“Idealism” and “Practicality”: The Generational Gap in Political Beliefs

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In Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King, there’s one scene that always strikes me. It’s a dialogue between Hasan and his father, Najme Minhaj, that takes place after their family is targeted after 9/11 by a group of people that called their house, left a death threat, and soon after smashed in the windows of their Camry. To his surprise, Hasan’s father does not react to the incident, instead he calmly sweeps the glass off the driveway. Hasan, shellshocked and frustrated, demands, “Why aren’t you saying something? Say something!” His father coolly responds, “Hasan, these things happen, and these things will continue to happen, and that’s the price we pay for being here.” 

In the show, Hasan acknowledges that his dad has a mindset like many other immigrants– facing racism is a given. Many come to America with the expectation of an “American Dream Tax,” meaning that immigrants internalize the mentality that they are bound to face some racism. This is their price for living in the U.S. As long as it’s not fatal, it’s fine.  He contrasts this mindset with his own, as a person born and raised in the US. Learning about the history of “equality for all” in his honors government class, he has this “audacity of equality,” going through a system of education that repeatedly taught him he’s entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that all men are created equal. Yet in reality, these are not rights, but privileges that minorities are not always granted.

This scene echoes heated conversations I have had with my own dad about how to deal with racism. My dad grew up in Bangladesh and Malaysia, and immigrated to the United States for school when he was 26. I, on the other hand, have spent the vast majority of my 21 years in Northern California. My family has had their fair share of racism. One time, my mom and aunt, who wears a hijab, were crossing the street when a car stopped for them. They thanked the driver, to which he responded, “Yeah, just don’t bomb us.” My family was a little shocked at first, but then continued as if nothing happened. My cousin and I did not feel the same way. We were furious and annoyed. I thought to myself, “Who was this man with the audacity to treat us like we don’t belong here? As though we’re terrorists solely based on our appearance?” My dad eventually put his foot down and told us that it’s just not practical to get so worked up over something so small. 

A difference in opinion over what is “practical” and what is “idealistic” is where many of my disagreements with my family stem from. During the Democratic primary election, I voted for Senator Bernie Sanders because I felt that his progressive values would actually lead to change. My dad, on the other hand, supported Vice President Biden or former Mayor Bloomberg–not because he didn’t like Senator Sanders, but because he felt Sanders was too “idealistic.” He held the belief, like many Americans, that it’s naive to vote for Senator Sanders, and assumed that he would not be able to win the general election because of how consevative America really is.

To me, these experiences were examples of how factors like age and location impact political socialization and ideology. In a conversation with Vina Sidhu, a third year undergraduate student at UC Davis, she discussed how factors like religion, personal experience, and a feeling of home impacted her and her parents’ views on politics and society. Vina was born in India, but moved to the United States with her parents when she was one years old. She immigrated in a very tumultuous time, as it was soon after 9/11.  She explains that because of the environment at the time, “there was a fear instilled in [her] dad, because though [they are] not Muslim, he had features that were being stigmatized like those of the Muslim faith.” Fortunately, her dad’s worries about racism did not match what she experienced. She shares that there were “people spewing racist ideologies, [but they] were nice to him…and, because he had such a good experience, it tainted his lens–like, “Oh, it’s not as racist as people make it out to be.’” Vina’s father’s experience shows that immigrants often have to tolerate racism under the belief that it will always be a part of American society. It parallels the “American Dream Tax” that Hasan Minhaj mentioned in his Netflix special, when immigrants take racism as a given, a price to pay for living in America.

“Vina shares that her parents ‘were ten when the Sikh genocide occurred in 1984…It was a political genocide that raised a lot of religious tensions.’ During that time, ‘survival was being obedient, listening, following curfew, and altering their appearance to not get targeted by hate. Because that worked for them, that’s why they adopted the ‘don’t say anything, nothing will happen to your kind of mentality here’.”

As minorities in India, Vina’s parents had to deal with racism and trauma in a very specific way. Vina shares that her parents “were ten when the Sikh genocide occured in 1984… It was a political genocide that raised a lot of religious tensions.” During that time “survival was being obedient, listening, following curfew, and altering their appearance to not get targeted by hate. Because that worked for them, that’s why they adopted the ‘don’t say anything, nothing will happen to you’ kind of mentality here. Even when they do face discrimination they kind of filter it as, ‘Oh, that’s nothing; they’re just having a bad day’– and are very dismissive about it. Because that’s how they survived, and that’s how they were able to avoid conflict.”

Vina further explains that the Sikh teachings impacted their views of politics and Black Lives Matter. “Our religion teaches us to be tolerant of others in the way they practice and to fight for those who don’t have a voice.” Her parents are supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement and are anti-colorism. Much of her and her father’s similar views stem from religious teachings. Though they are quite divided on their political views, open dialogue has been fruitful in convincing her dad in some of her values. Growing up, rReligious teachings shave he has grown up with has also provided a baseline of common ground off of which to speak.

Adopting a passive view on politics is common among immigrant parents. Saket Malhotra, a sophomore at Yale University and the co-communications director of Students Against Hindutva Ideology (SAHI), involved himself with student activism at his campus. “I feel like, because I have this privileged background, I have more of a responsibility to use my voice and my privilege to support those without those same privileges, in whatever way I can.” He explains that privilege allows us to have tools that others don’t, and with those tools we have to help out whichever way we can rather than ignore its existence. He states, “The ways that my family tries to stray away from caste is by ignoring our own caste privilege…which doesn’t work. It’s like white people saying ‘I don’t see color.’” There are many reasons why immigrants don’t feel comfortable engaging in politics; this includes fear of backlash and internalized racism, but also feeling as though there is not much of a need to change the status quo. For many privileged individuals, this can translate into apathy, whereas Saket strives to overturn structural oppression. 

When asked how to enact change in small ways, Saket replied that, because South Asians as a community tend to have more class privilege, “one avenue is boycotting brands and corporations that engage in anti-Blackness, because we have that economic power.” For example “donating to workers in India. Muslims and Dalit people are disproportionately impacted [by COVID 19], so just giving money to the people that need it the most.”

Our response to issues of politics and equality reflect our lived experiences. Feelings of trauma, acceptance of racism, and privilege are connected to older immigrants feeling the need to abstain from politics. But as children of immigrants, we are aware of the sacrifices our parents made to live in this country and experience equality. That knowledge, in combination with the tools we have in the United States, push us to be much more active in the American political sphere. Thus, in contrast to our parents, we’re embedded with this “audacity of equality” that encourages us to use our privilege to push for our ideals.