On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump

Nicole Chung reflects on the burden of engaging with racism and educating white people, including some in her own family.

Nicole Chung | “All American,” from Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America | September 2017 | 16 minutes (4,037 words)

There were so many disturbing moments in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election that it’s difficult to identify any particular one as the worst. Up there at the top of the list: Donald Trump narrowing his eyes and shaking his head as he called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman,” during the final debate. He probably didn’t count on feminists laying claim to the words he’d used to level an insult. At the post-Inauguration Women’s March on Washington, many women bore signs proudly emblazoned with those words. And on October 3rd, Picador will release Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, an essay anthology edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, featuring essays by 23 women including Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit, Jessica Valenti, Katha Pollitt, and Samantha Irby, among others. The following essay from the collection, by writer and Catapult editor Nicole Chung, captures the frustrations of dealing with Trump supporters, including one’s own family members.  

Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor

***

When I made an appointment to get my hair cut two weeks after the election, it was with a new stylist, a white woman in her 30s with a streak of purple in her hair. She commented on the loose, rumpled waves that show up whenever my hair gets damp, and I explained that the slight curl appeared only after I had children. She welcomed the avenue for small talk: How many kids did I have; how old were they; did I have a photo? I pulled out my phone and showed her the picture on my home screen, my two girls at the beach.

Oh,” she said, visibly surprised. “Is their dad American?” Yes, I told her. So am I. She went on to ask “what” my children were, and whether I thought their coloring was “more olive, or more yellowish like yours?” Later, as she snipped away, she revealed that she and her father and her boyfriend had all voted for Donald Trump.

Though her comments about my kids were the most offensive, it’s her assumption about my nationality that has stuck with me in the weeks since. She identified my husband as “American” when what she meant was “white,” isolating and othering me in the process. There is nothing out of the ordinary about being taken for a foreigner when you’re Asian American; by itself, without years of similar accumulated remarks, her slip might not have bothered me. But in the same month that Donald Trump was elected to our nation’s highest office, this white woman’s unthinking words served as a stinging reminder of just how many people in this country look at me and see not an American, not someone like them, but an outsider, intrinsically different.

***

I remember, at some young age, being at the grocery store with my parents when a white woman approached us and asked, “And where is this one from?” as though I were some curiosity acquired from a catalogue. You can experience “harmless” racism like this as commonplace, week in and week out, and still understand that it is wrong. I hated the woman’s phrasing, her strangely benevolent smile, her expectation that we would answer because the information was hers to demand.

No matter where you are from, when you are adopted and nonwhite you become, to many, a symbol of the magnanimity of white Americans. Your foreignness, real or perceived, is transformed into a far more palatable exoticism propped up by ideals about “colorblind” love. A certain type of white liberal will see you with your white family and feel good about this country, about the open arms and big hearts that make race seem unimportant. Even those who rail against our porous borders will often have something nice to say about the generous people they know who saved some poor kid through adoption. International adoptees are immigrants, too, but the best kind, hand-picked by white people.

I am not an immigrant, but my birth parents were. They made their way from Seoul to Washington State just a few years before I was born. Like many immigrant families, they ran a small business, where they worked from sunup to midnight. I was the first person in my family born on US soil, and I don’t know if I’d be an adoptee at all if my parents hadn’t been such recent immigrants — for them, secrecy was paramount, and had they stayed in Korea it would have been difficult to manage the adoption placement without their families finding out. If I hadn’t been born early, if they’d had relatives nearby to help, if they’d had good healthcare, if they hadn’t been so isolated, if there had been less stress and strain in their lives, if they had been navigating medical and child welfare systems in their native language, if they hadn’t been breaking their backs trying to build their American dream, if they’d remained where they were planted, their lives — and the choices they made about mine — might have been very different.

