GENE DEMBY, HOST:
Just a heads-up, y'all - the following episode contains some salty language, so buckle up for some cussin'.
What's good, y'all? You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Gene Demby. And let me tell you about this listener named Rene (ph) that I met one day.
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DEMBY: So Rene Hidalgo told me the first time he realized that people might not see him as white was when he was in the first grade. It was around 1991, and he and his boy were talking about Vanilla Ice of all people.
RENE HIDALGO: For whatever reason, Vanilla Ice really appealed towards, like, 10-year-olds because he was in the "Ninja Turtles" movie. And somebody was like - so - you know, it was like, oh wow, this white rapper that - nobody's ever seen that before. And my friend Shane (ph) was like, you know, no, I don't think he's white. And I was like, what are you talking about? He's like, no, I think he's like Puerto Rican or something like you. And I was like, but I'm - wait. But I am white. And he was like, no, you're not. And like, years later, I'm like, man, I learned that I'm not white because of Vanilla Ice. That's - that is not right (laughter).
DEMBY: Rene was born in New York City in the early 1980s to a Cuban immigrant father and an American-born Cuban Puerto Rican mother.
HIDALGO: My parents never taught me how to speak Spanish. The only time it was really spoken in the house was between my parents when they didn't want me to know what was going on.
DEMBY: Rene said his parents had very different politics from each other - right? So his mom is really conservative. Like, she voted for Trump. His father, though, was a socialist. But one thing they consistently agreed on that they, like, hit on over and over again was that Rene was not to consider himself a person of color.
HIDALGO: My parents even went so far as to repeatedly tell me, don't ever let anyone tell you you aren't white.
DEMBY: When he was young, Rene's parents sent him to this crunchy private K-12 school. It was on the Upper West side. And it had the kind of parents who wanted a very progressive approach to learning, but who were also - well, the kind of parents who would never send their kids to a public school, Rene said at that school, his race didn't matter nearly as much as socioeconomics did.
HIDALGO: The majority of the student body was affluent. But about five kids in my year, including myself, were on scholarships, financial assistance and came from working-class families. They were also - really no surprise here - the only people of color. I'm not going to paint this as a horrible situation. It honestly wasn't. But for the most part, it was a warm and welcoming environment. The worst of it was being made to feel bad because I couldn't afford to, like, go to space camp or whatever. I can't say the Black kids had the same experience I had, so we'll take that with a big grain of salt.
There was very little acknowledgement of, you know, race in my school at all. It just wasn't something that was spoken about. And it's kind of interesting looking back at it from today's perspective because now we talk about how, you know, not talking about race is a huge problem. And that - there is a lot of truth behind that. But it was also, like, 1985, so it - like, nobody was acknowledging that at the time.
DEMBY: But when Rene got to about the fifth grade, that crunchy private school where people didn't talk about race merged with an old-money private school, you know, think "Gossip Girl" or something like that. It was an old-money school that was absorbing some brown kids, which, you know, it never really had to make room for before. And Rene and his friends quickly realized that they were being treated differently from the other kids at that school.
HIDALGO: Honestly, the only kids that were really getting in trouble for anything were Black and Latino, you know. And it wasn't a demographic that that school had had to really engage with historically.
DEMBY: So one day, some administrators at this newly merged school saw what was happening, and they sent letters home addressed to the parents of the students of color.
HIDALGO: So it was kind of, you know, I guess, you know, to use a term that we would use now, it's like what we would call performative allyship. But they didn't know how to have that conversation. I think what they ended up really doing was kind of highlighting the differences, you know, and saying, like, you are, in fact, different from everyone else.
DEMBY: When Rene's parents got that letter - and remember, they didn't want people to think of Rene as a kid of color in the first place - they lost their s***. They were so mad that they wanted to pull him out of the school. At the same time all this was going on, his home life was going through its own big upheavals. His parents, they just had another child. They couldn't really swing tuition at this fancy private school anymore. So between the letter and the new financial pressures, they decided to send him to a Catholic school much closer to home way uptown.
