Young protesters push their parents to acknowledge racism: ‘My father deeply believes everyone has a fair chance, which is just untrue’

Unprecedented number of BLM supporters are now from non-black backgrounds. Syndey Trent reports

Monday 22 June 2020 12:55 BST
Black Lives Matter organiser Gisselle Quintero stands in Marysville, California, with her politically conservative parents, Wilfredo and Elizabeth, who support and respect her activism
Black Lives Matter organiser Gisselle Quintero stands in Marysville, California, with her politically conservative parents, Wilfredo and Elizabeth, who support and respect her activism (Melina Mara/Washington Post)

The argument began as soon as Charlie Mai and his brother, Henry, announced their plans to attend a Black Lives Matter protest that evening in Washington. Their father was not having it.

Glenn Mai, a retired FBI agent, had been raised in Dallas by Chinese immigrants who had taught him that he would succeed if he just worked hard.

“Chinese culture is very much about working within the system,” Glenn said, and during decades in law enforcement he’d come to believe the system worked.

His son, Charlie, took a different view. “My father deeply believes that everyone has a fair chance, which is just basically untrue,” said Charlie, an artist who fled New York for his family’s home in northern Virginia due to the pandemic. “It’s very Asian to me, that view that if everyone just works hard, then everything will turn out right for them. I’m definitely a little reactive to that because I think that’s delusional.”

That June morning, amid the yelling and tears, Glenn threatened to walk out when it became clear that Charlie and Henry planned to defy the city’s 7pm curfew. In the end, however, he drove downtown to bring his sons safely home, and the argument over the protests, police brutality and systemic racism has since softened into an extended conversation.

During the civil rights movement, black parents and their children may have disagreed over speed and strategy, but their shared experience of discrimination united them on the cause. Non-black allies, many of them Jewish Americans, were a clear minority in the 1960s.

By contrast, the youth-led protests unfolding now in response to the killing of a black man by a white Minneapolis police officer are much more diverse. There are large numbers of African Americans who have supported the Black Lives Matter movement since its 2014 founding, and many native-born black and white newcomers whose lives have often differed dramatically from their parents. But there is also an unprecedentedly large segment of protesters from other backgrounds. Some are descended from immigrants who moved to the US generations ago, while many others come from the families that have arrived in great waves since the civil rights movement spurred passage of the landmark Immigration and Naturalisation Act in 1965.

“I think what you are seeing is a decades-long transformation. We have arrived at a real cultural shift,” said Jose Antonio Vargas, founder and chief executive of Define American, an immigration advocacy organisation.

While the dynamics between black and white Americans get most of the media attention, Mr Vargas said, the makeup of this new movement “is way more complex than that”.

In forming “a new kind of majority” with black and white protesters, these Asian, Latino and other young allies are uniting in fighting anti-black racism and in many cases, are pushing their mothers and fathers to understand why change is necessary, said Mr Vargas, whose view is shared by other experts, young protesters and their parents.

“There aren’t a lot of places for optimism right now,” said Mr Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter, “but this is one of them”.

Gisselle Quintero observed the pained expression on her 15-year-old cousin’s face as he absorbed the video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes as he gasped for air.

The teen, who is half African American, had come to live with her family in their Marysville, California, home, and Ms Quintero has come to regard him more like a brother. As protests engulfed the nation while her conservative farming community remained quiet, the college student decided she had to act.

“It upset me to see how unjustly black people are being treated. I have a platform in this little community, so I knew I had to do something to help out,” Ms Quintero said. In early June, she posted news on social media of a protest in front of a mall near her house. Her parents, Mexican American business owners and strong Donald Trump supporters, vocally opposed her plans.

“At first, my parents were like: ‘This is stupid. All lives matter,’” said Ms Quintero. “They didn’t understand the big picture of it, that the system is so messed up, that nobody deserves to have a knee on the neck for eight minutes over a $20 (£16) counterfeit bill.”

