtle Asian ones, just like, “Oh, you’re good at math because you’re Asian.” I was taken aback, but also I didn’t know those were microaggressions growing up until, like, college. Microaggressions are kind of subtle hints of racism that you might not even notice when you’re in person or when it happens.

Jo-an: I’m sort of naive. I went to Oregon City High School, and it was all Caucasian. I was naive and trying to speak English at the same time, and not aware of everything. To me, I thought they were friendly. No discrimination here.

Willie: People take little jabs at you like that. You don’t know it because you just didn’t pay attention to it. To me, it was never an issue. But things have changed a lot lately. New words have been brought up. Jacob and I will go at it all day long.

He calls me racist all the time.

Jacob: I don’t say you’re racist. I say some of the ideals or beliefs we grew up with are racist, and I’m even trying to unlearn some of the racist things that [have] been said. I remember talking about colorism in the Filipino or Asian culture. I said something like, “It’s racist for us to believe that just because you’re a darker color, it means you’re not worth as much value.” It’s also trying to apply that to the American mindset that we’re in.

Willie: No, that’s because of the way I grew up with many different nationalities, starting with the military and living in the Columbia Villa [affordable housing] projects. I can blend with any of those races and be accepted [with] no problem because my personality allows me to. But if this guy is beating up on this guy or disrespecting this guy, [it] doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t matter what color, it’s just wrong. But he still calls me racist.

Jo-An: It’s like a wrestling match between them. I just watch and listen.

Willie: With the attacks on Asian Americans, he’s worried about mom and myself being attacked or whatever. But firstly, I’ll fight to the death if it means protecting my family.

All this was brought to life because the previous administration was prejudiced, discriminatory, and racist. I admit I’ll kid about, “Hey, where does this thing originate from?” I’ll joke about that because I’m Asian. I’ve been like that ever since I was in the military. I lived with many different races. That’s just my attitude. So it doesn’t matter what color you are.

Jacob: I wished we acknowledged how racism isn’t only towards a certain race, like recognizing that we face our own type of racism in this country or area we’re in. Because we’re so used to it, we don’t really acknowledge it or bring it up.

Willie: We didn’t have a lot of conversations because I want to shield them from the trouble [and] protect them from what’s going on in the world. I want them to experience it, slowly but surely. It was never discussed. I just didn’t want them to stress and not be afraid to go to school. The less they knew, the better it was.

Jacob: That’s why I joined the [Filipino American Student Association] in college — to find a place to bond with other people that have the same upbringing and experience and culture as I did growing up. Because we’re very Filipino American, we don’t really do a lot of Filipino activities and aren’t a traditional household. I don’t know Tagalog besides some words. It’s been a lot of pride to say to them that I’m still carrying on this Filipino culture even though we weren’t really raised with it.

Willie: There’s a big reason why he set out to where he’s at right now. I never taught the language to the kids because I wanted them to get really immersed. Still, if they want to hang the Filipino flag in their rearview mirror, go for it.

Jo-An: I cook Filipino food all the time, and he loves it. He’ll eat bagoong [a Filipino fermented shrimp paste].

Willie: That, the food, we never forgot.

Jo-An: I’m so thankful that Jacob belongs to FASA because he’s learning more about the Filipino culture instead of us teaching him.

Willie: I’m glad he’s opinionated. How else is he going to grow? I don’t want him to think the way I think. I’ve learned a couple things from him, too.

“As Asians, we tend to suppress and not speak out. … But there are times where that actually works against us. This is one of those times.”

Kee Park, 58, father; Susan Park, 49, mother; Sophie Park, 23, daughter — Korean Americans living in Boston, Massachusetts

Susan (left), Sophie, and Kee Park.
Courtesy of the Park family

Sophie: I definitely had those quintessential Asian American child experiences of bringing sushi to lunch and the kids recoiling, or someone asking me why my face looks like it was hit by a pan. I just didn’t process it as any form of racism. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I realized how different I was. Even though I thought about it a lot in high school, I just remember distinctly walking on the street one day in Boston and being like, “Oh, I am a minority.”

Kee: Growing up in the ’70s, my parents wanted to assimilate as quickly as possible to American culture and give up our Korean identity. I was told to pick an American name. There was no emphasis on trying to maintain our Korean heritage and culture. We never really talked about racism. If we were being ridiculed, we just kind of swallowed it and moved on.

With Sophie’s generation, it’s been different. We’ve been talking about it actively, a lot more than my parents spoke with me, and I think it’s healthy. As Asians, we tend to suppress and not speak out, like silence is a virtue. But there are times where that actually works against us. This is one of those times. When our safety is at stake, it’s time to speak up. I’m really happy that our daughters are all very vocal. And so have I been, and so has my wife.

Susan: The Atlanta murders really upset me. When I found out that four of the eight people who were murdered were Korean women, it made me feel like that could have been my mom. It could have been my sisters. It could have been my daughters. It could have been me.

Kee: After the Atlanta killings, I was asked to make a statement for work for one of our big gatherings. I don’t like to talk about these things by nature, but I felt like I needed to. And I did.

Sophie: Historically, I didn’t like to talk about it either. But at this point, it’s doing everyone a disservice to stay silent. I was talking to my mom about the different experiences I’ve had as an Asian woman, and I realized I don’t actually share those things with my parents when they happen because I just shrug it off. Racism takes such a more insidious form against the Asian community, and I don’t think I realized that certain things were microaggressions or were racist until I reflect back on them. I feel like conversations around our identity as Asian Americans didn’t really happen until recently. Right?

Kee: I think the Atlanta shooting was like the George Floyd moment for Asian Americans. After the press briefing, when the police were trying to empathize with the killer for having a “bad day,” that woke me up, and I was like, this is truly systemic racism with the white people at the preferred seats — and they’ve maintained that.

If you look at the interracial (Black-Asian) tensions, people fail to see why that’s happening. Whites have always kept the preferred seats, and we and all the others get to fight over the crumbs. It’s really the white people’s refusal to share the power and the wealth that they have in this country with everybody. What I realized after the shooting was we have to dismantle the whole system of structural racism.

Susan: Also, we’re a Christian home. So I really didn’t have conversations with Sophie to be proud of her Korean American heritage, but it was more like, “Don’t forget, we have a faith.”

It’s wonderful that we’re Korean American. We embrace our culture. I make Korean food, we practice our traditions, we do our New Year’s and all of that. With my belief in God, my priority was that my family felt loved. But when the Atlanta murders happened, I thought, we’ve got to stand up for our Asian women, especially Koreans.

Sophie: I wasn’t really aware about systemic racism in America until maybe I was, like, 16 or 17. I don’t know what capacity you guys had, but hypothetically speaking, I wish it didn’t have to take so long for me to realize that it was a thing. Maybe I wish we had conversations about our unique experiences with racism and how those experiences matter.


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