My family were refugees from the Vietnam War. They started their perilous journey in 1979 boarding a small boat with 300 other refugees. Hidden beneath the deck, where they remained huddled in cramped quarters for three days with no food, no access to a toilet, and very little water. If someone onboard died, the corpse would be quietly thrown overboard in the middle of the night, because there simply wasn’t any space to store a body. One of my great-grandmothers passed away on there, her body was thrown into the ocean, and my family didn’t find out until they landed days later on an Indonesian island, and couldn’t find her. They had to build makeshift huts made of banana leaves, hunting and fishing for food for 6 months, until they were rescued by US Officials and sponsored to America where they built their lives all over again, from nothing. 5 years later, I was born, one of the first generation Vietnamese-Americans in our family.
Having had Black friends, classmates, neighbors, coworkers and colleagues, I have always empathized with their stories of racism, because it was something I felt I knew all too well. Being a person of color, from a family of refugees, we have experienced many levels of racism throughout our lives. My earliest memory of a racist encounter was my first day in Kindergarten. The teacher asked us to all gather around in a circle and sit crossed-legged, and while we were doing so, the little white boy next to me said ew making a ching-chong reference, and spat in my face. I was only 5 years old, and I still vividly remember that experience to this day.
When friends would share stories of encounters with law enforcement, I would think of the time my Dad dropped me off at my elementary school, this was in the early 90s. On his way back to work, he was pulled over because he has a very common Vietnamese name, and apparently it was similar to a suspect the police were looking for. The officer had my Dad get out of the car and cuffed him, and made him kneel on the sidewalk facing the street. This was right beside my elementary school, right next to our church. Even after reviewing all the necessary proof (license, insurance, pointing out the difference in spelling in the name of the person they were after, different birthdates etc), for some reason they still kept my Dad handcuffed on his knees, facing the street for 2 more hours, while countless people drove by seeing him like that. It was humiliating for him, and unfortunately only one of many encounters.
Like many Asian Americans, I grew up with people pulling the sides of their eyes to make them squinty, and saying Ling-Ling jokes at my expense. I’ve been called Lucy Liu and Mulan more times that I can count. I also went through a common phase of desiring a more “American” sounding name, and even temporarily changed my name in middle school to fit in better – which didn’t work. In high school, I also had multiple occasions where I was in the car with other POC friends, and we were pulled over for fitting the descriptions of suspects they were looking for. Each of those times, we had to argue and show everything we could, before we were finally let go.
While I thought I understood what it was like for Black people to feel racism, I subconsciously justified it as “that happens to us too”, and what took years to understand clearer, is that type of mentality within the Asian community is what helps perpetuates racism. Even though each of those racist incidents were sickening to experience, the fact of the matter is, it would have been amplified, even worse if my skin was black instead of yellow. If I’ve been treated that poorly with Asian skin, how bad would the situation have been if I had Black skin, instead? My skin color is beyond my control, and although I’m not treated as well as a white woman is, I’m not treated as terribly as how Black women are treated either, and the only difference between those is our skin color. THAT uncontrollable difference in how OTHER people consciously or subconsciously treat us, is privilege. This doesn’t dismiss the racism we’ve experienced, those experiences are real and wrong, but this highlights a true fact of privilege. I think this is what is so hard for many people of color like me to accept – even though we have had our struggles, it’s hard to admit that it would have still been worse for us if our skin were darker.
