"We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by lovingkindness -- make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it." The Buddha

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Racism: A Vietnamese-American Experience

Illustration: Craig Stephens

The moment I identified myself as Vietnamese American, I am obligated to discuss the issue of racism. In a nation as diverse as the United States, I can't help but talk about it. To prevent any misunderstanding, I want to make it super clear that I can only speak on racism based on my own experiences, as one Vietnamese American born in Saigon, Vietnam. Therefore, the concept of racism that someone else has, such as from an African American or American Indian, with additional historical elements of slavery and oppression, might actually be quite different. In all likelihood you won't agree with everything I write today.

Let's first define what racism is. To me, racism is a lazy belief of an entire race that is negative or derogatory. I describe racism as lazy because it takes intellectual effort and wisdom to admit one is wrong about someone else from a different race; it's too easy to make broad brush conclusions without further reflection or consideration. Racism is also more than prejudice because sometimes pre-judging someone based on his or her race might actually be positive. That, too, isn't logical, but at least it's usually not harmful. So racism is an illogical and hateful assumption of someone based on his or her race.

Now I want to discuss the difference between racism and a clash of interests. Although racism can be a result of a clash of interests, not all clashes of interests result in racism. For example, my white neighbor might hate me because my party's music was too loud, not because the music was in Vietnamese. I might interpret his anger as racism but I would be wrong. If I were white, the thought of racism would have never crossed my mind. I'd merely think he's ornery and intolerant of loud parties.

The complication with racism is if you ask any racist, he would probably be offended and say he's not a racist. According to one study, 64 percent of Americans say racism remains a major problem. But that means a whopping 36 percent of Americans think racism isn't a major problem! And that's a problem. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. Almost everyone wants to be the good guy. Sure, being ignorant isn't necessarily a matter of good and bad, but ignorance is being illogical which can indeed cause great harm to others.

You'll hear someone say that racism is a myth or doesn't exist at all in America. This view isn't only completely out of touch with reality but also destructive. I can see racism when Caucasians move away from urban areas to settle elsewhere, even carving out and incorporating new cities to funnel property tax revenues away from school districts already lacking in resources. Disadvantaged children suffer even more as a result. But the majority of the people neither seem to care nor acknowledge that it happens. Some years ago an engineer showed me a blueprint of a major manufacturing equipment drawn up by racists during the 1960s. The drinking fountain's piping for "Blacks" was shared with this equipment whereas the drinking fountain's piping for "Whites" was directly connected to the city water line. I was appalled. When the root problem of racism isn't addressed directly, the proposed remedies only work around the periphery and that's simply not good enough. Countless people would be harmed indefinitely until racism is exposed and swiftly taken care of. We need to face racism head on.

On March 16, 1968, as many as 504 unarmed Vietnamese (including women and children) were killed by racist US Army soldiers led by their racist officers. It was later called the My Lai Massacre. Women were gang-raped. Infants were murdered. Only racists could have committed such horrific crimes. They viewed Vietnamese as less than human. Heroic efforts by Hugh Thompson, a US Army helicopter pilot, along with his crew members Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, stopped the carnage. Almost as shocking as the actions of these criminals is that none of them was fully brought to justice. Over 20 soldiers were charged but only one was convicted, an officer, Lieutenant William Calley, who served no more than three and a half years on house arrest.

You might say to me, "But Cuong, that was back in 1960s! It's much better now!" Is it? See the recent case of Eddie Gallagher, a racist who was charged with shooting two Iraqi civilians (an unarmed old man and a young girl) and stabbing repeatedly to death an injured and sedated ISIS teenage prisoner with his hunting knife. Afterwards, Gallagher took a photograph of himself holding the dead teenager's head by the hair to send to his friends. He was later acquitted of six of seven charges in a court martial, and only found guilty of "wrongfully posing for an unofficial picture with a human casualty." Gallagher was subsequently demoted. However, last month US President Trump intervened and had his demotion reversed. So it's no surprise that I'm not a fan of Trump and won't be voting for him in 2020. The silver lining in all this was that seven Navy SEALs testified against Gallagher. I personally know several Navy SEALs and I couldn't be prouder. Also, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was fired for asking Trump not to intervene, and Rear Admiral Collin Green, the highest ranking commander of the Navy SEALs, sought to strip Gallagher of his Trident Pin, a symbol of membership in the SEALs. In my mind, Gallagher was never a legitimate Navy SEAL; he was someone who neglected to "defend those who are unable to defend themselves" and thus failed to earn his Trident every day. He lost that honor and privilege long ago. In short, he's just another racist thug.