HIDALGO: About 90% of my classes was either Dominican or Puerto Rican. The remaining 10% were Irish, Haitian, Jamaican. The cultural shock was obviously pretty intense. I went from being in English-only environments and surrounded by Ethans and Sarahs and Zachs to a Spanish-first space with Yahairas, Delwins and at least three Yesenias at a time. No one could understand why I couldn't speak Spanish, why I wasn't baptized or why I pronounced my own name wrong. Finally, in an environment where I felt like I should have felt at home and welcome and amongst my people, I felt like I was - suddenly realized I was missing a limb.
DEMBY: Rene said his parents would make all kinds of slick comments about all these other Latino kids that he suddenly found himself going to school with.
HIDALGO: You know, with Caribbean Latino people, that's like - everybody thinks they're better than the other one, you know? So there was, you know, a lot of, like, Dominican hate that, like, my parents were kind of throwing out and, you know, a lot of like, you know - why do you call the bus like la guagua? And it was just - it wasn't deep. You know, it never - nobody ever got deep into it. It was just kind of like being kind of nasty and trying to be funny.
DEMBY: So this background noise of, like, anti-Latino feeling in his household created this distance for Rene from his own Latino-ness. And that existed up until really recently, in fact. Rene works in hospitality, so during the first part of the pandemic, he wasn't really working at all. He suddenly found himself with a lot of time on his hands to think and to cook.
HIDALGO: I got one of these, like, New York Times cooking subscriptions, you know? It's like, oh, yeah, this is cool - and then pretty quickly realized that, like, you know, if it was like, I'm pulling up a recipe for arroz con pollo, I'm like, this is the most gringo bulls*** (laughter).
DEMBY: He had grown up with this food. His mom and his abuelas made it. And he said that there was something, like this ineffable thing about that food, a kind of sensory memory that was not being activated from these New York Times recipes. And so he started rabbit-holing on YouTube, where he found Latina moms cooking these same dishes.
HIDALGO: You know, and I would, like, kind of replicate some of these recipes and be like, oh, OK, yeah. This tastes - this does that emotional thing to me. You know, this does that, like - gives me that kind of weird little, like, you know, spark.
DEMBY: And so this cooking over the pandemic has been part of this larger journey of rediscovery for Rene.
HIDALGO: Now, at 40, I've learned how to cook like abuelas, come to love the music and tradition of the Caribbean. My spoken Spanish is still a garbled mess of, you know, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican and Mexican accents. But I understand more than I can speak. I read and write a bit more than that. I no longer see myself as a white person, but I know and own the privilege that color, language, citizenship and education have all brought to my life. And I still struggle to connect to the culture I know I belong to. And I still pronounce my name wrong. So I'd like to ask my parents, why did you fight harder to ensure that I was accepted into white American culture than you did to ensure that I was accepted into Latin culture?
DEMBY: Ooh. Bruh, Rene, that's a lot - a lot. And a few weeks back when we asked for your questions about race for this, our latest edition of Ask CODE SWITCH, by the way, we got a lot of responses like Rene's. People wanted some insight about the choices their parents made, and those were questions with answers that, frankly, are beyond the scope of our reportorial powers because they're kind of questions you got to ask your parents. You know, but people wanted insight into the choices that our parents make that are so often opaque to us - sometimes the decisions that our parents are making very intentionally, like Rene's, sometimes the choices that parents are making just to get through the day.
But however parents are making those choices, a lot of them stick with us as we grow up. And they shape the ways we see ourselves in relation to the world. I've been thinking a lot about these questions lately because I'm about to be a parent, like, very, very soon. Like, I might have to dip before we finish recording this episode if this baby comes. But yeah, this week we're getting into your trickiest questions about parents. We tried to answer and think through the parts of these questions that we could answer. But the really hard part - you know, the scariest part - is only something that y'all can do by talking to your parents. But we're going to get into all that after the break. Stay with us.
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DEMBY: Gene - just Gene for now - CODE SWITCH.
All right. So we're back with our Ask CODE SWITCH series, where we answer some of your trickiest, chewiest questions. And this time, we're talking about race and your mama. So this first question is actually about interracial parents. And our editor, Leah Donnella, who knows something about that, is here to answer that question. What's good, Leah?
LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: Hey, Gene.
DEMBY: So what is this question?
DONNELLA: OK. So as you know, we have talked a fair amount on this show about biracial and multiracial identity. You know, we did a few episodes about racial imposter syndrome, which is essentially about the various identity crises that multiracial people go through when they don't feel like they are fully part of a certain group.