I have always been aware of the fact that I am here, and American, only by chance. My birthright made certain things easier for my adoptive family, who never had to travel abroad to adopt me, deal with foreign courts and bureaucracies, or take steps to acquire my new citizenship. I grew up being told that I was God’s child, I was theirs, and I was American — and that all of these things were blessings. And I knew the quickest way out of awkward conversations with strangers was to answer them directly. “You just tell them you were born here,” my parents said; “tell them you’re an American, too.” Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I now understand they were teaching me how to assert my citizenship, my right to be here, from a young age. They were showing me how to live on the defensive with an identity that required constant defending.

In the same month Donald Trump was elected, this white woman’s unthinking words served as a stinging reminder of just how many people in this country look at me and see not an American.

Of course, to people for whom “American” means “white” — and Trump’s election has only empowered, emboldened such people — it doesn’t matter how loudly or how often you say who you are. When white kids called me names no doubt learned from their white parents and siblings, when white people told me to go back where I came from, they didn’t care that my where had always been here. As a child I rarely gave voice to my fury and confusion when I was made to feel this wasn’t my country; that it never would be. But every morning at school, standing beside my desk with my hand over my heart, I was conscious of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance clearly, reverently, just a fraction louder than everybody else, because I knew I was the only one in the room who had anything to prove.

***

A friend who I know does not support Trump recently asked if I thought we should teach our children to respect him “because he’s the President.” She seemed genuinely conflicted over the idea of “biasing” kids against him. The truth, I told her, is that I have long been obsessed with biasing everyone I know against Trump; I have no intention of teaching my 8-year-old (keenly interested in politics, still #withher all the way) or my 5-year-old (oblivious to politics, for the time being) to respect him.

But I know my friend isn’t alone in wondering whether she ought to discuss her political views frankly with her children; it’s something I hear often from peers. My own parents rarely chose to discuss theirs with me when I was growing up. The first presidential election I can clearly recall is 1988, when I voted for Bush in our school mock election because I’d overheard kids in my carpool making fun of Dukakis. When I asked my parents who they voted for, they refused to tell me, insisting it was “personal.” “Oh. Is it like asking someone’s age?” I asked. “Worse,” Mom said firmly.

Still, by the time I was a teenager, I’d overheard enough to grasp that my family did not trust the federal government. This confused me, as I’d long been hyper-aware of the social safety net we had all, at various points, relied on. Even my dyed-in-the-wool-FDR-Democrat grandparents eventually began casting their votes for Republicans (“I can’t vote for Hillary,” my grandmother declared over the summer, “so I guess it’ll have to be Trump”). Though my family is Christian, to me their politics seem to have less to do with religion and more to do with being independent, Libertarian-leaning white conservatives in a large Western state. The pre-election parade of “Trump country” profiles written by journalists traversing the country often made me think of my own origins — while my home state of Oregon is reliably blue thanks to places like Portland, Salem, and Eugene, my home county in southern Oregon went to Trump.

When I go back, it’s hard not to wonder if my family is right about politicians in Portland and Salem, let alone DC, neither considering nor caring much about the people who live four, five, six hours from the only city in Oregon most people outside it can name. I don’t know if my hometown is “dying” or “forgotten,” but no matter how long I’m away, it never seems to change: There are the same peaceful mountain views, the same dueling local coffee chains, the same lack of jobs and the same overwhelmingly white population. “We only saw one Black person and two Asian people on our whole trip,” my 8-year-old announced to me after our last visit, “not counting us, of course.” At first I was horrified that she’d kept a tally, but then I remembered: I used to do the same thing when I was a child. Every time I land at my one-room hometown airport it hits me anew, that cold prickle of awareness somewhere between my shoulder blades — my kids and I are the only nonwhite people in sight — and I have to brace myself against the urge to grab my family and flee.

I’ve spent so long living in progressive, diverse pockets of the East Coast that sometimes it’s difficult for me to understand how my white relatives can stand the lack of diversity, the slow-changing nature of the place. When I listen to their conversations, however, I’m reminded that any change back home is greeted not with relief, but with suspicion. “The Mexicans are really moving in on the other side of town,” a family friend announced when I was there over the summer, “and they’re bringing a lot of crime.”

