By Amit Mallik, Medill, Immigrant Connect
“Mom, are we going to be kicked out because we’re brown?”
Aarush came back home from first grade at his Salt Lake City school in February, just a few days after Donald Trump was elected President, and expressed genuine concern to his mom, Litty Paul, who immigrated to the United States from India in 2001.
Paul discovered that her son Aarush had been told by a fellow first grader that Trump would kick out all the brown people in the country, The incident sparked a series of conversations Paul had – earlier than she expected – with Aarush about race and bullying.
Eventually, Aarush realized that his classmate could not really distinguish between people of Hispanic or South Asian descent and Paul deduced that the classmate was most likely parroting something he heard elsewhere, maybe from his parents.
Aarush was most worried that his classmate told him the country would never let him become president since he was brown. Paul felt a twinge of heartbreak for her son, who for the first time experienced the fear of obstructed opportunity based on ethnicity that has persisted in the back of many immigrants’ minds as they chase the American dream.
Paul said she had to untangle what it meant for her son to be brown, and that being called brown wasn’t necessarily an insult by itself. She had to explain that bullies, who always would exist in the world, had just found a new way to be mean, and were using President Trump as a new way to try to be scary.
It was relatively easy to get Aarush to dust off the confrontation and not fear about his status in the country or his presidential eligibility, but the hard conversation came when Paul tried to convince Aarush to promise to tell her and adults at school if anything like that ever happened again.
“Nobody really thought Donald Trump was going to be elected. We knew that these anti-minority sentiments were out there, but the election emboldened them,” Paul said. “Seeing it affect my son made it real, and made us reshape our worldview.”
Paul described her American experience as living in a “bubble,” as she entered graduate school full of mostly international students before joining a similarly diverse environment at the University of Utah, where she does research in pathology.
“I thought I could pretend the USA accepted people of color, if I didn’t have to worry about my children,” Paul said.
For Aarush and others in similar situations, talking about race and ethnicity can be complicated in elementary school, when kids are not ready to forge a conception of self-identity.
Paul told Aarush that being Indian was something to be proud of and that no other student could ever use that against him. The problem seemed to dissipate, but Paul mentioned she is fortunate that Aarush goes to school in a rather liberal-leaning area. Downtown Salt Lake City is one of the only blue dots in a deeply red state.
Paul mentioned that if she or her friends were on the job market now, they would have to start looking beyond how good a particular school district is, and into how the local counties voted in the recent election.
Richa Kumari, an Indian immigrant parent who lives in downtown Chicago with her husband and eight-year-old son, Vivaan, was extremely worried about her family potentially having to move to a Dallas suburb for her husband’s work this past year.
“We did not want our son to be the only Indian kid in a class full of white kids,” Kumari said. “We were worried when we first thought the move could be real, around last October, but then the election happens and it really makes you think: ‘My son is going to be surrounded by kids whose parents likely voted for Trump, and is that prejudice going to reach my son?’”
The move fell through and the Kumari family stayed in Chicago, allowing Richa to feel better about life for Vivaan.
Kumari also mentioned that with anti-Muslim rhetoric building, many ignorant people mistakenly associate anyone brown with terrorism.
“It’s not new since 9/11 that anyone South Asian, Muslim or not, has been associated with the idea of terrorism,” Kumari said. “That’s not really a conversation we’re going to have since it doesn’t seem to be relevant yet, but eventually you have to explain there’s a lot of racial profiling and people assuming sinister intentions when for over 99 percent of the people, it just isn’t the case.”
Kumari mentioned that things are relatively easy for Vivaan since he is finishing second grade. She worries about middle school and high school, when kids are able to form their own interpretations of what is going on in politics, and also become more hurtful.
“By that time, I think he [Vivaan] would be able to respond to any comments by himself,” Kumari said. “But that is what worries me, if he faces that stuff alone, and you know how personal attacks can get when kids become teenagers.”
Paul reflected she was both glad and concerned to have these conversations with her son at a young age. She didn’t expect to have to talk about being Indian to her son so soon, but Trump and his supporters have forced her hand.
“We were always going to talk about being a non-white student in America — probably before middle school,” Paul said. “But now with Trump, you feel the need to protect and shield much earlier, just because there’s a little more hate that people think is okay to put out there. We have to make sure our kids, who were born here, feel every bit as American as everyone else.”