Commentary  Tales of Racism and my Vietnamese Identity

Acknowledging and Resisting Asian and Vietnamese Complicity in Anti-Black Racism

There was something strangely familiar about the discomfort I felt when I first saw one of the four faces of George Floyd’s murderers. An Asian man facilitated and participated in the killing of a Black man as a part of the repressive state apparatus which criminalizes Black communities. His presence as an Asian accomplice to George Floyd’s murder pushes me to reflect on anti-Black racism within Asian communities, my own internalized racism, and all the racist remarks and actions which I witnessed when I was younger within my own community, whether in my family or in public spaces in Vietnam.

With this piece I would like to contribute to a conversation about anti-Black racism within Asian communities in general and my community – the Vietnamese community – in particular. As a Vietnamese-born, Westernized, and Western-educated queer person living in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, my body has moved around many spaces – the confines of a family, the walls of classrooms, Vietnamese, French, Canadian, and Québécois societies – all whilst witnessing and experiencing the unaddressed legacies and ongoing situations of colonialism and racism. It is difficult to admit that I am a person with an implicit racist bias against Black people, Indigenous peoples, and many communities of colour. My subjectivity is the result of colonial education that triumphs white supremacy, as well as the fruit of the desire to be seen as human in the white man’s eyes. But this subjectivity also carries within itself a nascent will to resist and challenge narratives of racist supremacy.

By sharing my story, I am hoping that more voices from the Asian and Vietnamese communities will emerge to address anti-Blackness. We cannot be complicit in the promotion of racism, institutional violence, and silence that harm other communities of colour. By learning to practise the art of listening and by sharing stories, I hope that we will continue to ethically and empathically engage with the wounds of Black communities, Indigenous peoples, and many other racialized groups, as well as show our solidarity with them in the fight against white supremacy.

A pattern of racist and ignorant beliefs, behaviours, and speech

In 2010, I was fortunate enough (or so I had thought) to go to France and study there. As naive as I was, I saw this opportunity as an escape from my monotonous life in Vietnam. There had been a series of events leading to my departure from my country, and the main reason for my exit was that I found Vietnam too backward, too suffocating, too strict, and not receptive to new ideas. When I was in Vietnamese school, I enjoyed debating and delivering speeches on concepts that we had learnt in Civic Education class. I asked my teacher if I could express my thoughts in front of my classmates and invite them to share their thoughts with me, and the teacher agreed. Whilst I hoped to animate interesting debates on what it meant to have “good morals” or the true meaning of education, my classmates merely thought that I was showing off, and teased me for “caring too much about adult stuff.” At home, I found solace in my immediate family’s support for my love of writing and debating, but my extended family kept ridiculing me for being interested in “big” ideas. Some relatives once told me “you sure have a big personality for a girl!” and “why does a girl like you care so much about those things?” Because of the incessant mockery, I felt very misunderstood and took these aforementioned incidents as representative of the Vietnamese mentality: close-minded, insecure, contemptuous.

During that time, my cousin’s French husband was completing an internship in Vietnam and staying at my parents’ house for his summer work. He saw how badly I was suffering and being mistreated, and suggested I go to France and live with him and my cousin for a better learning opportunity. For my 12-year-old brain, an occidental get-away seemed like the perfect path to wear that white mask and hide my yellow skin, to seek validation from my former colonizers, and to eventually reclaim my humanity and individuality. I saw my cousin’s husband as my saviour for fishing me out of my misery!

We lived in a small town near the Massif Central in the centre of France, which to me sounded like paradise. My class was the “special” one where all the Black, Arab, new immigrant, and “troubled” kids got lumped together. I was the only Vietnamese student in the class, and as far as I knew, the only Vietnamese person at that school.

At home, my cousin and her French husband would lecture me about how the Black and Arab kids would steal from me, and how the cités were dangerous and that I would get raped and beaten if I set foot there. My cousin repeatedly used Vietnamese slurs to refer to Black and Arab people, which enabled her husband to also casually insult them in Vietnamese. I was only 12 years old back then, and never had I thought that a descendant of a colonized people and her white French husband would be actively collaborating, conspiring against other communities of colour, and teaching me to hate people whom I had not known. The French husband would also belittle Vietnamese people, calling them “backward” and “savages” in front of both his Vietnamese wife and me. In his free time, he played a first-person shooter game, killing Việt Cộng fighters, whilst I sat uncomfortably next to him, staring blankly at the computer screen. In this household, the French were always the victors, and communities of colour the vanquished.