Unfortunately, racism against the Black community has become even clearer to me over the past 14 years as I’ve encountered many alongside my husband, who is Black. As a Vietnamese POC, being married to an Afro-Filipino man, we’ve gotten many glares and found ourselves in some uncomfortable situations. A few years ago, here in LA, we finished our lunch at a Korean restaurant in Glendale, grabbed our leftovers in to-go boxes and were on our way home when we were pulled over by police. Apparently, we (again) fit the description of suspects they were looking for – someone reported a Latinx couple both dressed in black, having a domestic dispute at a nearby McDonalds. They were seen getting into a grey BMW, which also happens to be a very popular car in LA. Neither of us are Latinx, neither of us were wearing black, but we were in a grey BMW (though we were also just a block away from the BMW dealership) and that’s the reason they used to keep us there. After just a few minutes, a dozen police cars all surrounded us. I tried to show them our restaurant receipt that matched our debit card, and leftover Korean food we took to-go, so they could see we weren’t at McDonalds and clearly were not who they were looking for. We also kept pointing out plenty of other grey BMW’s passing us on the road while we sat there – it’s a very common car here. They still kept us there for 20 more minutes until finally an Asian police officer joined them. He took a look at us inside the car, at my Korean restaurant receipt, and turned to the others and said “Dude, that’s not even them, they’re Asian”. Even then, after that Asian officer agreed we were not the suspects, the original officer still felt the need to ask me if I’d get out of the car and speak to them alone. I refused stating I was not comfortable with that, repeating that they already know we have nothing to do with the real people they are looking for, and expressed my frustration with being kept there so long after already proving all of this. They finally let us go. We were both shaking with anxiety the entire drive home. How would that interaction have ended if we were both Black, or if that Asian officer didn’t show up to advocate?
Another notable incident was after our return flight back from one of our trips. My husband had collected our luggage, including a bright red check-in bag from the baggage claim conveyor belt. We were on our way out to our car when we passed an older white woman and I heard her shout “That Black man has our bag!” to the older white man with her, while pointing at my husband. Chris didn’t notice and kept walking but I stopped and I asked her what she was talking about. She said, “That man took my luggage, the red one!” I asked, “The red luggage with that silver ribbon?” She was frantic but looked confused and said yes but that she didn’t remember putting the ribbon on it. I told her, “I know because I put that ribbon on it. It’s my bag and that’s my husband. I put that ribbon on it to make it easier for us to find.” I then waved and called for Chris to come back in my direction. I had to show this woman my luggage tag with our name, and point out all the differences that obviously showed it was our bag and not hers, before she calmed down and went back to looking for her actual bag. What would have happened if I wasn’t there to advocate, or if I was Black myself? Would they have listened to what I had to say? If Chris was white, would she still immediately assume he took their bag?
These are just two examples, and this obviously doesn’t even touch on the situations Chris has experienced on his own, and throughout his childhood. I have always been anxious and worried when he goes anywhere without me; whether he’s on a business trip or just running errands, because even within our family, I know that I have a privilege that he doesn’t. I have lighter skin and for some reason that makes me easier to listen to (that’s privilege!), so I can advocate for him. My husband is my world, my favorite everything, and his safety and livelihood is the most important thing to me, and I am terrified for him.
I started seeing a Therapist a year ago, and one of the key things we’ve been working on is how I can better express my feelings instead of harboring them inside. While racism is something Chris and I heavily discuss at home and with friends, I never shared anything here on my blog or social, because I thought of it as being a separate professional space for fashion and beauty content. That has obviously changed and I’m determined to use my platform to share more. When I first read the Amy Cooper story, I was triggered and immediately shared my outrage on my social media accounts. I was appalled by her entitlement and recklessness, and all I could see in Christopher Cooper is my Chris; an educated, well spoken, kind man. To see her wield her privilege to threaten his life over a simple request to follow the park rules, was so disgusting to me.
Then, hearing about George Floyd’s murder shortly after pushed me over the edge. I didn’t and don’t need to see it, when it popped up on my newsfeed and started to autoplay, I immediately had to stop it because I knew exactly how it would end. This has already happened to so many times before. I am angry, I am raging, this feels so personal… because the root of the problem is personal. I feel like this is an attack on our lives. It is a horrifying injustice and a sickening reminder of what can happen to any Black person simply because of the color of their skin. It’s a terrifying reminder of what Black people face every day over something they cannot control.
This is why we need to join together and fight for #BlackLivesMatter, because this country is acting like this is just an inconvenience, as if there’s nothing wrong, when it deeply deeply is.
I hope sharing my stories will compel more people to share theirs, and to start discussing these issues openly, calling out privilege and correcting racism.