Some time ago, I had my wisdom teeth removed. In the following days, I was on bed rest which gave me plenty of time to talk with my parents. After the procedure, my parents were naturally curious to hear about my experience. Along with the generic accounts of post-anesthesia euphoria, I half wittingly mentioned that having a roomful of white surgeons hovering over me made me feel slightly out of place.
They asked me to tell them more and this is the gist of what I said:
Nothing about the surgeons or their demeanor was inherently careless or neglectful, but I felt a looming paranoia that my wellness was second priority to their convenience.
Even now, weeks after the ordeal, I still haven’t determined why those feelings arose. Was it related to race? Was it a learned reaction? Was a genuine internalized mistrust of white people surfacing at that moment? I’m still uncertain but I have an inkling that in that situation, the unfamiliarity of the environment activated an instinctive reaction to enter defense mode. Perhaps this intensified because objectively, I was under the care of a handful of strangers.
To all of this, my mom replied that she felt the opposite. To preface, she told me she recognized that what she was thinking wasn’t necessarily the truth. She said she felt reassured knowing that my surgeons were all white and even more so that the head surgeon was a male.
This wasn’t the first time my parents and I have had conflicting views on race. It was an uncomfortable but familiar conversation.
Facilitating argumentative conversations with Asian parents can be intimidating. For me, the challenge has a lot to do with the existing cultural norm of elderly respect which includes never challenging their beliefs.
Over the years, I’ve developed a guide for approaching tense conversations with immigrant parents in a way that is safe, respectful, and productive.
- Acknowledge their views.
Validating the opposing side is the gateway to a respectful conversation. Until you have an accurate understanding of the points they are making—their version, not yours—neither parties will be able to make any kind of movement.
- Approach their beliefs with questions.
If what you’re hearing from your parents isn’t making sense, rather than falsifying their claims, ask questions. Provide opportunities for clarification before filling in the blanks yourself. It’s tempting to skip this step, especially if this is a frequently debated topic. Even in that case, prodding your parents to clearly articulate their points can force them into reevaluating what they‘re saying, which can ultimately neutralize some polar beliefs.
- Recognize that they grew up in different circumstances.
Nurture —> Nature. Tracing back to the origins of your parents’ core beliefs is paramount to getting a broader picture of the situation. Immigrant parents are likely to have grown up in a country that is culturally and ethnically more homogeneous than the US. Think about factors like resources, upbringing, religion, community, etc. specific to your parents that may have played a role in shaping their views just as your environment has shaped your own.
- Practice empathy towards your parents.
Recognize the social and emotional influences at play. Repeated encounters with subtle and blatant discrimination create internalized associations between assimilation and safety. Being aware that those fears may surface in conversation can offer more context into the emotional ties your parents may have to their point of view.
- Check where anger is being directed.
In the heat of an argument, it can be difficult to pause and separate anger towards your parent as a person from anger at what they believe. Remember that people are the product of their environment, and your parents are no exception. Direct your frustration towards the silent forces that continue to contort people’s perception of diversity.
- Refrain from expecting an immediate, noticeable shift.
Any lasting change will take time to uproot old ideas to make room for new ones. Change can happen discreetly, and can also never happen at all. Sometimes, accepting the limits of persuasion is the last available option. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that you need to abandon your own beliefs.
I also want to acknowledge those who don’t have the privilege of openly disagreeing with their parents, no matter how careful and methodical the approach may be. To those individuals, there is always a community that will welcome and embrace your voice. Seek out those havens whether they exist at school, among your friends, or trusted adults so that you can continue to curate and nurture your beliefs through the lens of your own experiences and not those who have power over you.