My parents were teaching me how to assert my citizenship, my right to be here, from a young age. They were showing me how to live on the defensive with an identity that required constant defending.

I looked around my parents’ living room and saw heads nodding. My older daughter, sitting next to me on the sofa, had lifted her eyes from her book. “I don’t think that’s true,” I said, more for her benefit than anyone else’s. “People move here for the same reason anyone moves anywhere — to try and find work and support their families.”

This led my mother to ask what I thought about “all the Asians coming over and having babies so they can stay.” As I tried to think of a response, my mind leapt back to the last time I’d been made to feel so uncomfortable at a family gathering: Several months earlier, during a holiday dinner at my in-laws’ house, the relative of a family friend had informed me that I look like “everyone” on the television show Fresh off the Boat. In that moment, facing a rude stranger with no meaningful support and scrambling to think of an answer that wouldn’t ruin the party for everyone, I honestly hadn’t known if the woman was trying to single me out — perhaps because I’d unknowingly offended her — or if her remark had been made in total ignorance, without the intention to wound. With strangers, I find it’s often difficult to be sure.


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My mother, on the other hand, didn’t mean to hurt me, and I knew it. I imagine she felt comfortable voicing her question about Asian immigrants because she doesn’t think of me as an Asian American — at least, not first and foremost. To her, I’m just her child, and she genuinely wanted to know what I thought about Asian families attempting to put down roots in America in a way my white relatives seem to view as a fundamentally unfair. If my mother felt a flicker of regret or embarrassment in asking this of me — a child she would never have adopted had my Korean parents not moved here prior to my birth — it was impossible for me to tell.

***

As I scrolled through my Twitter feed on November 9th, unable to look away from the endless march of postmortems — on Clinton’s campaign mistakes, the “forgotten” white working class, and who was really to blame — one point, for me, seemed raised above the rest: White people hadn’t done enough to prevent this. Sixty-three percent of white men voted for Trump. Fifty-three percent of white women. White people didn’t try hard enough, didn’t confront their white families, didn’t convince their white friends that Trump would be a singular disaster for immigrants and Muslims and people of color. White people had once again put their social comfort before the survival of everyone else.

I nodded as I read these pieces, knowing the charge was also laid upon me: I, too, have white Trump supporters in my family. I have a measure of privilege that comes with being East Asian American — a more “acceptable” minority, nowadays, though who knows how long it will last. I have still more privilege as a transracial adoptee with even closer proximity to whiteness, and this is a proximity I must use. Still, I can’t say I relish the unsolicited role of race counselor and explainer to my adoptive relatives, a position I’ve assumed by virtue of being the only person of color in the family. And I don’t know how effectively I can act in this role, as I don’t think I have much more credibility with them than any person of color has in any large, friendly group of white people. I’ve been called “brainwashed” more times than I can count. While my family certainly sees me as no threat, in their eyes I have become yet another angry minority.

For all our political battles over the years — as I have crept further to the left of anyone the Democratic Party would actually nominate, and my relatives have moved in the opposite direction — 2016 was the first year I even attempted to sway my parents’ presidential votes. In my otherwise brutally honest, filterless family, one’s vote is still seen as a private, almost hallowed decision, and some residual conditioning from childhood had always prompted me to stop just short of saying, “This is who you should vote for,” or “Please don’t vote for that person.” But this election felt different. I knew I had to try and convince them not to vote for Trump, even if they resented me for it.

No matter where you are from, when you are adopted and nonwhite you become, to many, a symbol of the magnanimity of white Americans.