DEMBY: Yes, I remember that episode well. We got a lot of reaction to that episode. And obviously, in a lot of her reporting, Shereen - tear - talked about her own identity. Leah, I don't know if you knew this about Shereen, but she was Puerto Rican and Iranian. Were you aware of that?
DEMBY: I know.
DONNELLA: Well, I mean, based purely on the CODE SWITCH inbox, it seems like a lot of other multiracial people also spend a lot of time thinking about their racial identities and belonging and all that stuff. And so this week, we got a question from someone who wanted to turn the focus back a generation...
DONNELLA: ...To the parents of multiracial kids.
HANAA HAMDI: Hi, I'm Hanaa Hamdi (ph). I'm 29, and I work in public health. And I'm from New Jersey. OK, so here's the concept. I believe that parents of mixed kids - a.k.a. two individuals of different racial, ethnic, cultural backgrounds - generally either, 1, have really strong relationships because they've had to fight harder to be together or, 2, their relationship, marriage, fades fast when they realize how much they took for granted in the cultural understanding that they had.
DEMBY: OK, so it sounds like Hanaa is talking about something very close to home for her. I'm just going to hazard a guess.
DONNELLA: Oh, for sure. She told me that her parents come from very different backgrounds, which she says led to some real differences in how they saw the world and how they saw each other. And she's also seen friends enter into relationships with people from different backgrounds, and she's been like, are you sure you know what you're getting into? So she wanted to know if there was any basis to her theory that there are these two very different groups of people - people who have, you know, really considered their relationships, built really strong relationships, and people who are less ready for things.
HAMDI: I mean, I know the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Like, cross-cultural relationship dynamics probably do present unique challenges compared to same-race/ethnicity relationships, but both dynamics still take work, commitment, love, openness. But I'm still curious if there is more definitive research that has been done on this.
DONNELLA: So there are a few different elements to Hanaa's theory. So for today, I want to focus on her question about the strength of interracial relationships compared to the strength of same-race relationships.
DONNELLA: And in order to answer that question, I felt like I had to establish something kind of basic, which is what can we actually say about the strength of same-race relationships?
DEMBY: Right. Like, how do you measure the strength of any relationship to begin with? Like, the strength or health of a relationship is kind of necessarily opaque to everyone who is not in that relationships, or it often is, right? So I imagine that's already a really complex question to, like, try to measure. And also because the category of "same-race couple" - and I'm doing air quotes - includes white people in Connecticut and, like, Mexican Americans in LA and maybe even, like, a Black Nigerian person married to an African American, and they both live in Texas. They could all have very different socioeconomic profiles. Like, the stressors on all these so-called same-race couples could be really different.
DONNELLA: Totally. And then, you know, coming back to that question, like, how are we measuring relationship strength? There are a million different ways you could do that. So I spoke to Jaclyn Wong. She's a sociologist at the University of South Carolina, and she wrote a paper called "Better Together? Interracial Relationships And Depressive Symptoms." And she tried to get at this question of relationship strength by looking at the mental health of the people in a couple. So she told me that traditionally, a lot of research has shown that being in a long-term relationship has some real mental health benefits.
JACLYN WONG: There is just a large body of literature and sociology suggesting that partnered people have better mental health, higher levels of happiness. But I was curious to know whether that's true all the time, depending on what kind of couple you're in.
DONNELLA: She said most of the research that's been done on marriages in the U.S. focuses on straight, cis, white couples.
DEMBY: Which, you know, of course.
DONNELLA: Yeah. Yeah. So she pored over data from this big nationally representative study called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which asks people questions about their social relationships and their mental health. And this study follows people over time, so you're able to see information about how people's mental health is changing. So she could look at markers of mental health for people who started out as single and then either stayed single or entered into relationships. And what she found really surprised her.
WONG: The kind of conventional wisdom that partnered people are in better mental health than people who are not really largely holds for white people who are partnered with other white people. We see much fewer benefits to mental health for Black respondents, Asian respondents and our Hispanic white and our Hispanic non-white respondents.
DONNELLA: White men, especially, were seeing those mental health benefits, Jaclyn said.
