By: Gabriela Nadeau, Age 17
Two years ago, my mom and I were leaving Marshalls, calling after a woman who had taken our umbrella.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought it was the store’s umbrella.”
My mom looked at her, dumbfounded. It sounded like a silly excuse.
The woman squinted at her, then looked at me. “Does she speak English?”
“Yes,” my mom interjected. “I do.”
My mom is from Indonesia. Her skin is dark, much darker than mine. Prejudice is thrown at her everyday; people treat her like a second-class citizen, questioning her right to be an American. She passed her citizenship test. She pays her taxes. She loves this country. None of that matters.
On more than one occasion, people have thought that my mom was my nanny, just because we have different skin colors. Some of the parents at my private school refused to speak to her. My crush’s mom told him not to date me because my mom was brown. My dad worked overseas, so my Mom was often on her own. It wasn’t uncommon for me to find her crying alone in her room.
And yet, she herself is prejudiced. For years I heard her complain about “our stupid, black president.” She would rant about Mexicans and Muslims like any good Republican. She laughed at LGBTQ+ people; she refused to acknowledge my sister’s queer identity. Now we don’t even talk about it. She, despite being Asian herself, still says “they can’t drive, must be Asian.” It always confused me. How could someone who was so subject to cruelty and racism herself talk about others that way? How could she not see the awful, disgusting irony?
It took a trip to Indonesia as an older teen for me to finally understand. You gloss over so many details when you’re younger.
Looking at it now, I can see where my mother’s views come from. Walking through the mall, you see ads for skin whitening products. In Indonesia, and many other Asian countries, having white skin is a sign of class: a relic of imperialism. People with pale skin have money and a higher social status, as whitening products, the good ones anyways, are expensive. Almost everyone in Jakarta uses a whitening product. The people you see in high class malls are the color of ivory, while, when I visited the rural areas of Indonesia, the people were much darker. They were the color of my mom and her sisters when they were younger.
My mom’s sisters regularly whiten their skin, so much so that they are paler than I am. They crack jokes about how my mom is “black”. It’s easy now to understand how these ideals about skin tone shape my mother’s view of people in America. I can see why my mom believes black people are poor and uneducated because those with darker skin are seen that way in her home country, even though she herself is darker in color. It horrifies me and makes me incredibly sad; I know that no matter how hard I try to convince her otherwise, nothing I say can erase years of ingrained racism.
Then come her conservative beliefs. She is a hardline Roman Catholic, as is most of her family. Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country. Being part of such a small percentage of Roman Catholics in the world’s largest Muslim country caused her to be very protective of her beliefs. Christians are persecuted in some areas of the country, much like how Muslims are targeted here in America. No matter how much I point it out, she doesn’t seem to get the parallel. She has Muslim friends, from both Indonesia and the Middle East. We lived in Dubai and Qatar, and have seen the Muslim world, albeit a very affluent version of it. Yet, she’ll still worry and complain about refugees and Muslim immigrants. I have to point out to her “not all Muslims”, right after she says something about the Somalis in Maine or Sharia law. My mom speaks in contempt about the atheists and gays and illegals, and it pains me because I love her so much, but I can’t reconcile that with what she says.
Then today I heard a glimmer of hope. She said she was worried about our friends from Syria. They’re a family with four kids whom we had been close with in Dubai.
“I hope they’re okay,” she fretted. “They just moved to London. I should call; I hope nobody hurts them because they’re Muslim, after the attack.”
I looked up in surprise. It was the first time I heard her say something like that.
“Some people,” she muttered. “People don’t deserve to be treated like that. It shouldn’t matter if they’re Muslim, whether they’re from Indonesia or Syria. They’re people too.”
I was proud of her. Recently, I’ve felt like my mom has been growing. She’s been open to what I believe. She’ll watch Drag Race with us, and she defended it when my dad told us to turn it off. They’re only baby steps, but it’s in the right direction. I’m not going to give up on her.
I know I can’t change everything about what she believes. Prejudice has been ingrained deep within her since she was a kid. But I can open her mind and make her see another side of the story. It’s never too late.