You have a daughter who isn’t white, I reminded them, a daughter in an interracial marriage. Trump is racist, and he’s supported and influenced by white nationalists. He’s stoking the fears of other people who hold racist views. He’s talked about a Muslim ban, a registry, building a border wall, ending birthright citizenship. His supporters don’t just want to slow immigration; they want to end it. I’m your daughter, and I am a child of immigrants.

So do you think we shouldn’t even have borders? my father asked.

Another time, I tried appealing to them as grandparents. You have an autistic grandchild, I said. You’ve seen what a nonstop fight it is for us to advocate for our 5-year-old, for her rights and her education. Trump has mocked a disabled reporter and a deaf actress. He’s promoted the false claim that vaccines cause autism. There’s no way he cares about the education of kids like mine, or the rights of disabled adults. Hillary Clinton’s platform on disability rights is not a magic bullet, but it could be a real step forward.

Well, I guess it’s good that she’s thinking about that, my mother said. But there’s no way I’m voting for her.

***

If they cannot see hatred and bigotry in the rise of Donald Trump, I often think to myself, how will they recognize it anywhere else? But I also know that I have no choice but to try and be a bridge between my white family and all the people like me who are terrified to be living and raising children in Trump’s America.

To have a hope of success, I must convince them to acknowledge my racial reality in the first place, a task with which my white relatives have always struggled. Then I need them to recognize that my race does have an impact on how I’m perceived, how others speak to me, how I experience the world. Finally, I have to explain why my children and I require their solidarity, whether they like it or not, and what that means in a country so divided. For all my efforts with the people who have loved me longest, I fail at reaching them more than I succeed. It’s too easy for them to say “of course,” and absorb the stories without actually seeing the scars.

But I know it’s our duty to talk to our people if they chose this. And these are my people, because they chose me. My parents still like to talk about this fact as though it makes us superior to other families. Other parents are stuck with their kids, they’ve told me countless times, but we chose you.

You have a daughter who isn’t white, I reminded them, a daughter in an interracial marriage. Trump is racist, and he’s supported and influenced by white nationalists. He’s stoking the fears of other people who hold racist views.

I’ve long known this to be an oversimplification, a line reeled off to make us all feel better. Yet when I consider their politics, which baffle me as much as mine do them, I can’t help but think that “choosing” me was never meant to be a one-time event, sequestered in the past. They thought my adoption was their happy ending: It was only the beginning, I want to tell them. If you chose me then, why not choose me now? Why not listen when I tell you how afraid I am for my children? Why not take my side, even if you can’t yet see how important this is?

***

Ever since Trump took office, I’ve been sending my family carefully composed emails about his unconstitutional executive orders, his various petty and authoritarian statements, his bigoted and unqualified appointees. Perhaps there are still soft spots, I tell myself; issues on which they might be more inclined to listen. I always include clear, concise commentary and links to several credible sources. Then I offer a suggestion: “You can call and tell your senators that you oppose this [action] [executive order] [nomination] because [it’s wrong] [it’s illegal] [you have an autistic grandchild].” These missives have a great deal in common with similar posts I leave all over social media, encouraging friends to call their senators and representatives. But when I write these words to loved ones, or call and try to discuss these issues with them, it’s a far more loaded request: I know I’ll be more upset if they disagree.

This election and its aftermath have changed how I think about allyship, how much it matters to me. Trump’s election has made me wonder if it’s possible to have honest, sustainable relationships with those who look at him and want to see politics as usual; who look at the widespread resistance to his policies and see mere partisanship. On November 9th, after I spoke with my kids about the alarming outcome I had previously sworn wouldn’t happen, I scrolled through my social media feeds noting who was outraged and who was silent, feeling something heavier, angrier, but still akin to what I felt when I left home for college and wiped the dust of my hometown from my feet. It seemed this was a moment for evaluating my existing relationships, a time to choose sides and close ranks — not out of spite, but sheer self-preservation. How many people were expecting to remain in my life, I wondered, after choosing to vote against me, against my family, against my children’s futures?