It would be dishonest of me to not admit that I, too, participated in the dehumanization of Black and Arab lives during my two-year sojourn on French soil. I took my cousin and her husband’s attitude towards Blacks and Arabs as a model, by insulting these communities behind closed doors and perceiving them as dangerous and hostile. And when I saw the face of the Asian-American police officer at the scene of George Floyd’s killing, I recognized a reflection of my past self for having been complicit in the discursive and institutional violence against Black bodies.

Due to my declining mental state and first personal encounters with racism, as both perpetrator and victim, I had to return to Vietnam at age 13. My parents enrolled me in the French lycée in Hà Nội to pursue French education. I remember going out to see how Hanoi had changed in my absence. Whilst on my stroll around Hoàn Kiếm lake, I witnessed some locals staring at a few Black travellers and bluntly vociferate in Vietnamese – “Wow! They are so black!” Something about their words didn’t feel right and reminded me of my cousin and her husband’s disdain for Black and Arab people.

For the average Vietnamese person, seeing a Black person on Vietnamese streets is rather unusual. In his YouTube MFiles Interview series, Ranzo of The Black Experience Japan (BEJ) documents his discussions with Black travellers and workers in different Asian countries, namely South Korea, Japan, China, and Vietnam. Many Black interviewees living in Asia recall being stared at by the locals, but interpret the locals’ gaze as coming from the standpoint of curiosity. For instance, in the BEJ’s Black in Vietnam mini-series, Australian-born Kimmie and American-born Angee Floyd say that some of the locals’ words or deeds, such as hair-pulling or skin-touching, are simply innocuous and show that many Vietnamese people are curious and fascinated about whom and what they don’t habitually see. Additionally, Kimmie and Angee acknowledge a better quality of life in the country, especially the absence of harassment from the authorities, compared to their previous experiences in the settler-colonial countries where they were born.

Although these first-hand testimonies of Black people in Vietnam are encouraging and I am relieved that they feel safer in the country, I believe that every word and action has a social and political weight. Not only do behaviours, such as hair-pulling or skin-touching, carry a certain degree of toxicity, they are also revelatory of some Vietnamese individuals’ lack of awareness of Black people and other racialized communities’ realities around the world. Implicit and unconscious bias is the product of the ways in which we have been socialized and conditioned to think about skin colour and race. And the ignorance, whether intentional or unintentional, of anti-Black racism in Vietnam and abroad can dangerously feed into the violence facing Black lives on a daily basis.

Tracing the roots of anti-Blackness through reminiscence and family stories

As pathetic as it sounds, my first exposure to the history of apartheid in South Africa only came from a two-page reading in primary school on how Nelson Mandela had magically solved the problem of racism and how Black people lived happily ever after since 1994… If this is all that a child is learning in school when it comes to racism, then how can we expect generations of Vietnamese to have a meaningful exposure to and understanding of the realities of Black lives and different racialized communities around the world?
How can we explain this lack of awareness? I can think of four main factors placing Vietnamese society in the shadow of ignorance and helping racism proliferate: French colonization and its legacies in Vietnam, capitalist encroachment, colourism, and the Vietnamese educational system. Together, they directly and indirectly reinforce and reproduce white supremacy by postulating whiteness as the ideal measure of success, beauty, and achievement.

French colonization and its impact

I started learning about my country’s history when I was a fourth-grader in a Vietnamese primary school. From the very first lesson on the originary myth of the Vietnamese people as descendants of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ, to the events of the Fall of Saigon, many recurring themes were presented by my teachers as spanning from time immemorial to the present day, such as collectivism, respect for authority and elders, the cult of ancestors, and Vietnamese resilience and intelligence facing foreign invaders.

My discovery of the origin of the present-day Vietnamese language came from a short paragraph in the government-edited history textbook for fourth graders. The paragraph just mentioned, in the most ahistorical and glamourizing way, the arrival of French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes in the 17th century and his invention of the modern Vietnamese language through Latinization. I had many questions about the purpose of his sojourn in Vietnam, but I did not dare ask my teacher anything, since students were expected to listen obediently to the teachers’ lessons.

It was later in my life, in the French lycée and my studies at McGill, that I began to develop a deeper understanding of France’s motives in Vietnam. Specifically, it was the belief in white supremacy through which France justified its colonization of Vietnam and many other “inferior” cultures globally. French colonists reordered the Vietnamese political and educational spheres by destroying the Confucian-style and collectivist system of governance and created a new structure based on individualism and capitalism. A Western-style bureaucracy and a network of French and vocational schools mushroomed with the aim to raise a new generation of Western-educated bilingual elites to emulate the French model and serve France’s colonial aims. Whiteness became the social, political, and economic prototype to follow under French rule.

