On July 4, 1776 our country declared that the 13 American Colonies will no longer be subordinates to the monarch of Britain. That we will unite, be free and be independent states.
Seventy-six years later, on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass makes the speech "What to the Slaves is the Fourth of July". He shares a view that the nation's founders are great men for their ideals for freedom, but in doing so he brings awareness to the hypocrisy of their ideals with the existence of slavery on American soil.
Today, 244 years later, with the Fourth of July only a few days away tears are falling down my face as I type - I am sad. I am disappointed. I am angry. I am tired. I am confused. I feel guilty. I am trying to take care of my own identity and my mental and physical health, while also wanting to exhaust all of my energy to help the world become a better place. However, this doesn’t even come close to what the Black community has suffered in the last 400+ years.
A few months prior to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, just to name a few, I had spoken to my best friend about how I sometimes feel that Asians are overlooked by the Black Lives Matter movement, especially since we endure similar racial struggles. However, I quickly added, “But I know it’s not our time yet, we have still barely scratched the surface for the Black community. We need to fix that first.” Since then, I’ve continued to think harder about this matter. We can’t have “our” time when the Black community hasn’t truly had theirs. How can we reach equity and equality for all? No matter how much progress we all think we’ve made, there’s still so much to be done. We all need to have the opportunity to be on the same playing field.
I am ashamed that there have been moments where I thought the struggles of Asian-Americans were not given equal attention, “first”. I think my waves of confusion stem from a mix of growing up in predominantly White schools, trying to prove my worth even though I was born in Fairfax, Virginia, and now working for large corporations as an adult. Simultaneously, I have always envied how my Black friends have flourished in their careers and seeing Black culture generally praised through entertainment and music platforms. However, I often felt conflicted between trying to impress the White community while supporting the Black community because I understood, from a birds eye view, their successes did not come easy. Their struggles are where I feel connected to them.
Asians are often told to be doctors or lawyers, to put their head down and “stay on track.” Vietnamese, in particular, are notorious for being nail technicians and working their way up to owning nail salons.Through their resilient work ethic, they have found success as entrepreneurs, contributing to the $8 billion dollar nail industry. Arriving as refugees and growing into business owners, this is an accomplishment to be proud of. Yet, being told to keep our heads down, literally, is one of the many reasons we have a submissive, silent culture. While this can be seen as a path towards success, it also inhibits our ability to see everything else around us, including, specifically, how we address racial inequality across Blacks and other people of color. This culture of silence turns a blind eye to systematic issues because they don’t appear to directly impact our personal lives.
Does the Asian community remember when Blacks have fought for our rights? When they didn’t stay silent for us during the Vietnam War? I think I have focused on and embraced so much of the Black culture that I became somewhat blindly unaware that a huge percentage of racial oppression still heavily exists. I have always supported the Black Lives Matter movement, but conversely, maybe I also selfishly ignored the core issues that didn’t directly affect me.
When my parents were granted asylum in Louisiana, they grew up with Creole and Cajun cuisine, which was carried down to my brother and I growing up. Many people in the Vietnamese community grew up this way in Louisiana - hence the number of Cajun-Asian restaurants across the country today. Do they recognize where the cuisine that the love came from? While I have many White friends, I also have generally surrounded myself with family, friends, and coworkers who uplifted the Black community. This is not to say that I haven’t been surrounded by or experienced racism, whether it be towards those around me or myself. I guess you can say that my experience growing up was like a game of tug-of-war - one minute I would be leaning more towards living up to this “White'' ideal and suppressing Vietnamese part of me, and the next I would be embracing my culture and recognizing that discrimination needs to end. As I continue to surround myself with people with all sorts of backgrounds, I recognize there’s more of us that are dealing with similar racial oppression. While it is all well and good that I can identify some of the positive outcomes, I can’t be naive and let the other needed communities go unnoticed. Maybe the ones that have done well have also experienced living in terms of this “ideal” White culture.
I have been fortunate and privileged to travel to many countries in my 20s. My first 21-hour flight was to Vietnam. The first thing I noticed was that skin color, “colorism” in other words, is apparent there, too, as well as in many other Asian countries that I have visited. On my first trip to Vietnam, my mother and I went straight to the beach in Nha Trang. We were so excited to tan. Laying on our lounge chairs, we noticed that we, along with some Europeans, were the few people soaking up the sun. As late afternoon approached, my mother and I went to our hotel to get ready for dinner. When we stepped back outside around 6pm or so, we saw many Vietnamese people come out to swim and play on the beach. It was the oddest sight. In the States, I was used to people congregating at the beach by 11am to maximize their sun time. Later, my mother told me that Vietnamese locals don’t want to get dark because they would be associated with a poorer, lower-income class, like a farmer, working in the rice fields from sunrise to sunset. In Japan, I noticed many beauty retailers sell colored contacts and skin products that would make you look more White. It was also evident that this is the norm. Whether it’s White supremacy culture, racism, or colorism, these forms of prejudice don’t only exist in the U.S. I came to realize that it’s everywhere - even within our own communities of color.
. . .
In 2017, NPR published a piece on the negative consequences of the “model minority” myth.
"Racism that Asian-Americans have experienced is not what black people have experienced," Kim said. "Sullivan is right that Asians have faced various forms of discrimination, but never the systematic dehumanization that black people have faced during slavery and continue to face today." Asians have been barred from entering the U.S. and gaining citizenship and have been sent to incarceration camps, Kim pointed out, but all that is different than the segregation, police brutality and discrimination that African-Americans have endured.”
In the last few months, my sentiment shifted from feeling bad for my Asian community to feeling appalled and saddened that the majority of them have been silent, especially when they, too, have endured unfortunate struggles. Though I’ve started to see some momentum on social media, we need to push harder. Even educating yourself is propelling for change. As I take the time to understand why we have been silent, I also feel the need to educate my own community on the importance of speaking up and fighting. If we don’t, it only continues to perpetuate the “model minority” myth that “characterizes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group who have achieved a higher level of success than the general population through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving” - which we should be disproving. Again, we have the opportunity to make something of ourselves, without the fear of being hindered by America’s institutions.
Before I really took the time to educate myself on the centuries of oppression against African Americans, I was almost having a pity party for Asians. Saying things like, “We suffer through racial profiling too” or “We’re not treated the same.” I would never dismiss the struggles of Asian immigrants, whether it was fleeing a country due to Communism and dying at sea, or being put in internment camps. But, as the narrative goes, for those that survived and made it to America, at least they have the opportunity of living the “American Dream” - the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved. Though we may praise this ideal, it has and continues to exclude our Black brothers and sisters, and every person of color.
. . .
I may not have articulated my sentiments as well as I’d like, but I will continue to learn so that I can. I am making it my daily routine to fight for the Black community and their rights as human beings while still passionately sharing the Vietnamese Boat People story. As we celebrate this coming upcoming Independence Day, I know that I will reflect this day even harder. We all carry unique stories and burdens, but in one way, we are all the same - we are human. We all have it within us to sympathize, listen, help, love, and most importantly, strive to take action in order to continuously pursue and portray these beautiful human traits. I hope many of us will begin to truly reflect and actually practice this “American Dream” amongst all as we see fireworks spark in the sky and the American flag wave throughout our nation. We’re in this together.