Let’s break down her insensitive statement.
Born in a state that no longer exists and in a city whose name has been erased, my parents were dropped into the eye of the hurricane. Both my mother and father spent their most formative years in Saigon, South Vietnam –– presently known as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. They were 7 and 8 years old when their home was captured by the communist North Vietnamese, marking the official end of the Vietnam War. While Americans mark this as the end, this was just the start for my family. With the new government, my parents watched our families and other innocent people lose everything, including their last name –– my maternal grandfather changed it to protect them. Their new, bleak reality reached the point where my family had to flee their motherland in fear of their safety.
I can only imagine all of their anxiety during this time. I say “imagine” because I don’t know what exactly happened. My parents have never shared intimate details of their childhood in Vietnam out of pain and trauma. I know my parents had to leave Vietnam for these reasons and then slowly built a new home in the United States, leaving their homeland in the dust. To this day, they have never been back to visit since they left decades ago.
A huge part of establishing their new roots was becoming United States citizens. When they became citizens, they also gave themselves “American” names as part of their rebrand. It was an act of assimilation and survival. Despite being citizens for two decades, they have never voted in an election. As refugees from a war-torn country who were placed in this foreign Western land, my parents are focused on surviving. Therefore, understanding the intricacies of the American political process and learning how to vote was and is not a priority. Rather, they were focused on learning English as their third language and making money.
I see my parents’ past reflected in my own upbringing. During dinner time in the privacy of our suburban home, I was discussing yet another controversy that former President Trump had found himself in. My mom told me that I shouldn’t talk badly of Trump because “people are always listening and they’ll hurt me.” When my dad dropped me off at college, he warned me against talking about politics because he doesn’t want me to “trigger the wrong people.”
When a white woman declares she is upset by my parents’ lack of voting, she completely disregards their trauma and diminishes the systemic barriers that stop marginalized communities from voting. Rather than sympathizing with how my parents feel as refugees of color, she centers her whiteness by focusing on her feelings and does absolutely nothing to actually solve the issues at hand.
Voting is a double-edged sword. Voting is a right that many activists have fought hard for minorities to gain. While it’s supposed to be a right, it’s treated as a privilege as a result of voter suppression that targets historically excluded communities. Despite being the largest-growing racial group in North Carolina, voter turnout within the Asian American community has been historically low compared to other racial minority groups due to immigration status, fears, and language barriers. In fact, during the 2016 presidential election, 71% of Asian American voters said neither party reached out to them before the election (NCAAT, 2018). Aside from voting non-profits, it is even more important that racial organizations exist such as North Carolina Asian Americans Together (NCAAT) who promote civic engagement through hosting citizenship workshops, having phone banks in Asian languages, and distributing voting flyers in more languages than just English and Spanish. Additionally, with an organization like NCAAT, cultural misunderstandings and voter intimidation are a lot less likely to happen.
On the other hand, while voting is important, it will not change the system. In the 2020 presidential election, President Biden and Vice President Harris were the blue option. Yet, they were not as progressive as many voters had hoped. However, many white liberals felt as if the world was finally back to “normal” after their inauguration. Yet, police are still killing people at the same rate, only .1% of $1.7 trillion student loan debt has been cancelled, and CRT is being banned across the nation. The Green New Deal is still considered too extreme as we enter an overwhelmingly hot summer with one climate crisis after another. Harris admitted to smoking weed in college yet prosecuted more than 1900 marijuana-related convictions as San Francisco’s prosecutor, and the Biden/Harris administration fired multiple staffers for past marijuana usage in a legal state. America’s systemic problems have not been fixed even with the first Black, Asian, and female VP. Voting is pushed by a white liberal agenda as a way to avoid addressing the real root of issues.
Lastly, do all votes count even if that vote is actively going against my rights as woman of color, the rights of my queer and trans friends, and the rights of my immigrant parents? Her parents vote because of hate and ignorance; my parents don’t vote because of trauma and barriers.
Telling someone to check their privilege can be a vague statement for the privileged who have not had to deal with the discomfort of being called out. But this is an example of how you can check your privilege before letting your biases affect those around you. How are you using your privilege to cultivate change where you want to see it?
Britney Dao (she/her/hers) is a student at UNC Chapel Hill studying American Studies and Human Development & Family Studies. She loves writing and being creative, especially as a tool to heal, process, and advocate. She is passionate about fighting for social justice through an intersectional lens.