Why Finding My BIPOC Friends in a White Midwest Town Was a Necessary Extension of Parenting

How I, an Asian American mom, learned to thrive in a white Midwest town without becoming complacent to ignorance.

Smiling and laughing friends sharing dinner at table in backyard
Photo: Getty

The pandemic forced a deep examination of what my partner and I want for our family, and upon review we both decided to quit corporate careers and move to the Midwest to be closer to family.

During our first month in our new town, I encountered a mom in the parking lot of my kid's gymnastics camp complaining about Juneteenth and what a ridiculous holiday it was. I disagreed and said so, but the moms laughed at me. I walked away.

"There is no racism here," our real estate agent had declared without an ounce of irony before we made the official move from Seattle. "I was born and raised here and I would be shocked."

I had laughed in his face, because there is racism everywhere, but hoped it was even a little bit true. It would make our cross-country move, after living on the west coast for 14 years, a lot easier. This was going to be hard.

Some weeks later, while waiting for class to finish, a few fellow (all white) moms and I began chatting outside. One mom, I'll call her "Sally," began complaining that the public school our kids attend was teaching critical race theory because the teacher said that the Constitution was created by white men only. Thankfully, a progressive parent—another recent West Coast transplant—spoke up. She reminded Sally that what the teacher taught was 100% true. The Constitution was indeed created by all white men.

"Why should my husband be blamed for all that's wrong in the country?" Sally said, flustered.

"Who said anything about your husband?" I asked.

The racism snowballed, and later in the conversation, she performed a mockery of Asians she witnessed in South Asia, saying "Give me money, give me money!" with her palms up. "Those people just assumed I'm rich because of my hair color."

"To them, you are wealthy," I pointed out.

"Well, I am not wealthy," she insisted. "I had to save up to go there."

Where do I start, when we're so far apart? When she can't begin to grasp that those people probably couldn't afford a vacation if they saved their entire lives.

A sudden thunderstorm drenched us. We ducked under opposite parts of the long school awning, and she began sobbing at her end, while her friend hugged and comforted her. I and the other progressive, anti-racist mom, who has since become a good friend, counted the minutes until the end of class.

This was not my first unfortunate encounter with Sally, who is a neighbor.

The first time she met me and my child, she asked, smiling, "Is your husband American?"

"I am American," I answered firmly.

"You know what I mean," she said, laughing. Yes, I knew she was really asking if my husband was white. I let it slide.

Another time, at a neighbor's house, she wanted to tell me about an Asian American comedian she loved, only she couldn't remember his name. Sally began thinking aloud, "You know him, what's his name? Byong? Chong? Myong? Leong?"

I stared, until finally, she said, "Oh, I got it. Ken Jeong! I just love him. He's so funny."

I was annoyed but brushed off those interactions. They're the type of microaggressions and ignorance that are part of daily life if you live in America as a BIPOC person. If I got upset about each of these little incidents, I'd never get anything done, and I'm a very productive person. But this third instance—this anti-critical race theory sentiment, Asian mockery, the tears—was something altogether different. She had crossed into racial aggression.

I could not let this go no matter how much I wanted my family to belong in our new neighborhood. No matter how much I wanted to fall in love with my new town, how much I wanted my family to thrive here.

Open expressions of racism and ignorance seemed the norm here, among friendly folks famous for Midwestern kindness. People just weren't aware of what racism is. They were blind to what was being uttered in front of their Black Lives Matter lawn signs.

To Sally's credit, she texted me a long apology that evening, but the harm was done. What I saw that day could not be unseen, could not be taken back. I could not get the image of her Asian mockery out of my head. I had to protect myself. I could not risk other insensitive, traumatizing comments that she might make off-the-cuff. Intent does not matter when the consequence is so damaging.

I lost sleep over this. I fought with my husband for the better part of a month about how seriously I should be taking this. I spent many therapy sessions talking about how to deal. I felt exposed, vulnerable, rootless in the face of such unexpected ignorance. The incident, which occurred with Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements in the backdrop, combined with our cross-country move, triggered a deep sense of unease, of alienation. I felt so alone.

How do we raise an anti-racist child in this community of racial and economic privilege? How much will he be conditioned when I'm not around to explain? How well will I be able to teach him? Will his strong identity and progressive education he received be erased over time here? I felt powerless as these questions swallowed me whole.

I never replied to Sally's text. I began avoiding all get-togethers hosted by my neighbors when I knew she would be present. I quit the book club that I was so thrilled to join after just one meeting. With some of the neighbors, I owed an explanation, like to the lovely person who invited me to join the book club. I took the risk, knowing my relationship with these moms was new and tenuous—I was the outsider. Still, I shared my bad experience with Sally. I wasn't expecting them to choose sides or to shun her, but I needed to be heard, and for the wrong to be acknowledged. I wanted my neighbors to be shocked and appalled. The general reception was kind, but I was also supplied with every excuse for Sally's behavior. She didn't mean it. She doesn't know any better. I'm sorry that happened.

But other than the one like-minded mom who was present for the incident, no one else was willing to take a stand and tell me how wrong that was and that it shouldn't have happened. Everyone wanted to keep the peace. Everyone wanted to pretend it didn't happen in our pristine, upper-middle-class subdivision.

Sally is charming, beautiful, and well-liked—the type of person who might have been crowned homecoming queen at my high school. She organizes fun events for the kids. Her children are delightful and adorable. Sally's family has lived here for years, while we had just moved in. Not surprisingly, Sally got the book club and most of the neighborhood gatherings, though I suppose it would be fairer to say that I let her have them. She continues to belong while I do not. Because it's easier for the others to stay comfortable rather than making me feel more so.

Instead, I sought out a local BIPOC Moms+ group which has been a lifesaver. The + signifies the recognition of gender diverse and nonbinary parents. My membership in this community has been eye-opening, to say the least. Though it should not come as a surprise, many confirmed that my experience was not unique. They provided the safe place and validation I needed to no longer feel alone.

Several months after Sally's first apology, she texted me again. It was another carefully worded message, asking me to talk. This time, she made a request for me to teach her how to properly word her thoughts so they don't come across as offensive.

A deep sense of hopelessness, dread, and exhaustion washed over me. I do not have the emotional resilience to teach someone like her how not to be racist. I'm not invested in her. And as a parent and human, I am too busy to educate her and others who get by with "not knowing." She should be reading books, educating herself, not asking me to relieve my traumas for her growth. With unease, I chose to not reply again.

Our kiddos still ride the school bus together every day and are friends. Whenever I see her kids, I try to exude over-the-top, genuine kindness, complimenting and encouraging them. One day, her sweet boy showed up at our door to drop off some Pokémon cards for my son, who'd just begun collecting. Sally waited at the street, keeping watch at a careful distance. After they left, I texted her a heartfelt thank you.

About a year has passed. I'm now a part of the leadership committee in the BIPOC Moms+ group, planning dinner outings and group U-pick trips to the berry patch. This social support group has provided a safety net of nurturing that celebrates our diversity. Together, we can heal from shared societal traumas at the workplace, advise one another on how to advocate for our kids in schools, and thrive in our respective communities. We share endless specific resources on mental health providers, lawyers, hair salons, and doctors who can meet our needs. Over no-kids outings for ropa vieja, bibimbap, and saag paneer, we laugh, we vent, we forge real friendships.

In time, I hope my local social network will develop organically and won't require such mindful curation. Until then, I'm celebrating our ability to fit in and thrive here is not dependent on becoming complacent to bigotry and ignorance.

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