How many of you have had a conversation with your brown families on racism and anti-blackness, in light of everything that’s happened in the past week? If you’re not in the US currently, and you happen to be in Bangladesh or any other place where the coronavirus pandemic is actually peaking right now and your life has felt surreal for many weeks, it might be hard to focus on anything that’s not affecting you or your immediate circle directly (assuming that your immediate circle is also where you are). So I was happy to see the number of people who were engaging in this global discourse, who were ready to take a stand, speak out in alliance, and also ready to acknowledge their own community’s role in all of this. Not surprisingly, from what I’ve seen atleast, most people participating in this conversation are on the younger side – Millennials and Gen Z.
Most brown kids aren’t new to the struggles of having uncomfortable conversations with older family members. From being interrogated by your parents about your boyfriend/girlfriend to explaining that mental health issues aren’t a figment of your imagination, we’ve all experienced, to some degree, the frustration that’s an inevitable part of it. You’re often angered, sometimes you feel like it’s all futile, you’re not making any progress. When it comes to social justice issues, you might be even more tempted to give up. I have often, after particularly difficult discussions, wondered whether it’s worth my time and energy – maybe I should focus on educating myself and my peers, and ensuring the next generation is different? Let the older folks be?
It’s easy to get angry at our parents and uncles and aunts and grandmothers and grandfathers who sometimes say things that make you want to repeatedly bang your head against the wall. Quite often though, that anger simply leads to the other side not any closer to understanding your perspective, and an inclination to not start such discussions in the future. What we need – in my humble opinion – is to first understand the roots of the beliefs and inherent biases. This does NOT mean we are finding excuses for their behavior. In order to argue your case and win, you always need to understand the other side’s style of thinking, because blindly attacking rarely ever gets anywhere.
Most of our grandparents experienced colonial rule. While they were happy to gain their independence, colorism had already been ingrained in them. They learned to view white communities as aspirational, civilized. If they had the means to, they incorporated more white ways of living into their lives, through dressing, dining, and more. One of the biggest remnants of colonial culture, missionary schools, were their choice of schooling for their children. Both my parents attended missionary schools as children, and they speak fondly of the refinedness of their teachers back then, the rules and customs and the things they learned. These learnings were often Anglo-centric. Most people back then really didn’t have the opportunity to easily educate themselves on anything outside of school – and systematic racism and oppression wasn’t in the curriculum. They didn’t grow up with the Internet at their fingertips and access to views from different parts of the world were limited.
I’m not saying any of this to excuse what their current beliefs might be in regards to social issues. Rather, I’m hoping we can use this perspective to voice ourselves better when we do start a conversation with them about these topics. Instead of thinking of them as clueless and unreasonable, this is the strategy I’m trying out: let them know you understand why they may have always thought a certain way but you’d like to offer some facts – facts about not just what’s happening right now but the facts that led to right now: systematic and institutional racism and the legacy of trauma it creates. Watch movies and documentaries on this with them, stories can have the most powerful effects. Consider the time and energy spent on this as your contribution to the movement. The frustration you might feel when having these difficult conversations will be the small sacrifice you make for this cause, and hopefully you will feel that it is a sacrifice worth making.
While this is the policy I’m currently adopting with my family, it is definitely harder, at least for me, to be understanding of some of my peers who have all the resources in the world but still refuse to educate themselves on certain issues, unlearn problematic beliefs, and correct their behavior accordingly. Brown boys who can’t seem to stop using the n-word, what more do you need? I realize that ten, fifteen years ago (unless you lived in the US where discourse on the use of this word has been going on for decades) you might not have realized why this was a problem. But what excuse is there for not understanding now? I think brown girls do this much less often, but if it is in your regular vocabulary at all…please. You can do better. Also, if you’re disparaging what’s happening in the US on social media while perpetuating colorism and casteism in your own community, you need a refresher on why any of this matters.
If you’re annoyed because your social media feeds have been taken over by this topic lately, check your privilege and also your priorities. Social media has proved itself an effective tool in sparking important conversations and while I know sometimes you’re just here to post your aesthetic lunch (which is totally fine in my opinion and also content I appreciate), use it as an opportunity to widen your world view as well. I usually feel uncomfortable posting about any “controversial” topics (which is a whole conversation in itself) but as someone recently pointed out to me, there’s really nothing controversial about racism. It’s wrong and that’s a fact, much like saying the sky is blue.
I don’t want to act holier than thou or self-righteous, especially because I have so many things to learn more about and improve on myself, so I hope no one will take it that way. I’m not an expert on anything really, but I do believe in what I’m saying here. I would love to know your thoughts on it. If you’ve found effective ways of starting uncomfortable conversations that lead to some change, share them.
Featured image is an artwork by Minneapolis based artist @perfectchai.