How would you describe yourself?
Huy: I was born in Houston, approximately 9 months after my parents were reunited after their escape from war-torn Vietnam. I consider myself a product of Alief, a racially and socioeconomically diverse part of Houston. I also consider myself Vietnamese-American and culturally Catholic.
Name: Huy Pham
Race: Vietnamese American
Birth Decade: 1980s
Hometown: Houston, Texas
Does race matter?
Huy: Race matters tremendously to me. I truly believe that part of figuring out where you want to go is taking a step back and figuring out where you came from. I believe that some of our traits are subconsciously part of our DNA and/or a byproduct of our cultural upbringing. Taking the time to understand my culture has given me a deeper understanding of my Self.
(I’m the one getting baptized. My mother, father, and two sisters)
“I was born in Houston, approximately 9 months after my parents were reunited after their escape from war-torn Vietnam.”
In your educational experiences, did you learn anything about race? If so, what resonated with you?
Huy: I have a variety of educational experiences. I grew up in Alief, a very diverse neighborhood. I did my undergrad at MIT and my graduate studies at Northwestern.
As I grew older, I grew appreciative of how special Alief was. In my time there, we were almost evenly split across Asians, African Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians. We were also very economically diverse. Although there were some flare-ups, in general we got along wonderfully. We mixed and visited each other’s houses and had sleepovers. I felt that we were all trying to better our situations and cheered for one another. Ironically, we also threw a lot of off color jokes at one another – leading me to believe that we don’t need to be politically correct to be accepting.
When I got to college and grad school, I found it funny that the schools constantly clamored about their diversity. However, races didn’t really mix, making it feel like fake diversity to me. Perhaps this is a byproduct of my classmates being older and already set in their ways. I found that I was the one that proactively crossed barriers to become friends with folks that were different races.
Growing up, to what extent did your family educate you about your race and/or other races?
Huy: My parents didn’t really educate me about other races at all! They were too busy trying to make a living. They came here in the 80s so their experience with different races was just as new to them as it was to me.
My parents did try their best to educate me about my own race. They made sure I spoke the language and attended language and cultural classes at the Catholic church. I very much appreciate that now (and certainly did not back then).
How would you define racism?
Huy: I define it as prejudice and discrimination against a group of people because of their race.
When did you first realize that your race and/or cultural identity mattered?
Huy: I think I realized that race mattered twice in my life.
First was sometime in the second grade when I was called a chink. It wasn’t so much the name calling as the classification. In the past I would play with everyone without a second thought. However, in that moment I became aware of the difference between me and my peers. I tried not to let that classification impact me, but as I grew older I found that my closest friends looked like me. This is partially because we had more in common but I am sure that there is also a self-selection that took place as we became more aware of our race.
The second time I realized how much race and cultural identity mattered was when I took a deeper look into what being Vietnamese meant to me. This occurred during my college years as I asked deeper questions on who I was. This journey took me back to my homeland and gave me an understanding of my heritage and made me feel connected to those that shared my identity.
Does everyone in your immediate family feel the same way about race? If not, why don’t you think so?
Huy: I think my siblings and I feel the same way about race, having grown up together and in the same environment. My parents, being a little more isolated in their Vietnamese silos, are different. They try to embrace diversity and not be prejudiced and are largely successful, but some old habits are hard to un-learn.
If you’ve ever been treated differently because of your race/culture, can you describe any relevant situations?
Huy: You know, I’ve been called “chink” or other derogatory terms more than I can count. I really never took it personally. I think a part of me always understood that I was called these things because of the person’s insecurity. They couldn’t imagine that I was smarter or more accomplished, so they used racial attacks.
My dad did face some real racism. He was a commercial fisherman in the Gulf Coast. At the time, Caucasian fishermen dominated the market and they had some unsaid “rules” about when to fish. Well, the Vietnamese started fishing there too and because they were entrepreneurial, they would fish all day. This affected the livelihood of the Caucasian fishermen so they enlisted the help of the Ku Klux Klan who staged many rallies, including some that were violent.
Klansmen cruised Galveston Bay in a show of intimidation against Vietnamese fishermen. (Southern Poverty Law Center)
“You know, I’ve been called ‘chink’ or other derogatory terms more than I can count. I really never took it personally. I think a part of me always understood that I was called these things because of the person’s insecurity. They couldn’t imagine that I was smarter or more accomplished, so they used racial attacks.”
How regularly/often do you engage in conversations about race/culture?
Huy: I engage in conversations about race/culture all the time. Part of the reason is because I feel strongly about my heritage and am part of non-profits that help with the preservation [of it]. I also have many friends of different races that I like to talk about the issues with because I like to have an empathetic understanding of issues such as the police and Black Lives Matter movement.
To what extent have you considered how you will discuss issues of race once you have children?
Huy: I plan to bring up race at an early age. I had my first experiences with realizing I was different and what that meant around the first or second grade, so I plan to have my first conversations with my children around that time. I’d explain to them who they are and their cultural identity. I will explain that other children have their own identities but that doesn’t make them inferior, just different. I will explain the importance (and fun) about learning about others.
What frustrates you the most about racism and/or racists?
Huy: What frustrates me most are racists that are adamantly in denial that they are racist. It’s true that we all have inherent biases that we’re trying to overcome and everyone should be willing to admit that and look inwardly to see the extent of those biases.
Is there anything you’re curious about with regard to someone else’s race?
Huy: I always like to ask my good friends honest questions about their race/culture like: what traits or customs do you like about your culture? What traits or customs do you not? Is there something outdated in your culture that you would like to see changed?
“I plan to bring up race at an early age. I had my first experiences with realizing I was different and what that meant around the first or second grade, so I plan to have my first conversations with my children around that time. I’d explain to them who they are and their cultural identity. I will explain that other children have their own identities but that doesn’t make them inferior, just different. I will explain the importance (and fun) about learning about others.”
Is there anything you’d like to add that you haven’t already mentioned?
Huy: I am the Editor of I Am Vietnamese, a free e-book about personal and Vietnamese cultural identity. It is available at IAmVietnamese.org.
If you liked this post, feel free to check out these others:
- Perspectives on Race #1: “Black, Muslim, and Tired” (Black. Female. Muslim)
- Perspectives on Race #2: Jamie, From the Midwest (White. Female. The Midwest)
- Perspectives on Race #3: Anonymous in Maryland (Black. Female. Muslim)
- Perspectives on Race #4: Cat, On Checking Both Boxes (Mixed. Black and White. Female. Christian)
- Perspectives on Race #5: White Like Me (White. Male. Houston)
- Perspectives on Race #6: James, From Trinidad (Trinidadian. Mixed. Male)
- Perspectives on Race #7: Vern, From New Jersey, “Just My Thoughts” (Black. Male. New Jersey)
- Perspectives on Race #8: Kat, From Serbia (White. Serbian. Female)
- Perspectives on Race #9: Puerto-Rican & Pentecostal (Puerto-Rican. Female. Indiana)
- Perspectives on Race #10: Irene, From San Jose, “Just Don’t Marry One”(Korean. American. Female. Christian)
Thanks so much, Huy! I appreciate you.