Living As A Minority In Trump's America

[Image description: photograph of the South end of "The Lawn" at the University of Virgina. The expanse of dry grass is framed by a few bare trees, and several buildings supported by white pillars.]   Phil Roeder  / Creative Commons

[Image description: photograph of the South end of "The Lawn" at the University of Virgina. The expanse of dry grass is framed by a few bare trees, and several buildings supported by white pillars.]

Phil Roeder / Creative Commons

“Being a member of a hated group—”

“—I wouldn’t even say “hated”. I would say “targeted”.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. Being targeted in America…”

I watched, eyes wide, as two of my colleagues discussed the reality of being black in America. As part of an icebreaking exercise, sheets of paper bearing various social identifiers such as “ethnicity,” “mental health,” “gender identity,” “marital status,” and “age” had been taped around the room, and we’d been instructed to stand under the part of our identity that made us feel the most unsafe. 

I’d hesitated for a solid ten seconds, hands restless in my skirt pockets, as I wavered between “sexual identity” and “race” before finally gravitating toward the latter — purely because I can hide the fact that I’m queer, but people will always be able to see that I’m Asian.

After we’d found a partner or two and discussed why we were standing beneath the identity we’d chosen, the principal called for silence. She surveyed the room and remarked, “I see that everyone standing under “race” is — oh, no, wait...”

I winced. I’m Chinese-American and, as a woman of color, I experience micro-aggressions and discrimination as well as fetishization. But being East Asian means that I benefit from society’s construction of “model minority” privilege. Whilst I know that my experiences are valid, I do not experience the racism that confronts black people on a daily basis in America. It’s awful that a scale of discrimination even exists, but my race isn’t being indiscriminately profiled and murdered at the hands of the police, the very people who are supposed to protect us.

I ask you, white people, whether you’ve ever wondered what it's like to live as a marginalized individual in Trump’s America. I’m not talking about having so much privilege that you think Jews are “replacing” you. I’m talking about being Muslim, Jewish, disabled, queer, trans, or a POC — especially if you’re black — and having to consider your safety in every decision you make, from speaking up for yourself to leaving the house to succeeding academically.

As an aspiring French professor, I thought I’d simply have to worry about normal graduate school problems like passing the GRE, paying exorbitant application fees, and being accepted to a PhD program. White supremacists were never supposed to be a factor. But as I spent a stormy Friday night studying GRE vocabulary, chaos erupted in Charlottesville. The prospect of torch-bearing white supremacists running around unchecked through the campus began to make applying to UVA lose its appeal.

While America somehow managed to regress to the 1940s, I began to question my entire future. White people, I want you to think about what a privilege it is not to have to wonder whether your life will be at risk when you do something as mundane as apply to graduate school.

When my college roommate offered rides to a Black Lives Matter vigil the following morning, I dropped everything to protest the Charlottesville violence. As my friend Iszi and I crossed the parking lot toward the street, I didn’t know whether to smile at the sight of people supporting minorities and denouncing white supremacy, or cry about the fact that we had to be there at all.

Outfitted with homemade signs, such as “black lives matter,” “hold police accountable,” and “no hate,” we lined the sidewalks, waving at the cars that drove by. As a queer, Asian woman who’s all too familiar with unwanted catcalling and Asian fetish, it’s the only time in my life when I’ve felt happy about being honked at. Multiple POC excitedly returned our waves, half-hanging out of their car windows as they recorded the show of solidarity on their phones. A young black boy, perhaps ten or twelve, wore the biggest smile on his face, and even a Giant grocery truck and two firefighters took the time to slow down and wave. At the same time, it broke my heart to watch an elderly white lady tell a little black girl, still young enough to be propped up on her mother’s hip, “Your life matters.”

For the most part, I’m happy to say that we protestors received an overwhelmingly positive response. Several white people, however, deliberately avoided eye contact - and I want you to know that we saw you. I hope you felt uncomfortable, because that discomfort should give you the faintest inkling of the discrimination that black people, Jews, and Muslims experience in this country.

Iszi and I eventually left the vigil, but I honestly wasn’t sure how I felt about the protest until I stood in my school the next day, listening to my black colleagues talk about their racial experiences. There in that meeting room, I cried twice — once when a black mother talked about her son being profiled as a thief, and again when she told a story of a little boy who said that he just wanted to grow up to be eighteen. Listening to the anecdotes wasn’t necessarily eye-opening. More than anything, the experience was sobering, because it reinforced the reality that, while protests and shows of solidarity are a start, they aren’t enough.

I should never have to hear a black person worry for her children’s and her students’ futures. I should never have to hear my Israeli friend tell me, “I’m Jewish and I’m terrified” while acknowledging that she has privilege because she can hide her Judaism and pass as a white person. I should never have to think about whether or not I’ll be safe at a certain school.

But that’s what it’s like to live as a minority in Trump’s America.

So, white people, you cannot say #ThisIsNotUs. This has always been us. Marginalized groups have always suffered in the United States, and it’s taken white supremacist rallies for our plight to enter the spotlight. I need you to take ownership of your mistakes, acknowledge your privilege, and stop for a moment to think about the message that my roommate scrawled across a torn brown paper bag whilst standing on the outskirts of a parking lot in the sweltering heat: white silence is white violence.

Sarena Tien is a queer, Chinese-American feminist and Francophile. Her writing has appeared in As/Us, Kaleidoscope, Transitions Abroad, The Feminist Wire, Bustle, and On She Goes. When she’s not trying to become a polyglot, she can often be found fighting for social justice or folding far too many origami stars.