It’s been a little over a week since I arrived in Hanoi feeling wide-eyed, excited, and anxious. I’ve spent the last week getting over jet lag, adjusting to Vietnam’s humidity, and beginning our in-country orientation. I think to myself, It’s only been one week, and I am already exhausted.
On the first day of orientation, we sat through a few hours of introductions and remarks from US Embassy Officials who, not surprisingly, delivered watered down briefings on US-Vietnam relations, political issues, economic issues, and international security. (By “watered down,” I mean diplomatic and bureaucratic; no one could directly answer my questions, and after listening to their roundabout responses, I simply gave up.) What I would like to highlight, however, is our Vietnamese lessons with a white woman.*
With an extensive background in history and teaching, particularly on US Foreign Affairs, Vietnamese Studies, and Race Studies, among other disciplines, this white woman is experienced in educating a diverse range of audiences. This past week, she taught my cohort lessons on Cultural Adaptation, Vietnamese Culture, Vietnamese History, Vietnamese Diaspora, modern-day Vietnam, and being a “cultural ambassador.” She is quite well-versed, I’ll admit, but as you can imagine, I was skeptical—very skeptical. There’s no way a white woman could teach me about my cultural roots and my history; I don’t care what credentials she held.
For white people to not only study but also teach non-white, cultural and racial disciplines is exploitative, imperialistic, and deceiving. This mode of practice and education perpetuates a deeply ingrained Eurocentric culture, and despite white scholars and academics who preface and admit upfront their white privileges when teaching—which this woman did at the beginning of and throughout her lessons—their privileges remain intact and unscathed. It is important to understand that recognizing your privileges do not excuse you from the inherent benefits you’re able to access and take advantage of, nor does it (temporarily) suspend them from actually existing. (The latter is an incessant behavior I believe many folx who possess varying levels of privileges operate under, a behavior that is not particular to only white people but also people who are non-white, non-queer, abled-body, and more.) So yes, it is indeed great that some white people choose to verbally and explicitly recognize their white privilege—some would even say it’s progressive (lol)—but it does not, and should not, stop there. More needs to be done, especially on an institutional and systematic level.
With raised eyebrows, pursed lips, and a slightly wrinkled forehead, I sat patiently in front of her and listened. I challenged myself to think and engage critically with the “unbiased” materials she presented by asking numerous questions, all of which were met with respectful, open responses. I began to warm up to her and her teaching methodology, and in doing so, I learned so much about Vietnam. I learned about the country’s history, its dynamic culture, and its extensive record of resistance and mobilization. She also offered tips and advice on how we can best navigate living in Vietnam and prefaced that her suggestions might be more geared to the white folx in the room, which was understandable.
Nonetheless, I deeply appreciated having this learning opportunity, as it was informative and insightful. And I must admit that I do respect this white woman fully.
However, I remain skeptical and critical.
All my life, I was subjected to white men and women educating me on a number of different subject matters, whether it be within the formal classroom setting or the professional space. I was always surrounded by white folx, and this inherently made me the outsider. I had hoped that I could escape this when I arrived in Vietnam. I yearned for teaching and learning moments where I could engage with people who looked like me, but I realized that this might not be completely feasible (because we live in a world that continues to glorify, safeguard, and perpetuate whiteness but more on this later).
After twenty-something years of listening to white people, I needed a break.
I needed change;
I needed representation.
Because representation matters.
* * *
*For confidential purposes, I have decided against revealing her identity. Instead, I use interchangeably “she/her” pronouns as well as “white woman.”
Note: My reflection is not a personal attack on the white woman who taught me about culture. It’s a critique that challenges historical and modern forms of education. If anything, it’s an attack on the oppressive institution at large that benefits white people.
Streets of Hà Nội | Photo Credit: David Thai (2018)