Still, there exist family ties I can’t and don’t wish to escape. So I email my relatives back home, and while this is far from the only thing I do to combat Trumpism, for me it feels like an important if also unwanted assignment — something I have to do if we are going to continue to have a relationship. I email because it’s often the easiest way for me to organize facts, sources, and assorted action items into clear bullet points. I email so they can’t interrupt or debate me in real time, because my heart can’t take it.

It occurs to me that my family could read all of this as patronizing; that it might, in fact, be patronizing, or at least hopelessly quixotic. Still, I can’t seem to stop writing. I remind them that even if they support some of what this administration is doing, they can try and hold Trump accountable for the rest. When my emails go unanswered, I ponder what their silence means and why I’ve asked them to take action at all. My relatives may be opinionated, but they aren’t activists; they are busy, with many cares and burdens of their own. Do I really expect them to join the resistance just because I’ve asked them to? I asked them to vote against Trump, too.

It finally occurs to me, while composing my second or third missive about our disastrously unqualified Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, that what I am really doing is offering them a chance to take responsibility for their votes. To try and make amends for their tacit support of this administration. What does it mean, I wonder, that I now think about our relationship in terms of atonement? And if they choose to do nothing, where do we go from here?

***

After weeks of seesawing between anxiety and disgust, swearing while I read the news, and calling my senators several times a week, I go to the Women’s March on Washington with my friend Rita and two friends visiting from North Carolina, Marissa and John. My 8-year-old wants to come with us (“I’ll wear one of my Hillary shirts!”), but I know we’ll be on our feet all day and I’m anxious about bringing her into the huge crowds. I promise to bring the sign she made for me, her big block letters embellished with colorful Crayola-marker designs: BLACK LIVES MATTER on one side, and on the other YES WE CAN. Talking with my daughter about my activism makes me think about my own parents — I never told them I’d be marching today. What will they say when they see the photos online? I find myself anticipating their comments, rallying my arguments.

In the city, the turnout is even bigger than anticipated. We have to stop well short of Independence and Third. At least a hundred people I know are out there, somewhere, in the throng, yet I see no familiar faces except the ones who came with me. I unroll my daughter’s handmade sign and, eventually, after hours of waiting, we are on the move.

Talking with my daughter about my activism makes me think about my own parents — I never told them I’d be marching today. What will they say when they see the photos online?

I find I’m emotional, a little choked up, as we are swept up along with hundreds of thousands of other marchers, chanting and singing, smiling and shouting encouragement at one another. I think about the millions rising up on every continent, and for the first time since the election I am flooded with the wild, defiant hope that good people might yet outnumber the rest. It is the most buoyant — maybe the most American — I have felt in months. This country is no more mine than an immigrant’s, no more mine than anyone’s, but it is my country, and in this crowd I have nothing to prove.

When we get home, exhausted but happy, to eat the dinner my husband prepared and regale him and the kids with stories from the march, I’m surprised to see a new email from my mother. I had nearly given up after weeks of silence. She already knows where her Democratic senators stand on the Trump administration’s plans for education, she tells me, but she has called her representative to ask him to support the education of “our special needs children,” as she puts it, and make sure their rights are protected.

It’s the first time in years my mother has contacted one of her elected officials. She didn’t do it because she relished the opportunity to take action or call a stranger, I am sure of it — she must have called for me. For my kids.

It’s a short email. She doesn’t ask me for any more action items. Maybe she even hopes I won’t respond. In my head, though, I’m already composing my response. Thanks, Mom. That’s great. Here’s what you can do next.

***

Nicole Chung’s essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Hazlitt, GQ, Vulture, The Atlantic, and many other publications. She is an editor at Catapult and the former managing editor of The Toast. Her book, a memoir of growing up adopted and searching for her Korean birth family, will be published next year.

Excerpted from from Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding. Copyright © 2017 by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding. With permission of the publisher, Picador. All rights reserved.