DEMBY: Huh. OK, my hunch is that that has something to do with the patriarchy, maybe? I don't know.
DONNELLA: I mean, who can say, Gene? Who can say?
WONG: There are no mental health benefits that accrue to Black partners who either form an interracial relationship or even form a same-race relationship. So that is giving us another point of evidence that this idea that marriage or relationships are good for mental health is - it's, like, maybe a white people thing.
DEMBY: Right 'cause even if it was a patriarchy thing, wouldn't there be, like, some benefits to Black men in heterosexual relationships - you know what I mean? - or...
DEMBY: ...Other men of color - right? - like, just men, period.
DONNELLA: You would think so.
DEMBY: But that's not what's happening.
DONNELLA: And Jaclyn said that in terms of race, the data that she looked at showed that Asian Americans who partner with other Asian Americans do tend to see some of the same mental health benefits that white couples see. But that's not the case for Asian-white couples. And when a white person is partnered with a Black person, the white person might accrue some mental health benefits - not the Black person.
DEMBY: Oh, there's...
DONNELLA: Yes. There is a lot there.
DEMBY: There's a lot in there. OK, OK.
DONNELLA: There's also - she said there's still not really enough data about interracial couples where both people are POCs to have a thorough sense of what those different pairings might mean. And again, for all of these people, we're still talking about straight, cis couples. There wasn't enough data on other couples to make super specific observations.
DEMBY: Right. But obviously, we know that gender and gender roles play a big part in the way that, like, couples experience marriage, the way they deal with each other and interact with each other.
DONNELLA: Oh, yes. And you know, to be fair, Jaclyn said this is not trying to say that there aren't still good things about being in a relationship for everyone, you know? It's always good to have someone around who can talk to you about your feelings or help kill a spider, you know?
DEMBY: I mean, having somebody around to kill the spider is a big part of why I married my wife.
DONNELLA: I believe it. But again, in general, she said, marriage is not providing the same overall psychological boost for many people of color that it is for many white people.
WONG: And that makes me feel like marriage is potentially an institution tied up with white supremacy.
DEMBY: OK. OK, what does Jaclyn mean when she says that?
DONNELLA: Well, she said there is reason to believe that the social and economic benefits of marriage, as it's practiced in the U.S., are all working particularly well for white people by design. So, you know, it's no accident that there were anti-miscegenation laws here until 1967. And marriage can really reinforce white privilege in a lot of ways. It helps people consolidate wealth that they can then pass down to their kids.
DONNELLA: It gives people a certain social status that can help them seem legitimate and get a job. But marriage isn't helping you pool wealth, for example, if you don't have generational wealth. And for many of those reasons, she said it's worth remembering that families of color in the U.S. have traditionally learned to look outside of marriage and relationships for things that white people often find within them.
WONG: It's common for people of color to have extended family networks and friend networks that provide them these mental health benefits that potentially white people rely on their spouses to provide them.
DEMBY: So Jaclyn is saying that in some cases, people of color might not need marriage the way white people do, or put another way, if there are benefits of marriage for people of color, they are not the benefits that accrue to white people.
DONNELLA: Yeah, potentially.
DEMBY: OK. OK. All right, so coming back to Hanaa's theory about interracial couples being either particularly strong or particularly fragile - like, Leah, does that hold any water?
DONNELLA: Actually, Jaclyn said, based on some of her other research, it might, in some very specific ways.
DONNELLA: At least, you know, there are elements of it that make sense.
WONG: There is research showing that interracial couples are more often composed of two people who are quite highly educated and often enact more gender egalitarian practices in their relationships. So the division of unpaid labor at home tends to be more equal in interracial relationships. There is some evidence to suggest that it's potentially because interracial partners can't necessarily rely on the other person holding the same expectations and assumptions as each other, and so there's more opportunity or need to talk about things. And talking about things is generally good for couples (laughter) across the board.
DONNELLA: On the flip side, Jaclyn says...
WONG: You don't realize how much having taken for granted assumptions really smooths social interactions where I don't have to check in with you to be able to engage in this interaction. Like, we just know what's going on. And that's potentially less possible when you have - or less frequent when you're in an interracial relationship.
