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Vietnamese Americans Must Be (Better) Allies

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” ― James Baldwin

He stood there.

He did nothing.

He did worse than doing nothing.

He kept people away, he stood guard.

He shielded pleading bystanders from intervening.

He ignored a man pleading for his life.

He heard “I can’t breathe” and stood firm.

He sided with murderers.

Tou Thao's face reminded me of an uncle, of one of my Buddhist monks - his face looked like mine. It was a shame and an anger that was unlike the other types of pain and anger I felt before. I broke down in tears. In my mind, selfishly, I couldn't help but think, "How could someone who looked like me be a part of this?" When I mustered up the strength to watch the video of George Floyd being murdered, the added layer of seeing an Asian American man contributing to his murder made me ashamed. My heart dropped to my stomach.

When I sat down to try to write this, I was honestly overwhelmed with all the topics that I could speak to. The recent brutal, tragic, and senseless murders of many, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, shook me to my core. Their deaths were the boiling point, sending me into intense sadness and grief. At times I've felt helpless, useless, and defeated.

The idea that all of us minority groups have practiced solidarity against the evils of racism is not the reality. The truth is that Tou Thao is not the first Asian American police officer to perpetrate racist violence. He is one of countless Asian Americans to hold anti-Black beliefs.

The more I thought about it and the more I reflected and had conversations with other Asian Americans, I began to parse through my thoughts on how Tou Thao could have acted the way he did. It was indicative of a pattern I've watched throughout my life: many Asian Americans actively ingratiating themselves with and preferring a close proximity with whiteness, expressing anti-black rhetoric, and feeding into the "model minority" role - which allows us to be pitted against other people of color to diminish the realities of the system that is built to keep them down. I played back memories of hearing some of those in my Vietnamese American community promote the disgusting mindset that we are not like the "others," we're the good ones that do everything “the right way.” The way that white Americans and people in power approve of.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard different iterations that promote the idea of the model minority. How, "if Vietnamese people could make it in America after arriving with nothing - why can’t African Americans do it." If my partner is not Vietnamese “at least she’s white,” relatives joking about how I have too many Black friends and their silent approval of my white friends. Associating black skin with danger, "why can’t they protest peacefully," “what did they do?… (to deserve being treated that way),” "we're not like them," etc. In so many different ways I’ve heard and seen other people in the Vietnamese community align themselves with whiteness and racist ideas, making efforts to ingratiate themselves and get approval from the white community while viewing blacks and other minorities as “others.” This is a racist and anti-Black mindset, that too often we do not call out our Vietnamese friends and family for having.

In the same breath I've heard throughout my life the stories of extreme pain and hurt from Vietnamese Americans who have in very real and personal ways experienced racism and discrimination against themselves. My heart breaks when I think of how hard it was for my refugee aunts, uncles and parents to assimilate and feel like they belonged in this country. I know of times they lashed back at racist insults being thrown at them, and so many more times when they put their heads down and kept on pushing. I, too, have been disparaged and picked on at times throughout my life for being Vietnamese.

When we, as Asian Americans, experience discrimination and racism, we believe with all of our conviction that we do not deserve it. We certainly have the capacity to understand racism when we experience it. We feel the pains of racism sharply when it is perpetrated against us. But when some of us see the systemic oppression, discrimination, and police brutality exerted against Black and brown Americans, too often the response is shrouded in the perverse and invalid belief that they hold some responsibility for the actions taken against them. That it is okay if racism happens to “them” because somehow it is deserved, but it’s not okay if it happens to “us” because there is no way we could deserve it. This kind of thinking must stop.

The reality is black civil rights leaders were some of the most staunch advocates for Asian immigrants and refugees in American history. The struggles, resilience, and victories won by Black Americans and their coalitions helped insure all the rights that we enjoy as Asian Americans. These rights were made possible by the blood, tears, disenfranchisement, persecution, and lives of Black Americans. There is a huge debt that we Vietnamese owe to them. Our communities have historically been located in close proximity with each other, and while we have had struggles against each other at times, we share many more of the same struggles against the same oppressors. We owe it to the Black Americans and we owe it to ourselves to join in their struggle, to aid in their voice, and to make no more excuses about being their staunchest allies.

There is a Buddhist saying that the change you want to see must start within yourself. I ask all of my fellow Vietnamese and Asian Americans to think about how we can start honest conversations to address anti-black and racist attitudes held within our own communities.

Because when Tou Thao stood by and actively aided in the murder of George Floyd, I saw it. I saw the failings of the Asian community in being allies. I saw our failings to empathize with and understand the systems in place that destroy Black communities. I saw the mindset that has been cultivated in many Asian cultures of passivity, of wanting to belong to white America, turning a blind eye to systemic racism and viewing our Black and brown brothers and sisters as "others." This is a mindset that must change, and it will take each and every one of us educating ourselves, having conversations with our loved ones and friends, and always speaking out against racism within our own community.

Addressing this is just scratching the surface of the dialogue and education that needs to take place within the Vietnamese and Asian American community about how we can be the best allies we possibly can be for our Black brothers and sisters. I understand that having these conversations with your loved ones can be an intimidating and hard process. Our culture of extending the utmost amount of respect to our elders demands that we respect their beliefs, but beliefs that are rooted in racism must not be respected - they must be challenged. Challenging our elders and peers and confronting our own prejudices will not happen overnight, but in the words of James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It’s time to fight for black lives like they fought for ours.


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