Amongst the Vietnamese caught up in this violent colonial transformation was my family. Growing up, I listened to many elders’ stories about their upbringing through the French-crafted education system. My maternal grandmother’s siblings enrolled in French schools designed specifically for Vietnamese locals to learn the French language and French values. To this day, many members of my family still take pride in the exposure to those values and outlook, because for them the French culture is a “superior” and “advanced” one. I, too, used to rejoice in this chapter of my family’s history, but pride slowly turned to shame and a painful moment of awakening when I started to realize my internalized racism and self-hatred. The elders never mentioned the abuse, racism, and forced uprooting which they had to endure; instead, they transmitted carefully chosen fragments of their lives to younger generations like legends and fairy tales. The repression of intergenerational traumas can be psychically transmitted and manifest in our conscious and subconscious lives, whether we realize it or not, and I often find myself experiencing the symptoms of unaddressed traumas within my family. Moving forward when the roots and branches of my family’s psycho-genealogical tree have yet to heal from colonial violence proves to be an immense obstacle to overcome.

Modern-day capitalist encroachment

When I was a child, my maternal grandmother’s singing about the war of independence from France and the Vietnamese civil war was my bedtime lullaby. My parents, who were born into the civil war, recounted to me their families’ tales of survival during the bombing of the North by American war planes. Through metaphors and humour, I learnt about my parents and their parents’ hardships: how they survived the air raids; how my mother, at a young age, had to evacuate from her village to find safety in Đà Nẵng; how she would climb to the roof and cry at the direction of her hometown at night as the Northern sky turned ablaze; how my family lived on ration stamps. At the end of each story, my parents and their parents would end with “It was so bad and we were very poor. But it’s better now with Đổi Mới.”

Memories of destitution were soon overshadowed by first-hand accounts of economic improvement, thanks to the modernization policies of 1986, known in Vietnamese as Đổi Mới. The familiar landscape of my childhood neighbourhood started shifting: narrow alleyways vanished to make way for cars and big houses; the well where my mother used to fetch water was plugged and abandoned; the communal toilets and landfill site at the end of the main road were demolished. Then, other surprises came; after school, an aunt of mine and I would have toasts with Président butter and Nutella – food items that I would never have had if it was not for the economic opening. My father landed a lecturer position at a medical college in Hanoi, whilst my mother, after having successfully completed her studies and residency in France, secured employment at a reputable hospital in the city. We eventually moved to another neighbourhood and suddenly, we were financially stable enough to welcome a new child into the family.

In the subsequent years, not only did Vietnam continue to import French goûter staples, but also other Western and dominant East Asian modes of consumption and production, notably mass media, new standards of personal aesthetics, and the English teaching industry.

In the early 2000s, American TV programs and movies flooded Vietnamese channels. When I was in kindergarten, one of my favourite pastime activities was to marathon-watch the Cartoon Network channel and documentaries on the Discovery Channel and National Geography on TV. Although the signal was terrible and the connection would be lost whenever thunderstorms struck, I could clearly recall images of malnourished and dying Black children in Africa and Hollywood portrayals of Black people as “violent” and “trouble-makers.” My first visual encounters with Black superheroes were Cyborg from the Teen Titans and Frozone from The Incredibles, yet they never played the main roles in either… To further condition me to white-normative media on Vietnamese screens, Snow White, Dexter’s Laboratory, and the Powerpuff Girls were played on loops every three hours or so, tricking me into believing that only white people deserved happy endings, were science geniuses, or our only saviours from evil.

Capitalism and colourism

The visual preference for whiteness is not only restricted to television materials; it is also omnipresent in public spaces in Vietnam and changing consumer habits in the field of personal aesthetics. On the streets, it’s not uncommon to spot billboards and storefront signs with pictures of random attractive white and whitewashed people to attract consumers. Interestingly enough, starting in the mid-2000s, I noticed that American series, cartoons, and films had gradually yielded their place to Korean dramas which often featured white-as-snow, plastic-surgery-heavy actors and actresses. I recall feeling very angry when an episode of the Teen Titans was interrupted every fifteen minutes to make space for advertisements of beauty products. Every commercial often featured a “fair-skinned” model and highlighted the importance of maintaining a “fair” complexion with the advertised merchandise.

