Black and in Vietnam, my hair is not a spectacle
Back home and across the globe, Blackness is criminal, suspicious and punishable by law.
by Adam Mahoney
I’ve been living in Vietnam for four months and from the first 30 minutes I arrived in the country, my hair was a problem. I’m a 20 year old junior in college, so when the opportunity to not be in a classroom full of wealthy, white peers presented itself, I jumped at it. I knew I wanted to study abroad in a place like Vietnam for its anti-colonial history because that’s what has grounded my studies so far. Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared for the deep effects of Vietnam’s colonial past on the ways I’m perceived everyday.
It was 1 am and I was on my 22nd hour of traveling. No one was sitting next to me on the plane, so the first person I’d spoken to since I was in Los Angeles was the Immigration officer. He didn’t respond to my greeting, but he clutched my passport like he knew I shouldn’t be there. As I waited 10 minutes for him to finally say something, I watched sets of white and Chinese tourists make it through inspection with ease. He greeted me by simply saying, “that’s not you.” Confused, I confirmed that it was, but still looking at me in disbelief he pointed towards his own hair before asking if I was sure. I now have an afro instead of the fade I wore in my passport photo.
I’m grateful to Black women like Aliona Gibson who have helped me build a healthy relationship with my hair and on the journey to reclaiming nappy. And while I have embraced my hair in its most natural state, other folks continue to invade my space over their fascination with it.
Back home and across the globe, Blackness is criminal, suspicious and punishable by law. In 2017, five Nigerian students were accused of cannibalism in Greater Noida, India because a boy went missing and was later found in a hospital. Police searched the contents of their refrigerator because they thought the students had something to do with the boy’s death, when in reality he died from a drug overdose.
And this past August, when a Black woman was unsatisfied with her eyebrow wax and refused to pay, she and her family members were attacked by the nail salon owners, emphasizing the rift between Black and Asian folks for decades.
During the Vietnam War, many Black American soldiers were forced into combat because they were considered second class citizens. And though Black G.I.s and activists have been sentenced for speaking out against the Vietnam War, anti-Black sentiments in connection with whiteness run rampant in the community then and now.
After the war, mixed race babies were given up by their Vietnamese mothers, often left at the gates of orphanages due to their skin complexion and physical features. They were considered “children of the enemy” and looked down on by other members of society.
Anti war poster in Vietnam, Black child depicted at top
Interestingly enough, now Vietnamese youth are listening to rap music, wearing dreadlocks, being influenced by our “street” fashion and smoking weed. These acts and identities, which Black people have faced societal condemnation and criminalization, are being co-opted by young Vietnamese folks under the guise of western superiority and modernization. And as usual, Black folks are not getting the credit for Black cultural production that first worlds profit from.
Western culture is constantly being consumed in the country through film, music and social media because its whats perceived as most modern. And because Black folks are often not given credit for driving the force of American pop culture, their contributions are lumped in as just purely Western.
For two months, I stayed with a host family where many of our dinner conversations centered around my hair. When I go out, dozens of folks gawk at my hair and later ask where they could go to make their hair like mine..
People have grabbed me and taken photos without my permission. In Vietnam, Asian folks have a deep desire to emulate and be inspired by Black hairstyles, rap and hip hop but separate those Black features from Black people. And to be real, the anti-Blackness I experienced here is just as if not more violent than the anti-Blackness I experienced in America.
The mass consumption and commodification of Blackness that comes from ‘modernization’ is a by-product of colonialism, exploitation and false notarization of Western beliefs. These beliefs promote physical, environmental, intellectual and cultural violence towards marginalized people across the globe.
Though the commercialization of Blackness through ‘popular culture’ and the commercialization of Vietnam through tourism both exist because of white supremacy and colonialism, Vietnamese folks aspiring to have Black hair while fetishizing its people isn’t a path to freedom. Asian folks have a responsibility to combat their contributions to global anti-Blackness, just as Black folks must combat our own anti-Asian assumptions in our communities.
Adam is a journalist from Los Angeles who cares about Black lives, Abolition and Decolonization. He’s reported internationally in Palestine, Uganda and Vietnam, and most recently with the Chicago Reporter.