Why I won’t comfort my Trump-voting Indian American relatives when I go home for Thanksgiving

Rajpreet Heir
·4-min read
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump depart after taking part in the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington (AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump depart after taking part in the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington (AFP via Getty Images)

Indian Americans comprise slightly more than 1 percent of the US population, and 22 percent of them planned to vote for Trump when they were asked before the election. A number of my family members are in that small group.

Some of them just say it’s for financial reasons, that they believe in spending less and investing more — keeping government out of our hair and letting people make decisions to better themselves. That we’re at a $23 million deficit and they’re concerned about how China uses our interest payments. I’ve been told over family dinners that, “Young people want to change the world, but once you get older and tire of paying taxes, you’ll feel differently.”

This used to make a lot of sense to me — in fact, I used to be a Republican. In grade school, I mailed letters of admiration to my heroes: Ronald Reagan and Bill O’Reilly. In high school, when my government teacher asked us to stand on the left side of the room if we were Democrat and the right if we were Republican, I was the only person of color on the right. I remember both sides were confused by my choice.

I thought Republicans were the richer, more powerful people in my home state of Indiana and I wanted to be on the side of the winners.

The first club I joined at my liberal arts college in rural Indiana: College Republicans. When I went over to their tent at the club fair to sign up, the white guy with the clipboard was wearing sunglasses and I couldn’t read his expression. He called over his two friends. “She wants to join our club.” They studied me. “Is this a joke?” one asked. “No,” I said, and took the clipboard to write down my email address. Afterwards, they all shook my hand and I felt like I was one step closer to my successful future. With that same hand, I proudly voted for McCain over Obama a couple of months later.

But now I worship less at the altar of money and care a great deal more about social issues. Away at college, I started realizing that the conservative agenda might actually be…working against me. I’d experienced plenty of racism but started to notice it more, especially when hate crimes increased under Trump’s presidency. I myself was told to go back to my country on the New York City subway mere months after his inauguration.

While my family in no way condones hate crimes, I know some believe racism has always been around and always will be around and we just have to deal with it: “It is what it is and we don’t need to talk about it.” They don’t have to tell me they dealt with far worse racism (like from neo-Nazis) and even violence when growing up in England. To them I probably seem like some oversensitive, brainwashed, East Coast, snowflake, Warby Parker-wearing, elitist, oatmeal-eating, whiney, Sex and the City-watching, naive, yoga class-attending victim, but I also think: why not address this stuff?

“That guy who told you to go back to your country was probably mentally off and he’s just one guy,” I was told. But I don’t want to minimize experiences like these any longer; I want to continue speaking out even if it makes my family uncomfortable because I care about more than us. Anyways, being a good, quiet Indian bookworm who hasn’t even been to India doesn’t stop people from being racist towards me. All people need to do is see my skin to make some sort of judgment.

Though racism has been around a long time and we’ve had plenty of racist presidents before Trump, Trump is direct in his racism and also grants these views legitimacy. In 2017, researchers at Tufts University found that, among test subjects, "exposure to Trump's prejudiced statements made people more likely to write offensive things." According to researchers at Stop AAPI Hate, there were over 2,500 incidents of bigotry against Asian-Americans between March and August 2020. Trump appears to validate the perpetrators' bigotry with terms like "Chinese virus". This year, the president also suggested that Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrating against police brutality and racism should be met with force. The longer I’m away from home, the less bridge-building I want to do with family members who are willing to overlook social issues.

“You need to come back to the Midwest and get a reality check,” I’ve heard. This year I became precisely the sort of person my parents warned me about: a liberal creative writing professor in New York with a diversity and inclusion agenda. It’s been hard striking it out on my own, but now, this Thanksgiving, this Nasty Woman feels emboldened. It’s getting easier to speak up with more women who look like me taking office. After all, instead of Mike Pence — a fellow Hoosier — as vice president, I get to see myself in Kamala Harris. If anything, I can inspire the next generation as that aunt out east with her dangerous ideas.