Bridging the learning gap: political conversations with immigrant elders

Monday, November 2, 2020 - 7:47pm

Political conversations are never easy, especially when these conversations cross generations. They become even more difficult when the older generation has an entirely different background and upbringing than you, leading to many gaps in understanding. It’s normal for accepted political beliefs to change across time, with each younger generation becoming more and more progressive than the last.

Many children of immigrants like me often struggle seeing eye to eye with our parents, especially when it comes to politics. These tensions only increase as we get closer to elections, particularly ones as contested as they have been in recent times. While we tend to assume that all people of color lean left due to the general acceptability of different identities on the left side of the political spectrum, many of our parents’ ideas stray more to the right.

The “Howdy Modi” spectacle in 2019 drove home the significant parallels between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Donald Trump, making many of us recognize the clear connections between Modi’s and Trump’s agendas, despite them catering to different populations. Modi’s ideals, backed by his Bharatiya Janata Party, reflect the positions of Hindu nationalism. Parallel in the United States, Donald Trump’s commentary has sparked passion amongst those who identify as white nationalists. While these two leaders may be different in their race, religion and geographic region, their platforms serve the purpose of benefiting the powerful majority in their respective countries. While many of our Hindu parents are quick to criticize Trump’s administration for their lack of acceptance of minority populations, they continue to applaud Modi’s agenda without recognizing that the two are more similar than we think. Having these critical conversations about the harms of Modi’s agenda leads to a great deal of frustration, especially since many of us are made to feel like we cannot have an opinion, since we ourselves did not grow up in India. 

Even for those of us whose parents lean more liberal than other immigrant parents, interesting conversations do come up from time to time. During the 2018 midterm elections, the question of whether recreational marijuana should be legalized in Michigan was on the ballot. Me being a self-identified “woke” college student voted in favor of legalization without a doubt; however, to my parents, this was against the question. They thought I was joking when I said I voted for it, unable to see through the divide that separates this generation’s progressive mindset from the more established, slightly more conservative mindset of a South Asian parent.

I’m not entirely sure how these conversations can become more constructive, yet I recognize the need to do so when each election is getting more and more integral to our health and wellbeing each year. This year, we’re seeing basic public health concerns becoming a political mess when they should be guaranteed equitably to all people, and the presence of systemic racism is more prevalent than ever. As minority populations and first or second generation Americans, we have a special stake in this election, particularly when it comes to health outcomes. As voting citizens of this country, we need to be empathizing with people of all identities to push for the most equitable outcomes for our population. I understand that for many of our parents who grew up in communities where everyone was essentially the same (i.e. my Bengali parents pretty much only had Bengali classmates), it’s difficult to see things from other racial and religious identities’ point of view. 

While I believe it’s important to show due respect to our elders, we must learn from one another, particularly when our upbringings are so vastly different from our parents’. For example, when my dad questions why Blackface is problematic (after reading about the Justin Trudeau scandal), I try my best to engage in a conversation that recognizes the gaps in experience that lead me to understand the situation better than him and move forward from there. While it’s frustrating, sometimes being understanding rather than confrontational is the most effective way to reach our parents. We need to understand that sometimes our parents just aren’t aware of many of the political issues on the table, usually getting most of their information from Facebook or WhatsApp threads. Having these conversations with the intent to educate rather than to attack and criticize our parents can be the most beneficial approach to doing our part to push for change in this political system. 

The past few months have been a wake up call for many Americans, and I believe it is up to us as the children of immigrants to have those difficult conversations when it comes to political activism. Even though this presidential election cycle is over, the process of change in this country is just beginning. With immigrants making up an increasing portion of our country’s population, it’s imperative that the political engagement from this community comes from an informed mindset. We as their children have a responsibility to be at the forefront of this movement.