The dominance of the colourist spectacle and Western beauty standards outlines not only unrealistic expectations of female beauty in Vietnam, but also reinforces discrimination against darker-skinned Vietnamese who are considered “ugly.” In my family, my mother’s eldest sister was “diagnosed” with hyperpigmentation and she was told by numerous relatives that no man would ever want to marry her because she looked so dark, causing her to seek several treatments to prevent further darkening. My cousin who lives in France often sends European skincare products to our aunt, for fear of counterfeit and low-quality merchandise in Vietnam.

The subject of the talk on beauty standards thereupon shifts to “appealing physical traits” in my family. An older sister of my mother’s keeps complaining about her flat nose which makes her appear unattractive, compared with the ideal Western slim nose. As for me, my relatives always compliment my slim nose and natural double eyelids, which for them are more desirable traits compared with the average Vietnamese. And with respect to the children of my cousin and her French husband, they are seen as “cute” thanks to their white genetic heritage. During each of my family visits in Vietnam, my relatives would ask me whether I had a “foreign boyfriend” or whether I would “marry a white husband” to follow the footsteps of my cousin. To respond to them, I just shrugged and laughed uncomfortably. Unbeknownst to them, I situate my existence and identity outside of the heteronormative and cisnormative confines.

If this kind of conversation keeps circulating within an urban middle-class family like mine, how can we address one particular legacy of the Vietnamese civil war, such as the children of Black American soldiers and Vietnamese women who are continually marginalized and poorly regarded because of their skin colour? Additionally, how can we dismantle the rural-urban colourist divide which systematically sets the more light-skinned and wealthier urban residents in opposition to the darker-skinned and less economically privileged country-people? How can Vietnamese society as a whole be cognizant of the colourist discourse’s toxicity and form an auto-critique from within?

The preferential treatment for all things white extends beyond topics of skincare, physical features, or mixed-race babies; it is also rampant in the English-as-a-Foreign-Language (EFL) teaching industry in Vietnam. With English as the de facto language of globalization, the modernization policies in Vietnam have made business-building easier and paved the way for the commodification of education, particularly through the flourishing of the English teaching industry in Vietnamese cities. Middle-class and upper-middle-class families recognize the need for their children to acquire proficiency in English, thus spiking the demand for EFL teachers and centres.

In my last year of high school, I enrolled in an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) preparation course to later take the English language exam – an admission requirement for non-English speaking applicants to anglophone universities. During the 10-week long period of the IELTS preparation class, I observed the exchanges between the EFL centre’s staff and parents and students. Many employees at the centre boasted to parents and students about the centre’s “all-foreigner” – to imply “all-white” – team of English teachers. In return, parents rushed their children to register for English classes, aspiring to study-abroad opportunities for the youngsters through the acquisition of a better English proficiency level.

The EFL industry in Vietnam is complicit in the perpetuation of white supremacy. In his study of private English language education in Vietnam, Tôn Đức Thắng University professor Dominic Hewson delineates how white applicants to English teaching positions, despite not being from an anglophone country nor holding any pedagogical qualifications, enjoy a great level of privilege and employability in the English teaching job market. On the other hand, many Black teachers with degrees and experiences in Education and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) struggle to secure employment. This creates a hierarchy of employable English teachers; white teachers are paid the highest and are quickly hired by private firms, whereas teachers of colour and Vietnamese teachers are placed second and third on the employability and desirability scale, respectively. Hewson also exposes the EFL industry’s favouritism, as well as parental preference, in the selection of candidates when it comes to accents and dialects, with particular attention given to “native speakers” to allude to white applicants with “perfect English.” Hence, whiteness is deemed as the blueprint for success and the source of “worthy” cultural capital. The for-profit model of EFL posits that English language centres are service providers that must satisfy the customers’ – in this case, Vietnamese parents and students – demand, to the detriment of teachers of colour, whilst preying on Vietnamese parents’ ignorance and racial bias to make big bucks.

The cycle of ignorance

In Vietnam, the overly nationalistic public education system is to blame for the lack of awareness, if not complete ignorance or obscurantism, of other communities of colour around the world. School curricula are heavily monitored and designed to sculpt nationalism, patriotism, and obedience onto young minds, and classes are taught in a way that dissuades students’ curiosity and will to discover more about their own country. In my first seven years of studying in the Vietnamese public school system, the government’s official narrative always positioned the Vietnamese people as the victims who had defeated an abundance of invaders, such as the Chinese, the French, and the Americans. Furthermore, Vietnamese teaching of history exults in the positive yet shallow aspects of French colonization, namely its impact on the Vietnamese culinary culture with the famous bánh mì, or on Vietnamese architectural heritage. But never once had I learnt to look critically at the state-promoted representation of the past. This representation, fraught with amnesia and nostalgia, dangerously brushes the legacies of colonialism under the rug and “moves the country forward” along a progressive chronology of capitalist development and optimistic transformations.