Ms Quintero said she grew up hearing her grandparents tell stories about how they were prohibited from drinking at “whites-only” fountains after long, hot days of working in the fields. “They just kind of suppressed those memories” and tried to distinguish themselves by their hard work and achievement, Ms Quintero said. “And they’re still not being accepted by the white community.”

Marysville, California, is racially diverse and politically conservative (Melina Mara/Washington Post)

“I have gotten a sense that a lot of the Mexican community is somewhat racist,” Ms Quintero said. “It’s crazy. You wouldn’t expect it.”

Her protests swelled to hundreds of people over several days, while her mother, attending to make sure Gisselle was safe, found herself captivated by black speakers’ stories about their encounters with racism. “Each day, she kept coming out, and she kept feeling it more and more,” Gisselle said.

Finally, on the third day, her mother brought Gisselle’s father, Wilfredo.

“He started leading chants,” Gisselle said. “At the end of my last protest, my mom made a speech about how she didn’t support Black Lives Matter at first, but hearing everything as a mother, it really opened up her mind. It brought tears to everybody in the crowd.”

Elizabeth Quintero agrees that while she and her husband as antiabortion Catholics still support Mr Trump, her views about the Black Lives Matter movement have changed.

“In our town, there are people who are racist, but I haven’t really experienced it myself,” said Ms Quintero, who identifies as a white Latina and whose family came to the US several generations ago. “I didn’t have any insight into it. It’s been really humbling.”

In Portage, Mich., Alexa Delon took a different tact with her parents as protests unfolded in nearby Kalamazoo.

Since Trayvon Martin was shot to death in 2010 in Sanford, Fla., by a vigilante, “I have come to see that America doesn’t care about our black community,” said Ms Delon, a Mexican American college sophomore.

That America, she believes, has sometimes included her father, a cleaning company employee, and her stay-home mother, whom she said raised her with contradictory values.

“My parents taught me and my siblings to love everybody for who they are, that skin colour doesn’t matter,” Ms Delon said. On the other hand, they once told her “to be a little more cautious around the black community because they are known to be hoodlums”.

Ms Delon said she and her brother have been challenging her parents to cast a critical eye on the news they consume from Spanish-language television, which she said focuses disproportionately on looting and acts of violence during the largely peaceful protests. Her father is now exploring her recommendations on Twitter.

“They need to understand that what you see on the news is not always the truth,” Ms Delon said. “The more we let our elders know that this is wrong, it will have a snowball effect.”

Many Latinos arrive in the US with their own anti-black beliefs rooted in the histories of white European colonialism and slavery in their native countries, said Jasmine Haywood, a programme officer at the education-focused Lumina Foundation who has researched anti-black racism among Latinos. As they try to assimilate, they often adopt anti-black attitudes “that come from the white majority,” Haywood said. These include stereotypes that black people are violent and lazy.

Trump fanatic launches into a one man 'All Lives Matter' protest

“There is no group that can escape the pervasiveness of whiteness and white supremacy,” Ms Haywood said.

Yet young Latinos, Asians and members of black immigrant groups are more likely to share classrooms, neighbourhoods and friendships with descendants of American slaves. And they have been influenced by the hip-hop and rap music that has given voice to the black experience, Ms Haywood and Mr Vargas agreed.

“This is where the power of popular culture cannot be denied,” Mr Vargas, who is Filipino, said. “You can’t love black culture without loving black people. There is so much more exposure and so much more empathy.”

Ms Haywood also credits the efforts of young Afro-Latinos in prying open minds. On social media, they have “called out white Latinos on their privilege and for not using their privilege,” said Ms Haywood, who is an Afro-Latina of Puerto Rican heritage.

By comparison, many older Asian Americans do not grasp “the language of privilege,” said Kim Tran, a diversity consultant who is researching the growing solidarity that young Asian Americans feel with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Because privilege “is inextricable from whiteness,” said Ms Tran, it doesn’t resonate with most Asians.

The language of privilege “also denies the experience of a lot of Asian elders who have been through tremendous pain and terror themselves,” said Ms Tran, whose family came to the US as refugees in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War.

