When I was young, my mom told me a macabre anecdote about the Vietnam War. She remembered that American soldiers would go through villages in search of Vietcong. As they went through, they would ask villagers in English if they were indeed Vietcong or not. Some villagers, though they did not know English and therefore could not understand, would nod anyway. They were shot on the spot. When my mom told me this story, I refused to believe it. I thought it was obvious that American soldiers would know better than to ask villagers if they were Vietcong because they did not speak English, so it would be pointless. This was never in any of the history textbooks in school, so, of course, I thought back then, the story was obviously not true. Now, after unpacking this memory, I feel ashamed to have questioned my mom’s lived experience and how I internalized so much oppression as a child.
Based on this memory, I define race as the self-constructed, fluid identity that is heavily influenced by outside agents such as people (family, friends, teachers), significant personal events, or the media (in its portrayal, or lack thereof, of racial/cultural images on the television, on the Internet or in textbooks). Race goes far beyond physical appearance. Though race can certainly be ascribed through institutional agents such as the government, race is not fixated but is, instead, robust and moldable in that it is based on self-exploration over time. Only when confronted by oppression does race take on a collective identity (rife with stereotypes), making it seem fixated and ascribed by an oppressive agent when it really is not. Those who are confident in their own racial/cultural/ethnic identity can break free of the oppressor stranglehold and take part in re-humanizing both the oppressor and oppressed. Yet, it takes many years for this to happen after considerable mental and physical toll, reflection and action.
Racism tore me away from my heritage and culture and placed me in this liminal space between my own Vietnamese culture and the American culture I strove for. This was why I questioned my mom’s lived experience. As someone who was striving to be White, I was stunned to hear an account so unflattering of a group in which I wanted membership. Racism, as a tool of oppression, therefore displaces people from their heritage, and from personal experience, and it put me into a cultural/racial/ethnic limbo¬. What is most insidious about racism is that it works in covert ways, and I, for one, was not conscious of my own cultural/racial/ethnic displacement until I entered college. Racism can also devastatingly foster horizontal violence between targeted groups and often times within a racial group to the benefit of the oppressor group. Such was the case when I was forced into my danger zone when I was in a discussion with a fellow AAPI person who said he supported the model minority myth. Racism also drove me to search, depend on, and embrace social capital that would help me succeed in a White-dominated world (such as looking for cheap SAT classes to take). Simultaneously, I devalued my own cultural capital because it did not give me the necessary tools to succeed (choosing to take SAT classes instead of classes which could have developed my Vietnamese writing skills). And so, I clearly remember being jealous of those who had more access to such social capital because it meant they could be more successful than me.