Six Asian American panelists — including University of Michigan Central Student Government Vice President Saveri Nandigama — explained how to support anti-racism efforts and discuss racism with family members at a #LeadershipConvos event on Saturday. 

Act to Change and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights co-hosted the event, which had more than 40 virtual attendees. The panel aimed to help Asian American attendees start dialogues about racism with and within their families.

Ryan Holmes, an actor and activist, spoke about the anti-Black behavior he experienced while growing up in a Chinese community as an Afro-Asian American.

“It made me feel at times that I was a Chinese kid in a Black kid’s body,” Holmes said. “From an early age, I understood that anti-Blackness —  it stemmed from conditioning that isn’t based on reality.”

Kathleen Mallari, a database administrator of the Fresh Air Fund, a non-profit providing outdoor summer opportunities for inner-city New York City children, discussed how the model minority myth portrays Asian Americans as “hardworking, rule-following, do-gooders of the minority group,” while upholding an anti-Black mindset.

“Model minority coinage assumes that there must be a problem minority,” Mallari said. “Unfortunately, this has paved the way for generations worth of a perception that whatever discrimination or hardship that Black people might be facing is their own fault.”

Nandigama, an LSA senior, said many people of color — such as her parents, who are immigrants from India — experience challenges and discrimination.

“My mom did her Ph.D. here, and her thesis advisor couldn’t pronounce her name,” Nandigama said. “She had a right to have her name be pronounced correctly.”

Still, Nandigama said it was challenging to  discuss racism with her parents. She said she introduced the concept of white supremacy gradually before talking about racism against particular groups, with an emphasis on anti-Black racism. She explained to them how supporting movements such as Black Lives Matter would help bring justice to other racial communities such as South Asian Americans, because fighting anti-Black racism is necessary to dismantle white supremacy.

Nandigama said one of the obstacles involved with anti-racism activism for many in her community was the possible consequences.

“Immigrant communities have always been focused on survival first and then thriving,” Nandigama said. “Speaking out against the status quo could mean relocation of your naturalized citizenship even, because that has happened in the past administration.” 

Similarly, Mallari explained how her parents also experienced discrimination as Filipino immigrants and thus prioritized the well-being of their immediate family. She said the mindset and emphasis on self-preservation that many immigrants have can be difficult to change. 

“They became more open to listening when I started to understand that they are in a very difficult position to renew and reshape the perspectives they grew up with,” Mallari said. “There was that narrative of survival to make sure our family was taken care of … they may have felt (discrimination) themselves but thought that on the ladder of what was more important, that wasn’t one of them.”

The panelists all gave multiple tips on how to start discussions about racism with family members. These included using phone calls to initiate interviews with family members, as well as talking in-person in a safe and familiar space.

Haddie Watson, a sixth-grade student at Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy who attended the event, shared some of her own experiences growing up in a Korean American home. She said to use current events or an existing conversation to approach race-related topics along with having realistic expectations.

“If someone mentioned how surprised or upset they were about police brutality, you might comment this isn’t new and it’s been ongoing due to systemic racism, not just individual’s bad behaviors,” Watson said. “Also not to expect to close the knowledge gap in one conversation because that is not realistic.”

For people to become better anti-racist allies, Nandigama said it takes more than just listening to their Black or other minority friends share their experiences. 

“It’s reading, and it’s constantly asking yourself, ‘Am I being an ally in this situation?’” Nandigama said. “And it doesn’t matter if it’s including someone in a conversation or your friend group or calling someone in class. You really need to think about your internal biases and break them down. To be an active ally, it really is constantly unlearning your own biases.” 

Holmes emphasized the need for parents and children to persevere and remember to exercise patience.

“You can’t change anyone’s mind, you can inspire them to change,” Holmes said. “It’s a patient process.”

The second #LeadershipConvos event will occur in February, giving advice for parents on how they can have conversations about racism and anti-Blackness with their children.

Daily Staff Reporter Ivy Muench can be reached at    

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