DONNELLA: But Gene, I want to come back briefly to your point from before. You know, you brought up the - a few of the many different types of same-race couples there could be. And for interracial couples, we're obviously also talking about an incredibly diverse category of people. So I asked Jaclyn, like, does it actually make sense to group interracial couples in this way at all? Can we say anything about this category writ large?
WONG: No, not really, not really - because interracial couples can be made up of anybody. And it can be something like a Black-white couple. It can be something like an Asian-Black couple. And none of these people have, you know, across the board, the same experiences.
DONNELLA: To be fair, other people I spoke to said sometimes there are good reasons to talk about interracial couples as a group.
DONNELLA: You know, I spoke to Chinyere Osuji. She's the author of a book called "Boundaries Of Love: Interracial Marriage And The Meaning Of Race." And she reminded me that interracial relationships are becoming more and more common in the U.S. And so it could make sense to look at them as a category and figure out what we can learn about them, even within all that diversity.
I also spoke to Shaifali Sandhya, a couples counselor who specializes in interracial relationships. And she said that there are definitely, definitely some elements of those relationships that come up over and over again in her clinical work.
DEMBY: Right. But even if you say, OK, there are issues that come up over and over in my clinical work as a relationship counselor, like, what kind of couples can afford to get professional relationship counseling? Right? Like, there's already some selection bias in, like, the socioeconomics of the thing. Right?
DONNELLA: Oh, completely. And you know, basically everyone that I spoke to agreed that for some of those reasons, there's really nothing that you can say definitively that is universally true about interracial couples.
DONNELLA: I mean, to Hanaa's point from earlier, the truth seems to be all of these different things. There are couples that are really, really strong. There are couples that are really, really fragile. And then there's everyone in between.
DEMBY: So listeners, as Shereen might say....
DONNELLA: (Laughter). Now, of course, there are still very fun and specific ways that parents from different backgrounds and races can mess up their kids. I don't want to take that away from anybody...
DONNELLA: ...And - no shade - I say that as someone with a Black dad and a white mom.
DEMBY: Thank you, Leah. This was fun and confusing.
DONNELLA: Thank you, Gene.
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DEMBY: OK. Our next question is about growing up too fast. To help us answer that one, we're tagging in our correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates. What's good, KGB?
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hey, Gene.
DEMBY: All right, Karen, who are we talking to now?
ZARIA ARTHUR: I'm Zaria Arthur (ph). I'm living currently in Gainesville. And so I'm a student at UF under the College of Journalism and Communications.
BATES: And Zaria told us this story.
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ARTHUR: When I was younger, I remember wanting to get my first manicure, and my mom was absolutely down for that. She wanted to take me. But when I wanted to get the color red, she told me that it was for older people, it was too grown and that I could have blue or pink or any other color, anything other than red - and same for having straightened hair. Where does the idea, which many Black mothers perpetuate, that certain small physical traits, like wearing red nail polish or having straightened hair, are too grown come from?
DEMBY: All right, Karen, can you say more about that? Like, have you had experiences with this?
BATES: Oh, yes.
When I was growing up, the girls would always have these little white, ruffly socks to go with their dresses.
DEMBY: OK (laughter). Yes.
BATES: You've probably seen pictures of this...
BATES: ...You know, the velvet dresses at Christmas and then the white ruffly socks. But we were not going to be allowed to put on stockings. We couldn't do that until we were teenagers, which is funny thinking about now because no one wears stockings anymore.
DEMBY: (Laughter) Right.
BATES: Thank you, Michelle Obama. But it was a big deal to us to be able to wear stockings because it meant that we had grown up or grown up to...
BATES: ...The next stage of growing up. So I want to know more about this, and I called up Ashleigh Wade. Ashleigh's an assistant professor of English and African American studies at Penn State University. And Ashleigh's research focuses on Black girls' everyday lives, especially how they use social media to construct their identities and to create welcoming spaces where they can truly be themselves.
I remember being told when I was young - many decades ago - that certain things were not permissible to me yet because they were too grown. I'm wondering if you had the same experience as a young girl.
ASHLEIGH WADE: Yes. I wasn't even allowed to get my ears pierced until I was maybe 11 or 12, and I had to beg my parents. I couldn't wear makeup. I couldn't start, you know, painting my nails until maybe, like, middle school. So like, I think some of those standards have remained pretty persistent.
