A letter to my son about Trump —
Hey baby boy. I can’t wait to meet you in a few weeks and am really hoping you’ll like the room we’re setting up for you. I don’t know what the last week has felt like for you, given we’re sharing a body. I’ve wanted so badly to shield you from the grief, stress and fear I’ve been feeling yet at the same time I’m glad you were there for the love and solidarity too.
It’s going to be a while before we can really talk through what happened over the last few weeks — but I wanted to write you this now, while these thoughts are fresh in my mind. You see, two weeks ago Donald Trump was inaugurated. His rise to power and actions in the first days of his presidency have been nothing short of frightening. Watching a man like that, who has consistently put his self interest ahead of what is good for this country and the security of the world, is concerning to say the least.
As this has been happening, I’ve been thinking a lot about you. There’s a lot that I can and will do to keep you safe and to help make this place better for you and your generation. Some of the despair you might have felt over the last week has also been my coming to grips with the fact that no matter how hard I try, I’m not going to be able to shield you and protect you from everything.
Both your father and I know what it’s like to be targeted for your race or religion. He was born in Russia — but his birth certificate doesn’t say Russian, it simply says Jewish. I was born in Iran and am ‘generically brown’ — which means incidental racism is a part of my life that I’ve learned to deal with. I hope the world is better as you grow up, but chances are — at some point, somewhere, people are going to judge you or treat you differently because of your heritage.
Here’s what I’ve learned when it comes to dealing with that kind of racism.
The first thing I want to tell you is that any racism you face isn’t about you — it’s about people’s perception of you. Let me explain.
When I was growing up in Australia I dealt with a lot of racism that kind of felt like mist. It was almost imperceptible to the point where I didn’t know if I had imagined it — but it was there and it impacted the way I saw the world and the way the world saw me. For me, a lot of this centered around English classes in high school. Some of my teachers assumed I wasn’t as bright as the other kids — they told me I lacked understanding or capacity when I tried to ask questions. I was told I wasn’t capable of taking advanced english, that I couldn’t write creative stories. I pushed back, took advanced English and kept writing anyway. I got the highest score in our externally graded English paper in my grade. I was also the only student in our school to become a finalist for one of Australia’s most prestigious young writers awards.
This is what I mean when I say that racism isn’t about you, but others’ perception. My teachers weren’t assessing my talent, ability or potential when they told me I couldn’t do it — they were assessing the color of my skin.
Here’s another example. I took political economy at university. I remember one class I took at university the tutor asked if ‘Muslims could ever really integrate into Australian society.’ It was one of those questions where you had to stand in different parts of the room depending on what you thought. The far wall was yes, the closer wall was no, and the walls in between were maybe. There were twenty people in that class. I was the only one in my class who stood at the far wall that signified ‘yes’. The majority of the class said no, five people were on the fence.
I argued with the class, told them I was Muslim — and from what I could tell an integrated part of society. Everyone else called me an exception, that I wasn’t representative. I walked out of class in tears. When I went back the next week the tutor told me that my behavior had been unacceptable, disruptive and overly personal. I know now that it wasn’t me that was out of line — but it took me years to be able to say that with confidence.
In moments where people you know or respect treat you differently, a part of you might question if you are being too sensitive or if they are right. As a result I went through university, assuming that everyone else was smarter than I was, more interesting, more compelling — because hundreds of small things like the example I shared above made me think that that was the case.
For me it took a trip to Europe to realize that when racism was directed at me, it wasn’t about me. Most people can’t tell where I come from — I had that particular ‘generically brown’ vibe. When I was 19 and traveling through Europe by myself this meant that people projected whatever they wanted onto me.
I started my trip in Italy where people assumed I was from Egypt and men would catcall me ‘Cleopatra’. France was worse — I wasn’t allowed into restaurants, people would start yelling at me in the streets. Some called me a gypsy. Then when I got to London, I was commonly told to ‘go back to India.’
