My 12-year-old self was quite used to the smell of barbershops— the aroma of hairspray, the scent of Pinaud Clubman aftershave lotion, and the smell of hair everywhere that I couldn’t describe with words. It was the same smell that lived in all barbershops, a marker that lived in all the barbershops that I visited. And I visited a lot of barbershops in my lifetime; my parents were barbers with their own shop that they owned since I was five. However, after it was closed down due to not being able to afford the lease, my parents would travel far and wide to find Vietnamese shops to work at. There was one shop that we visited that changed the way that I looked at my people- and started the trajectory of my changing views of America.
As I stepped into yet another Vietnamese barbershop for the day, I was surprised to find a Black Vietnamese barber. He was a deep brown complexion, with curly matted hair, a wide nose, and small refined lips. It wasn’t until he started speaking our native language fluently, with the crisp accent of the South that I could never correctly mimic with the hard Northern accent that I had inherited, that I realized he was of my people.
I had seen plenty of mixed Vietnamese people, but never a person intermixed with both African and Asian descent. At that time, I wasn’t aware that there were black people living in Vietnam. Something that I was aware of at my young age, however, was the anti-Black sentiment that was proliferated in my community. This specific factor, I believed, had prevented or discouraged Black people from living in Vietnam.
With all of this in mind, I asked my mother how the barber was both Vietnamese and Black. She explained to me that his father was an African American soldier brought over during the Vietnam War, and his mother was a Vietnamese native. He was just one of the products of the globalization of Black men during the Vietnam War. Come to find out later, my uncle is another product.
Black soldiers have served in every American War, but it wasn’t until 1948 in which armed forces were officially desegregated with Executive Order 9981. The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of African American soldiers to serve during an American War, with a change in attitude about Black men being “fit” to serve. According to Time Magazine, the ratio of black combats to white soldiers was roughly 2:1, with Black soldiers being sent to the front lines at disproportionate rates, resulting in high numbers of Black soldiers being sent back in body bags when in comparison to their white peers.
Thousands of Black men were being sent to a war that they were visibly losing- both in Vietnam and at home. Back in the States, integration of public spaces was just beginning, with Brown V. Board marking a landmark Supreme Court decision. Black Americans were on the continuous fight for civil rights at home, while being killed abroad. As a result, some prominent black activists began speaking against the Vietnam War. In 1966, Georgia Congressman John Lewis once stated how wrong it was for black men to fight an “imperialist” war in Vietnam- a fight that was supposedly for freedom- when freedom was being denied to Black Americans.
MLK later demonstrated Lewis’s feelings of anti-war, speaking out during one of his speeches.
“The promises of the great society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam,” King said, “making the poor, white and Negro bear the heaviest burden both at the front and at home.”
Although these messages were coming from leaders of the Black community, their ideas were not popular. Many Black Americans saw the army as a stepping stone towards equality, and saw this criticism as a form of Communist betrayal. The Vietnam War divided the Civil Rights Movement and the black community in their goals for racial equality, while simultaneously taking away members that could’ve stayed to make strides within the movement. It wasn’t until disproportionate rates of black soldiers being killed or wounded in the field that anti-war sentiment began increasing (in 1965 alone, African Americans represented almost 25 percent of casualties).
Not only facing discrimination at home, Black soldiers would face racism within their own battalions. Not only were the militants being disproportionately sent to the front lines, but they were most often assigned menial duties and denied promotions, while also being unfairly targeted for punishment in comparison to their white counterparts.
The 1969 Race riots of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina exemplified that while both white and black soldiers were supposedly united in the battle fields, they were divided when they returned to their barracks. Racial tension between the two groups escalated to the point where fights broke out, leaving 15 Marines injured, and one white Corporal, Edward Blankston, dead. But before the unit had reached this violent boiling point, various situations occurred before that added to the tension between whites and blacks. One former Marine drill sergeant, Willie Robertson, recounts black marines receiving demeaning treatment from white soldiers.
“They wouldn’t call you Private Robertson,” he said. “With a black, they might say, ‘Hey, splib, come here!’ And I’m like, what’s a splib? But the guys from up north, they knew what it was. They would say ‘They’re calling you an N-word.”
The killing of King put many black troops on edge, and the reactions of many white soldiers sent them over. There was a report of white soldiers in Cam Ranh Ray celebrating his death with the flying of confederate flags, and parading around in Klan uniforms.
Black soldiers would soon find their progeny facing the same racist attitudes that they faced in America, but rather in the distant land of Vietnam. Their liaisons with Vietnamese women would produce mixed children, children that would most often have defining traits of their fathers- and they would later be reprimanded for it. These children were coined “bui doi,” which translates “the dust of life.”
Separated from their American parents, these “bui doi” children would face ridicule and abuse, being othered as having the face of the American enemy. Many of these kids were outcasted by their families, viewed as an embarrassment to the otherwise racially homogenous bloodlines. Those that were kept by their families were ordered to shed the signs of their mixed race, whether it be their curly locks or their light blonde hair. Some were sent to reeducation or work camps, but many ended up living on the streets. Whatever ties that they had to their American lineage- whether it be a photo or papers with information- was burned as the Communist regime dominated the land;.
Although the United States passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987, a piece of legislation that would grant the children of American soldiers preferential immigration status, hundreds would be too poor, or hold zero proof, to qualify for the program.
The Black Vietnamese barber that I met, along with my uncle, were unexpected outcomes of the Black Diaspora, and a direct result of America’s intentional displacement of black people. However, their stories are continuously being swept under the rug of history books. Never have I ever opened a history book and read a story about the impacts of American forces after the Vietnam War. Never have I read about the bui doi children. The continued erasure that Black Americans face on their own soil and overseas showcases a generational pattern of globalized racism that is sustained through representative erasure. This cannot continue.