The Unhyphenated Family

The following essay first appeared in the Insight section of the San Francisco Chronicle on January 22, 2017, two days after the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

The question my 9-year-old grandson brought home from school just after the election was all the evidence I needed that the members of my vibrant, multiracial family have become canaries in Donald Trump’s toxic new America. We are foremost a family, in law and in fact; that we are also a multiracial family had been merely a footnote — until Trump.

I don’t mean to suggest that our individual backgrounds are immaterial. We and an increasing number of other families in this country are nourished by the emotional resiliency our varied heritages give us. And yet the most meaningful differences among us are the variations of personality, generation and social experience, not externally imposed distinctions of ethnicity or religion.

Tragically, during his presidential campaign Trump pandered to vulnerable and fearful constituencies by legitimizing what divides us as a people rather than what unites us.

To my grandparents, being Jewish, though not necessarily practicing Judaism, was a defining fact, shaped by the world they grew up in. They were refugees from the pogroms and insidious daily humiliations that
Members of my vibrant, multiracial family have become canaries in Donald Trump’s toxic new America.

made life in Poland intolerable. The world they were raised in defined and treated them by only one measure: Jewish or not-Jewish.

During World War II, my grandparents, by then proud American citizens, were forced again — this time by the slaughter of relatives in Europe — to see themselves first as others saw them: the Jews, rather than the Americans.

The story of the Jews has been to live peacefully in various countries for hundreds of years until the hammer suddenly and brutally fell and they were forced into exile again — if they were lucky. The pain my grandparents had experienced was indelible, and their subsequent wariness was reinforced by that historical pattern. Even in the great melting pot of America, they felt compelled to identify themselves primarily as Jews.

My grandparents’ experience, however, was not that of my generation. I grew up in a largely Protestant community with only periodic and unintentional reminders that we were somehow different.

I have never perceived Jewishness as a burden. I am a secular, non-practicing Jew, and though I value my cultural antecedents, in daily life the identity issue has seemed inconsequential. My wife and I are of different religious backgrounds, but neither of us is observant.

I had assumed, without intense scrutiny, that my childhood assumptions as a Jew in America would somehow carry over to my children and grandchildren. That two of my children are multiracial was another of those facts that seemed worthy of occasional note — it’s important for children to understand and feel pride

The world my grandparents were raised in defined and treated them by only one measure: Jewish or not-Jewish.

in their (now our) cultural roots — but we defined ourselves as a family, not by racial or religious subcategories; nor, by and large, did the society we live in categorize us by such distinctions — until Trump.

After the election, my youngest grandson came home from school and asked my daughter whether, because they were both part Mexican, they would have to move to Mexico and “leave Daddy behind.”

I was heartbroken. Our 9-year-old grandson had learned that, in Trump’s America, our family could be broken down into component parts: one part this race, one part that, with frightening real-world implications. It was a way of thinking that my grandparents had to take for granted, literally for their survival, but that I thought my family had outgrown.

In Trump’s America, race and religion suddenly matter far more as social metrics. A significant portion of the president’s supporters are openly xenophobic and racist — tendencies he celebrated with thuggish taunts at his rallies and in his tweets.

In such an atmosphere, we are encouraged to consider our heritages as dominant characteristics. Is it possible that my people could again be forced to leave the country that we had come to regard as home? I have learned from Jewish friends that I am not the only one to entertain such once-unthinkable fears.

My family’s proud diversity has always been a source of strength. We are now compelled to consider

In such an atmosphere, we are encouraged to consider our heritages as dominant characteristics.

the implications of the hyphens we thought we had outgrown.

Like her father and her son, my daughter has thought of our countrymen as “fundamentally good people.” In her words, “That’s what I’ve always believed, although I watched a bit of that goodness fade … when my youngest child came home from school” with his disturbing question.

President Trump indirectly poisoned my impressionable grandson with the virus of suspicion and racial distinction. It led my grandson, if only momentarily, to divide his parents — both American citizens going back generations — into make-believe racial categories, “American” and “Other.”

Whatever he may do now that he is president, Trump has already begun to warp our sensibilities. The threat of deportation is obvious and intolerable, but the poisoning of minds — so that even children are taught to divide their family members into racial boxes — can alienate us from each other more effectively than walls and immigration police. That is the sense in which families like mine have already become Trump’s canaries. And lest we forget, families are microcosms of nations and of “the family of nations.”

Children absorb cultural norms by osmosis, including Trump’s notions of a racialized America in a racialized world. As president, his rhetoric will be even more influential in shaping cultural norms. It is cause for alarm.

I ask all the good-hearted citizens of this multicultural nation to unite in calling out the president’s damaging normalization of racialized rhetoric and to teach our children that there will never be a hyphen in “Mommy” or “Daddy” or “grandson.”

 

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