For me, experiencing that level of racism from strangers and in such different ways in a short span of time helped me internalize that their hate wasn’t about me. It wasn’t that I was lacking in intelligence, in ‘adjustment’ or anything else — it was that in their eyes, I was inferior or dangerous because of what they believed me to be — and none of that had any grounding in reality, much less in a understanding of who I was or am.
Hopefully, you won’t have to face the things I did, but just in case: Know that any racism you experience isn’t about you. It’s about deeper, structural power structures that have been entrenched for years upon years. To push back on something so ingrained you are going to need your sense of self in tact.
That said, I want you to always remember that you are no different that others — you are not ‘exceptional.’ There are times where you may get promotions, better grades or be treated with more respect that other people of color around you. In those moments you may be tempted to think that you deserve what you have because you worked harder, are smarter etc. But that’s not how it works. I’m not saying you won’t work hard, and you won’t earn your success — you will. But there are also many barriers that you may not have to face that others would have. You have two parents who love you and want to support you. We’re going to do our best to get you a great education — and we’re blessed to have good jobs, a home and a thousand and one blessings that we may take for granted. As a man you’re going to have some privilege purely because of your gender — people will naturally take you more seriously; it’ll be easier for you to be assertive than women around you. Remember that.
Even when it comes to racism — you have to remember that not all experiences are the same. Your black brothers and sisters will have experienced it at an intensity that will supersede your own — that doesn’t negate your experience or minimize it. Acknowledging their reality doesn’t diminish yours.
Denying the experiences of other people who also experience systemic oppression sells out our collective history, and dishonors the lives of thousands of people who fought for you. Instead of thinking yourself exceptional — anytime you walk into your school be thankful for all the civil rights leaders who fought for you to have access to that education. Remember them when you vote, when you get your first job. Remember that by pushing back against racism, sexism or homophobia, you don’t just stand in solidarity, you also safeguard the future for all of us that experience that kind of oppression in one form or the other.
Even in the darkest moments — you will have the ability to make choices. It won’t seem like it — you may be overwhelmed and feeling totally alone, but even in the most hopeless places you will still have some agency. It’s likely that people will say hateful things around you — and potentially even about you. In moments like this you may lash out — sometimes you’ll need that — to call a spade a spade and move on. The advice I’d give you is, when possible, don’t return hurt with hurt. Pain can’t transcend fear or hate. Kindness and hope can.
In those situations kindness and hope can take a bunch of different forms. Sometimes it’ll look like taking yourself away from the situation and taking a deep breath before responding. Sometimes it can look like organizing and channelling that anger into actions that don’t just stand up for yourself, but for countless others as well. Sometimes it can look like forgiveness or empathy — remembering that people who spew hate are enmeshed in a system as much as you. Whereas you can see the walls of oppression, they often don’t realize that they exist — even as they lay on bricks to make those walls higher. History has never stood with them — and as those walls start to crumble, they will wake up to a world that looks unfamiliar, whereas you will have been seeing the changes as they happened.
Hold on to gratitude for the people who gave their lives so we could be a little bit more free when times are dark. This week has been a week of despair for me: a week where it’s hard to feel safe, where it felt like I could drown in a quagmire of pain and had to face up to what persecution based on race and religion feels like. As I worried about you, your grandma and all of our futures — the thing that kept me going was all the people who stood by us. Being thankful for everyone who showed up to airport protests, who took action, who spoke out: That gratitude reminded me that even when things feel out of control, we still have some power. Be grateful for the giants who came before — the people who sweated, cried and bled for us to live the lives we do know. We may never know their names, but we can honor their sacrifices by holding on to the mantle and doing our bit to make the road a little easier for those who come after us. Even when the world seems to be falling apart, love is there if you can remember to reach out for and see it.
Most of all: Lean into love and joy. We may not always succeed, but we will do our best to model this for you. Remember that we’re alive and that’s a privilege. Cherish each breath, hold onto the love your father and I and many others have for you. Laugh, cry, sing, dance. Each moment that your heart sings, with each moment that you define your happiness for yourself, creates a tremor of change which may not be evident immediately. But it will be no less real than the sun’s rays warming your face.
your Mama -