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The Day My Outrage Went Viral

Racist attitudes against my Brown daughter energized me to raise my voice

Illustration: Jo Yeh

NNot long after arriving in the United States, I took my daughter to a playground in Bethesda, Maryland, the D.C. suburb where I grew up. That day, the only other children there were a pair of white girls, who sat side by side at the top of a green plastic slide. When she saw them, my daughter smiled shyly and raced over to play.

Before my daughter could say anything, though, the older girl pointed to my child’s curly black hair and proclaimed, “We’re blonde, you’re not. You can’t play with us. Go away.”

Immediately, I intervened, telling the girls that they had no right to banish anyone from the playground. I spoke calmly, but internally, I was fuming — not at the children, but at their white caregivers, who watched what was happening without saying a thing. Did they not know what to do, I wondered, or did they secretly condone their children’s behavior? After all, the girls learned this attitude somewhere, and the adults’ apathy made me wonder if the bullying I had just witnessed was a result of xenophobic beliefs the children had absorbed at home.

The next day, stewing with anger, I tweeted about the incident, describing what had happened and why it broke my heart. Within a few minutes, a handful of people liked the post.

Then, more than 25,000 people did the same thing.

Watching tens of thousands strangers validate my experience felt like a gift — but it was also a shock. Before this, my experience of motherhood had been a soul-crushing course in self-silencing. My husband and I adopted my daughter from India while we lived in New Delhi, a place where I had few friends and no family. The only thing that alleviated my isolation was the support I found on Facebook and Twitter, where a quick post would garner a slew of advice and support from my oldest friends. These interactions, though few and far between, were vital for my mental health.

DDuring my daughter’s first visit to the United States, my family and I were detained because of her visa. Since we hadn’t yet completed the two-year custody requirement necessary for petitioning for her U.S. citizenship, my daughter was entering the country as a tourist, rather than an immigrant, which is what would have happened if she were my biological child.

The Border Patrol officer saw the stamp in her passport and narrowed his eyes. When, as the only U.S. citizen in my family, I tried to explain how adoption laws involved a residency requirement designed to discourage human trafficking — a set of laws that, when used properly, I support — he furrowed his brow and told me that something about the situation felt “off.” He put my two-year-old’s passport in a bag and sent us to secondary screening.

I smiled stiffly, too scared and exhausted to point out the absurdity of creating an immigration “file” for a two-year-old who was unlikely to take anyone’s job.

Over the hours we waited — hours I spent devising increasingly desperate plans to prevent immigration officials from separating me from my toddler — my daughter waddled around the freezing cold, aggressively beige detention area, pausing only to take bites of a day-old soggy sandwich we had saved from the plane or stare at the family with a young child who were being held at the same time as us, and who were still there when we left.

Eventually, an officer called us to the front of the room and apologized for what he called our “delay.” He told me he was “putting a note in my daughter’s file.” As he typed, I smiled stiffly, too scared and exhausted to point out the absurdity of creating an immigration “file” for a two-year-old who was unlikely to take anyone’s job, organize an act of terror, or commit any of the other imaginary crimes so often ascribed to families like mine.

At long last, my family and I pushed our luggage cart out of the holding area at Dulles Airport and walked straight into a crowd protesting the newly issued Muslim ban. We quickly found my mother and hustled my tired and hungry daughter through the chanting and out to the parking lot, then hastily strapped her into her car seat. As soon as we got on the highway, she burst into tears, crying the entire 45 minutes it took us to get to my mom’s apartment. I didn’t blame her; I wanted to cry too.

AtAt the time of our detention, family separation was just a rumor; two weeks later, it was national news. My social media timelines lit up with posts from friends who reported being detained themselves by immigration officers who searched their social media feeds looking for evidence to send them to a secondary screening. The testimonies filled me with a visceral fear for my daughter’s safety. This trip, we had been treated humanely. The next trip, we might not be so lucky.

Immediately, I put myself under a gag order. I left Facebook and Twitter, losing vital connections with friends. I stopped writing opinion pieces and personal essays, losing work that had previously helped me maintain a tenuous grasp on my professional and political identities, both of which were quickly being swallowed up by the demands of motherhood. I allowed myself only a private Instagram account, which, ironically, I created to maintain a highly curated, public record of my daughter’s life with us, something we were told we would need for her application for U.S. citizenship. Whenever I posted, my throat closed with anxiety and paranoia, and I frequently took down photos that too clearly revealed my politics.

I had kept silent, thinking I was protecting my daughter. But now I wondered if my silence was contributing to a culture that enables the government to terrorize families of color.

By the time I rejoined Twitter, two years later, things had changed — not in the country, but in my life. My daughter had successfully entered the United States as a permanent resident. With her green card in hand, I had the courage to return to social media — and use it to publicly voice my beliefs, both personal and political. If I saw racism or xenophobia, I wasn’t going to hide it anymore. I didn’t have to.

AsAs the responses to my tweet about the playground poured in, I felt myself releasing a breath I didn’t even know I had been holding. But alongside relief, I also felt profound regret. All these years, I had kept silent, thinking I was protecting my daughter. But now I wondered if my silence was keeping her safe or contributing to a culture that enables the government to terrorize families of color by harassing, surveilling, and separating us. Was my silence part of the same silence that allowed the president to tell a group of U.S. congresswomen of color to go back to where they came from? Was it part of the silence that allowed families less privileged than mine to be torn apart at the border?

Sure, I had spoken out this time. But in the end, was I any better than the white caregivers who watched an injustice occur on the playground and said nothing?

After all, the incident in the park and the laws threatening to separate me from my child are not so far apart. That day, two girls used xenophobic logic to keep my daughter off the slide. There’s nothing stopping them from growing up to become adults who use that same logic to keep my daughter out of the country.

Now, with my child’s green card in hand, it is easy for me to see my daughter’s first detention for what it was: a tactic designed to terrorize families like mine into silence. While my child says she doesn’t remember being held, those few hours plunged me into years of fixating on the ways my words could be used to hurt her. In the process, I forgot the power they have to keep her, and children like her, safe.

A few days after my tweet went viral, I posted a video of my daughter scaling a huge yellow slide, her brown limbs scrambling, her curly black ponytail bobbing in the wind. In it, I thanked those who had tweeted their support, reminding both them and myself of the importance of our collective courage. As I watched the likes multiply, I was reminded of what families like mine — families like ours — can survive, if only we choose to stand together, speak up, and, above all, refuse to be afraid.

Author of A People's History of Heaven

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