Unraveling prejudice in the age of Trump

Credit: Curtis Mac Newton

Last week, as anger, confusion and disappointment flooded my mind, I began to think of my mother.

She raised me and my younger brother to be kind and humble, but she has also admitted to being afraid of black people and against gay marriage. She inspires me to be resilient, but she would often remind me that there were things I couldn’t do because I was a girl. Growing up, I knew she hadn’t graduated from college, and as a small business owner had voted for Bush, twice.

My mom also fled the Cambodian-Vietnamese War at the age of 14, her dreams of being a writer extinguished by violence. She’s the eldest of six children, and after arriving in the U.S., she forfeited the opportunity to pursue a college education to financially support theirs. When my dad decided to quit his job and start a freight forwarding company, she became the sole breadwinner. And, quite frankly, I owe her everything.

But in the past ten years, we’ve had some difficult conversations. I’d intentionally challenge her views on race. When an opportunity arose, I’d praise my high school friend Derick, describing how lucky I’d be to find a man like him and how the color of his skin had nothing to do with his character. She’d push back on the “language barriers” and “cultural differences” that would arise if I ever married a black man. We’d argue over hypothetical scenarios, but most days neither side relented.

As a young woman, I did things she couldn’t fathom doing herself. I traveled abroad alone, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and moved to four different cities after college. I aspired to expand my limits, but to her, I was unnecessarily putting myself in danger. “Sometimes I wish you were a man,” she’d say. “If you were a man, I would stop worrying.”

It’s a hollow feeling when the people you love don’t identify with your actions, values or beliefs. In moments of frustration, I ended our debates with “Whatever, mom, you don’t get it.” Some years, I’d see her only once or twice, chalking it up to busyness, but the truth was much harder to bear. When I was home I felt like a stranger. Utterly alone.

But over time, I realized understanding had to be earned. After getting to know my circle of friends, my mom re-evaluated her definition of an ideal partner: Race does not determine virtue. “I’ll support whoever you want to marry, Yvonne.” she assured me. “Thanks mom, but what if I married a woman?” The tears she shed while watching Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain reinforced the notion of love is love is love, and introducing her to my college friend Seyron finally put a face, a voice, a human behind a group she had only known as “homosexuals.”

My mom also champions her values. As often as I introduce her to new experiences, she encourages me to spend more time with family. Her dedication to bible study and women’s groups reminds me that leaning on others isn’t always a sign of weakness, but a rite of community. When I visit, she never hesitates to invite me to go to church, and despite my agnosticism, I do.

Looking back, my mom could have easily been described as the prejudiced, sexist, homophobe we characterize as the “other side,” but she has also taught me the meaning of unconditional love by exemplifying it everyday. We are our contradictions. Categories like conservative, liberal, working class, elite, whites, and minorities fail to capture the complexity of the people we know and respect. In fairness, they were never designed to. Unlike the labels we affix to one another, people can change. The question is…do we want to?

I was unsure of asking my mom who she voted for this year. But when she called to tell me, I realized how essential our conversations have been.

“Who did you vote for, mom?”

In a calm and confident voice, she replied, “Of course, I voted for Hillary.”

“Didn’t you?”

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A special thanks to Erin Frey, Michelle Lee, Desiree Li, Frank Shyong, Raghu Vadarevu, and my mom.