BATES: So Gene, Ashleigh and I are two different generations. And Zaria, our questioner, is another different generation. She's 18. And the girls Ashleigh's writing about right now are even a different generation from the rest of us. So I wanted her to tell me if she was seeing some of these same concerns from today's moms that our mothers had when we were their age, the age of the girls that she's researching.
WADE: I have some cousins that are kind of young. And I know one of them, like, her mom said, that, you know, she can only wear her hair in certain styles because she still wants her to look like, in her words, a little girl.
DEMBY: So let's talk about, like, where this anxiety comes from because as a (ph) clear, it goes back a long way.
BATES: Yeah, it does. Ashleigh said that some of it goes back to our history in this country, back to when Black folks were enslaved and Black people had very little control over how they protected their own children, especially their girls, Gene.
WADE: I think that part of what they're worried about is people who would exhibit predatory behavior towards their daughters. And so I think that part of that comes from a history of sexual violence and exploitation against Black girls that - like, historically Black parents did not have the power to protect their daughters from that kind of violence and violation. And so I think that part of the drive behind keeping little girls as little girls is to try to protect them.
BATES: Black girls are seen and treated as older, more mature even when they're the same age as their white peers.
WADE: That also then simultaneously makes them hypervisible because they stand out against this norm that we have of what the universal girl is. And so I think that for Black families, part of the desire to not have their daughters dress in a certain way that's seen as too grown or wear certain accessories is about controlling the way that Black girls stand out in a society that wants them to not take up space.
DEMBY: But Karen, even if the point of, like, policing things like, you know, red nail polish and red lipstick is to protect, that's not necessarily the impact. Right?
BATES: Right. And Ashleigh talked about that.
WADE: Not only does it make the expectation that Black girls not be too grown, but it also, in my opinion, places the burden of managing how other people perceive Black girls on Black girls themselves. And I don't think that that's fair to make Black girls carry that burden.
DEMBY: Yeah. It feels like that is the inherent bind of respectability politics - right? - is that it gives you a sense of control over these forces. You know? Like, if you just comport yourself a certain way, then maybe you can mitigate some of these outcomes. But like, we actually don't have a lot of proof that that really works really, right? You know what I mean?
BATES: But that's the intuitive response. You know, it's like if I do this, then my kid will be able to avoid X. It doesn't mean that it ends up that way, but that's your response to how to keep your kid safe.
DEMBY: Because it's the thing you can control.
BATES: Right. Here's Ashleigh.
WADE: We have to be much more open and honest about self-expression, about sexual expression. So like, for example, like, instead of saying that, oh, if you wear this short skirt, you look too grown or if you wear your hair in this style, it's too grown - instead of saying things like that to girls, maybe we could explain to them, well, I know that you like to dress this way or I know that you want to do these things, but they could make you a target. And that's not your fault. But I just am trying to protect you. I think it's important that we emphasize to Black girls that they are not responsible for how people perceive them.
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BATES: It is a lot. But this is one of those things it's better to know than not know, I think. Zaria, I hope we shed some light on your question.
DEMBY: Thank you, KGB.
BATES: You're welcome.
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DEMBY: All right, y'all, to close us out, we're bringing on Kumari Devarajan. She's a producer here at CODE SWITCH. You've heard her a lot on the podcast recently. What's good, Kuku?
KUMARI DEVARAJAN, BYLINE: Hey, GD.
DEMBY: It's good to have you back on the show so soon - no dead bodies this time, I hope.
DEVARAJAN: The day is young, Gene.
DEMBY: (Laughter). So Kumari, what is this last question?
DEVARAJAN: So today my question is about setting boundaries with parents.
DEMBY: Oh, God. That's like the Ur parent question. That's the question from which all of our concerns about our parents flow.
DEVARAJAN: Yeah. So I'm going to introduce you to Von Garcia Balanon (ph).
DEVARAJAN: They're a 20-year-old first-generation college student, grew up in the U.S. with parents who are from the Philippines.
VON GARCIA BALANON: I've always felt an inner conflict of how other non-BIPOC students interact with their parents and are able to set boundaries. I feel like I have the inability to do this, even though they don't support me going through college, financially or even terms of mental health. How do you set boundaries with immigrant parents that think it's disrespectful to set boundaries?
