Immigrant stories go unheard because we stopped answering this question

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors and does not represent NextShark’s views. 

“So, where are you from?”

My D.C. friend’s obviously Asian date bristled at my attempt at small talk. After some backtracking, tensions calmed and I learned she was born in Hong Kong. But the exchange caught me off guard. The question was a natural way to start a conversation with me back in my rural hometown — one I came to welcome as a rare opportunity to talk about my parents’ home country of South Korea.

But thanks to ideological frameworks like critical race theory, these kinds of conversations have become fraught with angst and hostility. Cultural exchange requires openness and vulnerability, but structural theories that remove agency from individual actors allows the most privileged among us to use outrage as a substitute for knowing how to communicate their own stories.

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In practice, critical race theory is dangerous for all immigrants. It tells us to be proud of our heritage, but also warns us to be picky about who we share it with. As a result, CRT has simply empowered new gatekeepers instead of increasing discussion as originally intended. And while exclusivity may feel powerful, in reality, keeping others at arm’s length allows them to ignore us until it’s politically convenient. Each and every one of us must push back by becoming advocates for our unique origin and story.

Growing up Korean in a rural, largely white area could be lonely, but I got good practice with small talk and answering conversation starters like SWAYF – “So, where are you from?” It’s a question I’m still answering today. Each time I see it as a chance to talk about my culture, and in turn, to take responsibility for what others know about Korea. Answering questions about my heritage means I never feel unheard.

It’s definitely more interesting than discussing the weather.

In return, I’m always sure to ask people the same question. And I’m often surprised at how so many white Americans can break down their heritage — “I’m half-Irish, a quarter German and the rest is a mix of European. Some Cherokee, too.” Hispanics tend to clarify their origin countries as I did.

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The current generation’s dislike of SWAYF is self-sabotage. The idea that it’s not worth the emotional labor to teach others about your heritage is one that reeks of privilege and a deep-seated contempt for the less educated. That’s the kind of attitude that gets us minorities painted with a single brushstroke.

For Asians, demographic realities mean we cannot pass up any chance to teach. We make up only 6% of the US population, or one-sixth of nonwhites, split further by our diverse countries of origin. Our voice will always be smaller and less generalizable. Allowing all our cultures to be co-opted by CRT is a disservice to that diversity and the struggles of prior generations, and I’m sure other immigrant groups feel the same way.

We shouldn’t ignore the history of racism in America, but we shouldn’t stop contributing our unique stories to the discussion either. For example, Asian American success is treated as an outlier, resulting in a lingering suspicion that we have embraced critical race theory out of convenience, or worse, have “benefitted from white supremacy.”

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This oversimplification comes from all sides. Conservatives point to minority successes to refute systemic racism. This tends to focus on East Asians, which ignores the very real trauma of black slavery and also leaves Southeast Asians unheard—especially refugee groups like the Hmong. Meanwhile, liberals push “faculty lounge” language like “Latinx” that average people don’t use, and use whiteness to dismiss any deviance—soft bigotry at best, toxic gatekeeping at worst.

As someone who wants to explain where he’s from, the best piece of advice I can give is to answer, “My parents are from _____.” It answers the spirit of the question, moves the focus off you to your culture, and keeps the conversation moving—all at once.

If you cannot hold a conversation past that, work on it. Dig into the experiences of your elders—where they come from, why they immigrated here, and how you represent that journey. For example, my Korean small business background isn’t universal, but knowing it well means I have perspectives that anyone can learn from.

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Sure, researching family history can be triggering for children of immigrants. Many of us have had “We gave up so much for you!” thrown in our faces during heated arguments or to justify authoritarian parenting. Refugees will have to face the scars of war. But unless each of us takes on the responsibility of untangling and owning our heritage, others with their own agenda will speak for us.

Critical race theory’s huge scope overwhelms its believers with a desire to leave no one behind, making them easily swayed by the loudest among them. Instead, we should step back and learn to speak for ourselves first. There’s no shame in SWAYF. You may learn something new or even make a friend.

So…where are you from?

Josh Shin is a Korean American writer and Young Voices contributor with an MA in economics from George Mason University. He also holds undergrad degrees in sociology and psychology from his hometown of Bakersfield, CA, and hopes to bridge the gap between them. Follow him on Twitter: @joshuabshin.

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Featured Image via Dragon Pan

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