Vietnamese Americans and the Price of Becoming White

By Brandon Do.

James Baldwin, the voice of the Black Liberation Struggle, said in conversation with Nikki Giovanni: 

“The standards of the civilization into which you are born are first outside of you, and by the time you get to be a man they’re inside of you. You know, what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborator, an accomplice of your own murderers, because you believe the same things they do.”

I believe this speaks to the experience of so many Southeast Asian people in America whom I’ve grown up with, lived among, and loved. 

The Black Radical Tradition gives us the vision to see the inconvenient truth about the “American Dream” that many have yet to accept, and have paid for their unwillingness to accept it with their lives and the lives of their children. I hope to tell the story of my people and to speak to our suffering in a way that makes us feel connected to all who suffer so that we can begin to find solutions to the problems that we as a community, and humanity are facing today.

The year 1975 marked a new beginning for Vietnamese people in more ways than one. Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Vietnamese revolution, had a vision for the future of our people which tied our fate to the destinies of the people of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Black America who were also fighting to release themselves from the grip of Western powers. One of his last wishes stated in his final testament released after his death in 1969 was for Vietnamese people to “build a peaceful, unified, independent, democratic, and prosperous Vietnam, and make a worthy contribution to the world revolution”. This desire for unification and contributing toward world peace was deeply entrenched in the hearts of Vietnamese people who for over three decades fought courageously against the French and came out victorious over the genocidal war waged by the United States. Winning our right to self-determination was a victory for the Vietnamese people and for the great majority of humanity who saw their battle for freedom and dignity in ours. As James Baldwin said in London in 1969, “The streets of Saigon resemble nothing so much to me as the streets of Detroit, and in both cities, precisely the same war is being waged.”

The successful reunification of Vietnam in 1975 also triggered the genesis of “boat people”, who by the hundreds of thousands left their homeland in Southeast Asia for North America. For the Vietnamese who were guaranteed by the West that they would reap the material benefits of western hegemony for as long as they allowed the United States to occupy their country, it was a frantic scramble to reclaim the broken promise of white civilization. Rather than embracing the dreams of our ancestors who fought for universal freedom and independence, they embraced the “American Dream”, leading Vietnamese Americans such as myself,  down the path toward where we are today. The dangerous trek made by millions of people across the ocean for the illusion of a “better life” signified a departure from the heroic struggle of our civilization that anchored us in the struggles of humanity altogether. They sought assimilation into a country that claimed humanity could make progress through the rape of non-white nations and the exploitation of Black workers. Thus, we began the process of becoming white, which is not about the color of one’s skin, but how we choose to live our lives according to the standards of Europe and the United States which requires a disdain of humanity, and consequently, of ourselves. 

For first and second generation Vietnamese Americans, the outcome of our very lives mirrored the self-destructive and delusional nature of white civilization in the decades after 1975. The propaganda of the U.S. — by use of films such as Rambo, Deerhunter, and Full Metal Jacket taught us that we were weak, savage, and dumb — they made us ashamed of our history when it was admired and celebrated by everyone outside of the West. The same government that invented chemical weapons to murder children accused the Vietnamese people who fought against them of being barbarians. Of course, this was punishment for daring to stand up to the white world’s inhumanity.

To get accepted in America came at a tragic price. It meant that we had to abandon our great tradition and mold ourselves in the image of the white world. Those who gained access to that world “lost the ability to love their own children” as Baldwin put it. By giving up the dreams of our ancestors, we subjected ourselves to the paradox of being American: our brilliance is not measured by our contribution to uplifting our brothers and sisters, but by how much we’ve gained comfort at the expense of someone else’s misery. We were taught to conform through personal passivity or violence, both of which involve a submission to the rules of the West. Out of shame and fear, we conformed to what they wanted us to be.

And so, ripped from our foundation, we started to believe what was said about us, and oftentimes became the images they made of us. The blame we put on our civilization instead of America made us apathetic toward suffering. We lost our way and the crises of our lives led us to murder and suicide. We covered our shame and the shame of our parents by resorting to the needle. We ceased to see the preciousness of life itself which diminished our ability to love. This was the consequence of no longer having an ideal worthy of committing our lives to.

They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate. They will perish in their sins —that is, in their delusions. And this is happening, needless to say, already, all around us.

 James Baldwin, An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis, 1971

The notion that “boat people” should be praised rather than the heroes who courageously stood up to the greatest enemy of mankind — an ideological position pushed by organizations backed by the Democratic Party and non profits which embed the values, ideas and beliefs of the murderous ruling elite into the vulnerable minds of young people — fails to make us face the very truth that exposes who created boat people. The United States government, not the “Vietcong”, the National Liberation Front, or the North Vietnamese Army, are responsible for the murder of 4 million people and the destruction of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. They are responsible for dividing the people of countries across the world and pitting them against each other, just as they are guilty for raping the entire continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America. 

It further holds in utter contempt the heroism of people defending their ancient civilizations from the destruction of the West and supports the notion that the creators of Agent Orange and the architects of the transatlantic slave trade are the leaders of human progress. It upholds the West as the moral authority of the world and is a justification of genocide. Nothing more and nothing less. The point of it all is to make us believe: The West must save us, because we, not them, are to blame for our suffering. We are not to blame for what was done to us. But if we accept their standards and become what they say of us, we will be just as guilty of committing these crimes as them. 

The uproar at the slightest mention of Ho Chi Minh’s name, the man who fought for our right to be human rather than to be white, exposes the truth, that the United States will never give us what our souls are truly aching for–the right to declare ourselves as human beings. By becoming white we would submit ourselves to an American model of life which has nothing to offer us but the degradation of our own souls. Ho Chi Minh’s long struggle against the western domination of Africa and Asia gives us a way to examine our role in America. His life shows us how to love humanity, the very antithesis of what it means to be white.

Throughout his work, James Baldwin placed great emphasis on the imperative of the moral choice. The moral choice is the decision to not succumb to the cruelty of the world and choosing to love in a society that is becoming increasingly numb. It is refusing to define ourselves through the norms of whiteness and instead recreating ourselves in the image of our freedom struggles. It requires us to realize that money will not win us the future we deserve. We are pushed to rise from the paralyzing state of self-pity to seize our power within to become new humans capable of changing the world. 

In a country whose popular culture preaches apathy and contempt for the poor, the moral choice requires us to see our reflection within the people living in the ghettos of America, and immersing ourselves in that world which exposes the American Dream for the sham that it really is. For the United States war machine to collapse and for our salvation, making the moral choice is a matter of life or death.

Baldwin wrote,

“People who cling to their delusions find it difficult, if not impossible, to learn anything worth learning: a people under the necessity of creating themselves must examine everything, and soak up learning the way the roots of a tree soak up water. A people still held in bondage must believe that Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free.”

We must then release ourselves from the bondage of whiteness by continuing the great tradition of our ancestors, so we can begin our journey back toward who we are destined to become.

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