DEVARAJAN: Von told me that they really don't have a close relationship with their parents. Their parents are not up to date with how they're feeling emotionally. They don't talk to their parents about the stresses of being a first-generation college student. And as you can imagine, there are many. And Von is also the youngest of four siblings. But they're the only one who keeps regular contact with their parents.
DEMBY: Ooh, that feels like there's a whole story in that, too, just, like, in the fact that they're the only person speaking to their parents. So, Kumari, what types of boundaries specifically does Von want to set with their parents?
DEVARAJAN: They're just 20 years old. And they're already getting the message that their parents expect them to help them with retirement and to pay off their house. Plus, since they're the only one of their siblings to talk to their parents, they're expected to answer the phone and hear how their day is going, even though they never ask how Von days are going. And so Von is interested in pushing back on some of those expectations.
GARCIA BALANON: I feel like I'm kind of stuck because I want to set that boundary. Like, hey, I want to figure out my own life, but I'm very grateful for everything you've done for me. But at the same time, that kind of like - that immigrant guilt - I feel so bad.
DEVARAJAN: And like a lot of kids of immigrants, Von is caught between these two conflicting pressures when it comes to boundaries. So on the one hand, the American culture that they grew up in taught them to value independence and to feel OK setting boundaries.
GARCIA BALANON: But then the different dynamic of, like, coming from, like, a collectivist culture, where, like, oh, you should be supporting your family. Oh, you should make sure that everyone in your family is doing fine, especially your parents, like, the ones that helped you, or, like, the ones that immigrated to America to give their children a better life.
DEMBY: You know, Kumari, we've talked on Ask CODE SWITCH before about, like, the narrative of sacrifice and how people, you know, understandably, like, cling to that narrative around their parents, especially, you know, the children of immigrants. But, like, that narrative often paints people into weird corners, like we're seeing right now, right? And a lot of millennials and Gen Zers in general, we have these very different ideas, and we get different messages about boundaries than our parents got. Like, my sister and I - I have a twin sister - a substantial amount of our conversations are about our mom's very different - I'm being polite here - very different understandings of where those boundaries lie.
DEVARAJAN: I can only imagine.
KAREN TAO: The United States in particular, we're very sort of socialized to have this sort of sense of independence.
DEVARAJAN: Karen Tao is a psychology professor at the University of Utah. And she really recognized what Von is experiencing around that mixed messaging.
TAO: I mean, like, all the messages that I grew up with were, you know, you are your unique self. Be who you want to be. You can be anything you want to be. And I would hear that through, you know, one frame, which was my sort of American self. And then I would hear it through my parents' frame, which is, no, you are us, and I am you. And so it was really difficult to sort of tease that apart. My dog is barking. So she's clearly not caring that I need (laughter) boundaries right now.
DEMBY: The disrespect - she ain't got no bills to pay. She get belly rubs, free food. She could at least honor some boundaries.
DEVARAJAN: Dogs are not known for respecting boundaries. But Karen says it's normal and understandable for Von to care this deeply about what their parents want. So when she was in grad school, she was going through something really similar. And one of her professors asked her why she was in grad school. And Karen said, well, it was what her parents expected.
TAO: And so the professor kind of looked at me quizzically and said, well, I mean, if they asked you to be a race car driver, would you have pursued that as a career? And I said, honestly, I think I would definitely consider it seriously.
DEVARAJAN: Ugh, I wish my parents insisted I be a race car driver.
DEMBY: I mean, it's not too late to be a race car driver if you want to be a race car driver, Kumari. I mean, follow your bliss. I mean...
DEVARAJAN: Thank you, Gene.
DEMBY: ...Like, wait until after the episode, at least - like, till we finish this.
DEVARAJAN: All right, all right - fine.
DEMBY: Also, I love how the professor was like, well, if all your parents were jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you do the same?
DEVARAJAN: I know. It's so patronizing.
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DEVARAJAN: There's another piece of the story that makes this even more difficult. Here's Von again.
GARCIA BALANON: We grew up in a very Christian household. I think about, like, the effect of colonization and, like, how, like, religion has really affected their ways of, like, seeing us, especially growing up as, like, queer and, like, nonbinary. Like, they don't know anything about that. And if I do try to bring that stuff up with them, it's very much like, no, like, let's not think about that stuff. Like, you shouldn't even be thinking about that stuff. Even, like, I question, sometimes, like, why do I want to be a part of a relationship like that? I don't know why, (laughter) you know? Like, I don't know why I'm trying to do that.