Personally, almost all of my experiences with racism have been nuanced. Rarely did I see a blatant racist act directed at me. Granted, I was raised in a socially liberal region where racism isn't much tolerated publicly. For instance, my arrival to America couldn't have been more positive. Everyone greeted us with open arms. The school I attended seemed proud it has Vietnamese refugees among them. Our background and why we were there were showcased at the school. All of my classmates were incredibly kind to me, even when I wasn't particularly kind to them. I remember one time I punched the arm of a fellow student who sat behind me for no other reason than to see how he would react. I was surprised he didn't punch back. I was fascinated by it. It was obvious I wasn't in Saigon anymore.

The American educational school system I was in was prepared. I attended English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. The teachers and volunteers were so patient and gracious despite my mischievousness. The only one who didn't accept much mischief from me was a Vietnamese teacher. She might have spanked me one time but mostly the punishment were time outs. Too easy. I could get used to America.

One of my first encounters with racism in America was actually my own. I found myself rooting for the blond protagonist in television shows like the Dukes of Hazzard or CHiPs. My strange preference didn't last long though because Knight Rider soon became my favorite show and dark-haired David Hasselhoff was the type of hero I wanted to be. As far as the fairer sex, Vietnamese women have always been my preference. Sure there were American women I was interested in but in general I related more to Asian women. One could argue this is racism on my part.

One time I read that Americans in the north tend to like a race but despise an individual in that race, whereas Americans in the south tend to like the individual but despise his race. Overall, racism exists in America even when it's not publicly displayed. Might there have been opportunities that I worked for that were rejected because of my race? I honestly don't know. What I can say is nothing is what it seems sometimes. When I'm in a region with a reputation of rampant racism, people there aren't as socially versed or savvy, but that doesn't mean they are more racist. They might have committed faux pas and called me "oriental," but in action, they treated me with no less respect and kindness as anywhere else. In such a case, I kindly educated them that the outdated term "oriental" should only be used to describe rugs, not people, and to use the word "Asian" instead. They took it to heart. We exchanged ideas and experiences. Our trust and relationships with each other became stronger with every encounter.

I must admit I'm often carefree when it comes to interpreting the intentions of others, albeit I refuse to associate with people I don't respect. Integrity and character are important to me. The Golden Rule is important to me. I just assume and expect people will do the right thing, and assume and expect things will go right if I do the right thing as well. It seems for every failure I experienced there were many more opportunities and successes afterwards. My sister said that things seem to come easy for me in life. In part because I work really hard. In another part I focus on endeavors I'm interested in and good at and ignore the rest. Sure I make mistakes daily and there have been times of sadness in my life, but upon further reflection, I inevitably come back to being grateful for what I have. Again, I am certainly aware that racism exists and can be present anywhere, but I'm not going to let it control who I want to be for myself and for others. Frankly, there are simply too many good people out there I can work with to spend any time thinking about those I don't want to work with.

Regardless, one good way to combat and prevent racism is to have a shared goal. If there is a serious common problem and you are solving it, people's perception of you is almost always better than before. Racism takes a backseat for a change. It might take some time, but it's effective. Picture a Vietnamese American helping someone in need, the neighborhood, a sports team, or a company. They need you. They want you to lead. Of course whether you want to participate is up to you. And that's a good place to be for any Vietnamese. ๐Ÿ’›

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"Irrigators channel waters; fletchers straighten arrows; carpenters shape wood; the wise master themselves." The Buddha