In this context, how can Vietnamese youth engage with their own history and critically reflect on the official historical narrative, let alone caring about other realities? If we return to my lesson on apartheid and Nelson Mandela, the Vietnamese educational system presented the issue as if it only belonged to the past and other countries, without showing any historical precedents leading to racism or any critical analysis of the present situation. And when it comes to speaking about Indigenous peoples in settler-colonial societies in Vietnamese, our language doesn’t even have a respectful term to designate them, but utilizes the derogatory terms – and I translate from Vietnamese – “r*d-skinned” and “primitive people.” We need to palliate these epistemological voids in our language and the educational system in Vietnam, in order to engage students and spark their interest in being curious about these “mythical Others” that they only see on TV or barely know at all.

Lessons from the past and present: towards a better story for the future?

The legacies of Western colonialism and capitalism have profoundly affected my thinking and capacity to ethically engage with other racialized communities’ suffering. My upbringing through the French educational system painfully uprooted me and tricked me into thinking that the only way to be and to be seen as human was to bow to Westernization, to accept and adopt Western ways of thinking, values, and behaviours, and even to denigrate other communities of colour to reclaim my humanity. The lethal combination of colonialism, capitalism, and racism has left its scars on my subjectivity, namely my continual tug-of-war with internalized racism and self-deprecation. Particularly, even though I was hurt by the colonial mentality and racist bias, I still projected my wounds onto my compatriots and acted upon my injuries and internalized racism to feel human again. I still remember my attitude towards my Vietnamese classmates on my very first day at the French lycée in Hanoi; I looked at them with disdain and contempt. I went home in the evening and wrote a long Facebook post about how they all seemed mediocre and “too Vietnamese” to me. My classmates eventually found out about my post and spread it like wildfire, exposing me and my horrible personality to other students. I never explicitly apologized to them for my terrible behaviour and words, though I hope that this opinion piece would atone for my past behaviour.

Whilst I reckon that my family’s story and my personal struggle with racism are not representative of all Vietnamese experiences, I believe that I am not alone with my observations. Beyond my personal story, Vietnamese support for Black activism and Black Lives Matter is an imperative to acknowledge and combat anti-Blackness within our community. Solidarity involves active listening and acknowledgement of the other’s pain and struggles. We must open our hearts and minds to Black communities’ stories, in order to collectively write a better future for all communities of colour. It is also our duty to turn to history and remember the Black anti-draft movement and its opposition to the Vietnam war, the Black Panther Party’s anti-imperialism, and the relentless strength of Third-World solidarity and the Non-Aligned Movement. We must make this historical evidence of Black-Vietnamese solidarity as “emotional resources for political imagination and political renewal,” in the words of Women & Gender Studies scholar Dina Georgis. These stories of cross-cultural alliance are not only our space to mourn and confront our traumas, but also our space of remembrance and political imagination to replant and nurture the seeds of solidarity. 

 

References

Georgis, Dina. The Better Story: Queer Affects from the Middle East. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013. muse.jhu.edu/book/21974.

Hewson, Dominic. “Profit and Prejudice: A Critique of Private English Language Education in Vietnam.” British Journal of Sociology of Education. Volume 39, no. 6 (2018): 811-826. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2017.1417114

Phạm, Quỳnh N., and Robbie Shilliam. Meanings of Bandung: Postcolonial Orders and Decolonial Visions. London; New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016.

The Black Experience Japan. “‘You Have Freedom Out Here, Like Real Freedom…’ (Black in Vietnam) | MFiles.” YouTube video. January 8, 2020. https://youtu.be/VlsKDIn6ecs

“‘I Came Here to Find Healing…’ (Black in Vietnam) | MFiles.” YouTube video. February 19, 2020. https://youtu.be/py4iaKzaTjo

“‘Most of the Expats in Vietnam Consider Themselves Superior…’ (Black in Vietnam) | MFiles.” YouTube video. March 3, 2020. https://youtu.be/ZhYaaJlA4uY

“‘Being A Foreigner in Vietnam is Like Enjoying White Privilege’ (Black in Vietnam) | MFiles.” YouTube video. March 31, 2020. https://youtu.be/K4JCKMIH8MA

Williams, Courtney. “Biggest Struggles for Black English Teachers In Vietnam: Experience With Racism At School In Hanoi.” YouTube video. April 15, 2017. https://youtu.be/Sa3lfPoMXhE