DEVARAJAN: I almost got the sense that the fact that Von's parents don't accept them is exacerbating their guilt around setting boundaries. But I couldn't really figure out why at first. And it seemed like Von also didn't understand why. So I called up someone else.
KEVIN NADAL: Hi, my name is Kevin Nadal. I'm a professor of psychology at the City University of New York.
DEVARAJAN: Kevin is Filipino, like Von, and teaches queer and multicultural psychology. And Kevin says that what Von is feeling makes a lot of sense. For many young people who are trans or queer or nonbinary...
NADAL: They may have, you know, 20 years of hiding this part of themselves.
DEVARAJAN: And hiding goes hand in hand with shame, so people tend to compensate.
NADAL: You may have spent your whole life wanting to please your parents in order for them to love you. Or you might have found yourself being someone to want to be exceptionally good at school, exceptionally good in terms of, like, extracurricular activities and leadership.
DEVARAJAN: Or in Von's case, exceptionally good at taking care of your parents and answering their phone calls and always asking about their day even though they don't ask about yours.
NADAL: Maybe you thought that if you did all those things, that that would make your parents overlook your gender or sexuality and love you anyway.
DEVARAJAN: So for people like Von, the idea of stepping away from your parents, of not doing exactly what they expect of you, it can be terrifying.
NADAL: It's almost as if, like, your nightmare of them not loving you has come true.
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TAO: The first emotion is real sadness and some anger.
DEVARAJAN: Here's Karen Tao again.
TAO: Those are really common reactions.
DEVARAJAN: She says Von may be holding out for some sort of understanding from their parents, but there are so many instances where parents just never understand. And that hurts.
TAO: Because we want to be understood by our parents - and for most of our lives, we look to them for approval. And at the same time, our mental health and well-being is so important that there is a point where we draw emotional boundaries, that we don't talk about certain things because if we did it, it's damaging.
DEVARAJAN: Karen says one strategy would be for Von to try to separate their choice to pursue what they want from how much they appreciate the sacrifices their parents made for them.
TAO: It's not the sort of mutually exclusive, if I say no to you, that means I don't care about you. But it means I care about you and this is something that is really important to me.
DEVARAJAN: There's no easy way through this, Karen says. But Von doesn't have to do it alone.
TAO: The first thing that comes to mind is really talking with folks similar to them where they - and gaining support from other folks within their own communities. This is something to really sort of talk about, if possible, with a therapist to really figure out, OK, how do I figure out the me and the them and not necessarily needing to, like, extricate oneself from the family? And what's the sort of compromise? I think another thing that comes up for me is kind of knowing one's threshold - emotional threshold.
DEMBY: Yeah 'cause there is a big difference between Von knowing broadly that they need to draw some lines - right? - and actually thinking through specifically where those lines need to be drawn.
DEVARAJAN: Right. And one last thing I wanted to add - I can see how it might feel to Von like they're somehow weak or lacking for not being able to set boundaries. But Karen says the fact that Von is so concerned with their parents' well-being, even as they're trying to look out for their own well-being, it can be a strength.
TAO: On one hand, someone could say, wow, that's not really healthy. By the time you're in college, you should be able to sort of assert what you need and want. But from a more multicultural perspective, I would say that, you know, that ability to hold sort of disparate expectations, sometimes those that are often in opposition, is a skill that immigrant kids really learn how to do.
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DEMBY: Thank you, Kumari, for bringing us that question. Appreciate you.
DEVARAJAN: You're welcome.
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DEMBY: All right. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. That's the same name on IG as well. If email's more your vibe, ours is firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever it is you get your podcasts. This episode was produced by Jess Kung and Summer Thomad with help from our intern Aja Drain. It was edited by Leah Donnella and Steve Drummond. Shout out to the whole CODE SWITCH team - Karen Grigsby Bates and Kumari Devarajan, who you heard - Alyssa Jeong Perry, Christina Cala and Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Our art director is LA Johnson. I'm Gene Demby, by the way. Be easy.
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