Alyssa Pham, a 20-year-old American, has held progressive beliefs for years. Meanwhile, her parents, who are South Vietnamese war refugees, have tended to lean conservative. In spite of this political rift, the Pham household has developed a habit of watching Vietnamese news segments together at dinnertime most evenings, which, as of late, has facilitated their conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement.
For Pham’s family, like many immigrant households, it can be easy for American politics to remain a sidebar in daily conversation. The language barrier is a hurdle for many second-generation children who are fluent in English but possess only a rudimentary grasp of their parents’ native tongue. Then there are the cultural dynamics, which further complicate any type of discussion that can give rise to uncomfortable disagreement.
“As a child, explaining something to your parents or elders can be considered disrespectful, even when you’re not trying to come off as so,” Pham, who is fluent in Vietnamese, told me. “You’re not supposed to be the authority, which prevents good communication and any dialogue from starting.”
But through these factual news programs, Pham sensed that her parents were becoming active listeners to new ideas, since they weren’t pushed to respond to or refute her directly. “The segments have a lot of rich and in-depth history that I myself am not 100 percent knowledgeable on and provide really reliable resources to back up what I’m trying to tell them,” she said. Pham, then, was able to “productively open the conversation” about Black Lives Matter with her parents in ways she hadn’t expected. They even appeared more receptive to her views during their discussion.
Pham recently shared these news segments on “Việt Solidarity & Action Network,” a Facebook group with over 2,500 activist and progressive members — many of whom are attempting to engage with not just their immediate family but the Vietnamese community at large on social justice issues. The informal network, which describes itself as a space for leftist and progressive Vietnamese organizers and activists, is just one example of how Asian Americans and Latino Americans are having conversations within their ethnic enclaves on how to encourage allyship and solidarity with the black community.
These online spaces are where second-generation immigrants congregate to share translated educational resources, combat disinformation (sometimes published in foreign languages), and discuss ways to engage with family and community members about systemic racism, anti-blackness, and other social topics that often require a broader context of American society and history to fully comprehend. They attempt to dissect the long-held racial tensions between black and white Americans, as well as race relations between varying minority groups. With the ineluctable wave of protests over police brutality and racism continuing to dominate the national conversation, young people of color like Pham no longer see silence as an option.
Despite how tensely frustrating these conversations can be — and how hard it can be to acknowledge the deep-rooted prejudices and racist beliefs held by those closest to them — many organizers believe this work is crucial, not just for older family members, but for younger ones as well.
“A majority of our parents are senior citizens, and in many ways, they’re stuck in their beliefs, but the least we can do is try,” said Liya Thachil, an organizer with Malayalees for Black Lives Matter. “Our focus is to help the next generation who are raising kids in America to be better allies, and to me, that’s a better win because you’re setting up for the entire future.”
Many Mayali Americans (who are a subset of the Indian diaspora) tend to vote Republican and are very economically similar to white Americans, Thachil told me. Historically, South Asian immigrants have benefited from a skills-based visa program that allowed them to “walk off the plane with a college degree, an education, and a job opportunity,” she said. “As a result, we were able to navigate the opportunities of America much easier than our black counterparts, but certain parts of our history — such as, how South Asians were once considered undesirables, how we benefited from the civil rights movement — aren’t often spoken about.”
For decades, mainstream news outlets and white pundits have portrayed ethnic minorities, including Asian Americans and Latinos, as a voting monolith, conveniently assuming that they share similar social and political beliefs in their respective communities. Yet they contain a spectrum of political beliefs and, in some cases, vast social differences — particularly between the younger and older generations and between those who received an American or Western-centric education and those who studied overseas.
Many progressive activists tend to be younger — millennials or Gen Zs who grew up in America — and are explicit in acknowledging the economic and cultural challenges that first-generation immigrants struggle with. Many try to establish a somewhat tenuous connection between the immigrant experience (citing instances of overt racism or otherness in white America) as context for understanding the centuries-long struggle that black Americans face.
And while second-generation Americans acknowledge how they don’t wish to diminish their parents’ lived experiences, they believe it’s crucial to bridge the knowledge gap. They want older generations to engage in their community’s role in American history and rectify long-standing prejudiced beliefs, especially those held against black Americans.
There are no anti-racist “guides” for immigrants. Second-generation activists are translating and even making their own.
For white, English-speaking Americans, books like White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist are presented as racial dialogue “guides,” which can help start conversations with family members (although as Lauren Michele Jackson points out in Vulture, for these books to do good, “something keener than ‘anti-racism’ must be sought” in the mind of a white reader). Those books don’t apply to immigrants, said Maricela Becerra, an assistant adjunct professor at UCLA.
Becerra, who received a doctorate in Hispanic languages and literature, created a simple guide with key Spanish words and translations to explain the Black Lives Matter movement to native speakers.
“In my field, there’s something we call effective translation,” she told me. “That means you have to go beyond just literally translating the words by providing additional context and explanations that would make understanding easier.”
Becerra doesn’t expect her translation guide to change anyone’s ideas about racism or their political beliefs, but providing the language and terms is a crucial first step to starting any type of dialogue. “You have to see this not as a fight,” she added, “but as a commitment to conversation about our own beliefs that we grew up with and the systems that oppress us.”
Becerra and other second-generation activists acknowledge that it’s difficult for older immigrants to unlearn the institutionalized racism, colorism, and colonialism that persist in their home countries and the US. In Latino cultures, for example, people were “taught to seek partners that have a certain European or white phenotype or lighter skin to lighten their family trees,” Jasmine Haywood, an Afro-Latina who has studied anti-black Latino racism, told NBC News. East Asian and South Asian cultures similarly venerate whiteness as an aspiration — in socioeconomic status and appearance, as lighter skin tones are often deemed more desirable.