Many older Asian Americans, in particular, subscribe to the “model minority myth” pushed by white American culture, she said. The myth, Ms Tran said, was first applied to Japanese Americans as they tried to assimilate back into American culture after their internment during the Second World War and then spread to include other Asian groups. It places Asians at the top of the social pyramid as morally superior to other marginalised people in their family work ethic, intelligence and determination to succeed.

The myth offers “a way for [Asian immigrants] to fit clearly into the fabric of America”, by promoting the very American idea that hard work will always lead to success. At the same time, she said, it ignores advantages in education and immigration policies that some Asian American ethnic groups have enjoyed while others have not. It also ignores racism against African Americans.

“Does it divide people? Absolutely,” which is the intent, Ms Tran said. “Does it rely on anti-blackness? Absolutely.”

Glenn Mai enjoyed a very comfortable childhood in Dallas, reared by Chinese American immigrant parents who fled the Cultural Revolution and built a thriving technology company. He joined the Cub Scouts and attended an elite private school where he was one of a few Asian Americans. Mr Mai’s parents had minimal interactions with African Americans, he said, and his mother, in particular, “is sort of frightened” of them, though he attributes it less to racism than being “racially unaware”.

He finished college at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1980s with a degree in electrical engineering like his father, before rebelling and heading in another direction. By joining the CIA and later the FBI, Mr Mai believed he could make a difference within the system. As an agent who worked frequently with local law enforcement on cases, he had not witnessed police brutality towards black men and has often felt police are unfairly attacked, he said.

Meanwhile, his sons took different paths. After graduating from Bard College as a theatre major, Charlie Mai embarked on a life as an artist in New York City. He explores themes of race and culture in his sculpture. His younger brother, Henry, majored in sociology, hungrily consuming courses on race and mass incarceration. Both Mai sons have black friends and believe that African Americans face structural barriers that white Americans do not.

Charlie Mai (centre) and Henry Mai (left) pose with their mother, Mary, at their home in Arlington, Virginia. Their father threatened to leave during an argument over the George Floyd protests (Melina Mara/Washington Post)

Growing up in a diverse environment, “you learn very quickly that everybody’s issues are your issues. If these are people you love, you have to support them,” Charlie Mai said.

On 1 June, when Charlie and Henry set out to protest, their father was most upset by his sons’ plans to break curfew, fearing that they would be swept into rioting and get hurt as night fell. Lawbreaking and violence, he believes, subvert any cause.

Mary Mai, who is Irish American, was more supportive of her sons’ belief that protests could lead to change. But that afternoon “we had the biggest blowup of our family’s life,” said Mary. “F-bombs were being thrown around.”

Charlie and Henry left the house to head to the District of Columbia, winding up at Lafayette Square. Inside, Glenn fumed but stayed glued to the news. He watched on TV as federal officers began using tear gas to clear protesters from the square so Mr Trump could have a photo op with a Bible in front of St John’s Church. His sons were towards the back of the crowd, but close enough to witness the chaos and cough at the gas.

Late that night, with Charlie and Henry safely home, Glenn confessed to a slight change of heart.

“You’re right, the social contract has been broken. I’ve been wrong,” Mary recalled him saying. “The government was not protecting the people.”

While he still thinks it’s best to work within the system, Glenn Mai admits that the protests have already forced some societal changes. And the incident in which Buffalo, NY, police forcefully shoved a 75-year-old protester to the ground, causing a head injury, served as a lesson for him on police brutality.

Even so, he plans to spend his retirement birdwatching, not becoming an anti-black activist. “To a large extent, it’s their fight. It’s not a fight I choose,” he said.

The Mai sons have been giving their father books and articles on race to read, but Charlie predicts “a longer road ahead” to prompt his father to action. He sees value in their dialogue.

“Who are we as a younger generation to ask our parents to take down these shields all at once?” Charlie asked. “They didn’t want to build these defence mechanisms. How can we say we’re sensitive to these issues if we’re not sensitive to our own parents?”

The Washington Post

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