“Many Afro-Latino folks aren’t considered when we talk about Latinos,” Becerra said. “I have to remind my Mexican family that we have an Afro-Mexican community that has been ignored, that racism isn’t just an ‘us versus them’ problem in America, but that opinion isn’t always well received.”
In 2016, a group of organizers, predominantly from Asian and Pacific Islander backgrounds, started the Letters for Black Lives initiative after the death of Philando Castile, a black man who was shot by police during a traffic stop in Minneapolis. The project sought to crowdsource dozens of translations of an open letter, which addressed anti-Blackness and racism in America and Canada, aimed at non-English speaking relatives. “Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie, Grandfather, Grandmother,” starts the letter. “We need to talk.”
In the wake of the George Floyd protests, the organizers came together to pen a second letter, which purposefully delivered a more forceful message than the first.
“We wanted the 2020 letter to not be a sort of step two from the 2016 letter,” said Katherine Pan, one of the project’s 2016 organizers. “Public sentiment has shifted, the news is reporting these events differently, and we wanted the 2020 letter to convey that difference in tone.”
The 2020 letter is available in more than 30 translations with specific American and Canadian editions, although translators say it isn’t exactly a one-to-one translation from the original English letter. Some cited specific examples of oppression from their cultural backgrounds to provide context.
Divya Goel, who worked on the Hindi translation of the South Asian English letter, told me: “The audience of these letters might not have learned Black history or American history, so they are more familiar with [the Indian Independence] movement and probably have positive associations with it. So drawing that parallel was important for us in creating another entry point for the reader.”
Yet, as historian Andy Liu points out in his critique of these letters, the template for discussions about racism appears to come from an assimilationist framework, which encourages an immigrant group to blend their “views into the norms and values of white liberals, namely, guilt and privilege-talk.” For Liu, children of immigrants must recognize that their parents’ “ideas about racial difference were shaped by experiences wholly distinct” from theirs and their white American friends — that these racist beliefs are generated through specific historical circumstances and should be examined through a lens that involves labor and class relations, in addition to race.
Perhaps that’s why people like Pan, who has spent years involved with the Letters for Black Lives campaign, see these letters as conversation starters — language aids for a child to convey vulnerability and emotion to their parents. “It’s not a one-and-done thing,” she told me. “It takes work, time, and follow-up conversations to show how this is an important topic to you.”
Organizers say this is an opportunity to not just educate, but to politically motivate voters in their community
Advocacy work doesn’t just stop at providing translations; organizers are actively identifying and combating misinformation, especially on Facebook. While mainstream news outlets have frequently reported on English-language “fake news” and right-wing propaganda, immigrant communities and their information networks, which are also plagued with partisan media and rampant misinformation, have fallen under the radar.
In a 2018 study published by the Columbia Journalism Review, researcher Chi Zhang discovered that misinformation found on Chinese social media, specifically on WeChat, mirrors what is found in American, English-language media. But, “what’s especially worrisome in information ecosystems like these,” Zhang wrote, “is their central influence on the first-generation immigrant experience and integration with US society.”
Almost every person I spoke to acknowledged how social media, specifically Facebook, has a role in shaping their community’s political beliefs and sometimes radicalizing them. Within certain Spanish-speaking circles on WhatsApp, Becerra said there were viral videos being shared that attempted to discredit the Black Lives Matter protests, overwhelmingly focusing on images of violence and looting. “The information shown by some Spanish media is very selective, and oftentimes it goes with very conservative narratives,” she added.
Similarly, on WeChat discussion groups populated by first-generation Chinese immigrants, users have focused on the demonstrations’ violence and argued that Chinese American youth were being “brainwashed” into identity politics by American institutions. In the Việt Solidarity & Action Network group (which I am a member of), people frequently share Facebook pages or YouTube videos that contain false or partisan news, alerting others to report the page and to advise their parents to avoid such content.
After hitting a language barrier while discussing recent events with her immigrant father, who tends to consume partisan news, Cookie Duong started a news aggregator website, The Interpreter, to translate reputable English-language news into Vietnamese. To her surprise, she found it “scratched a cultural itch within the Viet diaspora regarding fake news, racism, and generational distance.” The site has since gained more than 600 Facebook “Likes” within a few weeks, and Duong is hopeful that her translation work can lead to more political empowerment and engagement.
In spite of these obstacles — from fake news to a lack of political engagement — a groundswell of diverse young activists are mobilizing to make political gains, or at the very least, to encourage civic participation and to increase voter turnout within their respective communities.
For some, tackling anti-blackness and their community’s unspoken prejudices is only the beginning. Becerra told me she’s heartened by how involved some Latinx academics appear to be in helping compile resources and historical texts. Many Latinx community organizations and advocacy groups, which were established before the protests, have offered mental health resources, protest tips, and support groups for those who feel overwhelmed or unsafe during this time, in addition to demonstrating solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
Thachil, the organizer with Malayalees for Black Lives Matter, said that the group’s current mission is education, but its long-term plan includes more advocacy work and a focus on improving voter turnout within the South Asian community. “We hope to join coalition forces to ask for changes in legislation, pursuing progressive candidates that support policies of reform, and speaking up and uplifting those in the African American community,” she said. “We need to focus on solidifying and uniting the first and second-generation so they’re able to break the cycle, to do the right type of work and send the right type of message.”
Thachil hopes the energy behind the Black Lives Matter protests will be a “turning point” — for allyship among ethnic minorities and the Black community, and for voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election and beyond. “We as a community — and I’m sure this goes for many immigrants — have avoided politics for so long,” she said. “And I’m hopeful that we can create the change we wish for by being activated at home.”