Backlash over anti-racist billboard challenges Houston’s Vietnamese American community
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Nguyen Le stands in front of the Black Lives Matter sign he erected in southwest Houston.
Courtesy of Nguyen Le
Like millions of other people, Nguyen Le watched the eight-minute, 46-second cellphone video in which George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.
The 50-year-old businessman said he had to do something.
“I couldn’t remain silent anymore, because to me remaining silent would just be complicit to all this.”
Nguyen Le, southwest Houston, Texas
“I couldn’t remain silent anymore, because to me remaining silent would just be complicit to all this,” said Le, who runs a well-known insurance firm in southwest Houston.
After Floyd’s death, Le saw an ad from the 1970s with Black Civil Rights leaders calling on the government to help Vietnamese refugees, like himself.
“That was the beginning of ’78,” Le said. “And then I realized, ‘holy crap’ — later that year I was an 8-year-old boy languishing in a refugee camp.”
It inspired him to show his solidarity with the Black community. In late June, Le put up a bright yellow billboard in Houston’s Viet Town that read “Black Lives Matter” in English and Vietnamese.
“We added the Vietnamese translation just because I’m Vietnamese, I was born in Vietnam,” he said. “Everything we do now is bilingual.” Some 91,000 Vietnamese immigrants live in the Houston area.
Le said he was expecting some pushback — but the death threats caught him off guard.
A Vietnamese vlogger on YouTube used violent verbal attacks against Nguyen Le for his billboard. The video now has more than 36,000 views.
His Facebook page filled up with hate speech. Some critics called him a communist, and he said his insurance business lost 12 clients. The Vietnamese media criticized Le. He responded with a press statement.
“I was never told that I am worthless by those with different skin colors. I know that my life would have been a lot harder to build if I did.”
Nguyen Le, southwest Houston, Texas
“I was never told that I am worthless by those with different skin colors. I know that my life would have been a lot harder to build if I did,” he wrote in the statement.
This is my official statement regarding the Black Lives Matter billboard that I had paid for to support the movement to end racism & injustice: I am Lê Hoàng Nguyên. I am a proud American of Vietnamese descent. Having experienced racism first hand over the years and especially having seen the recent social injustices in America, I used my personal funds to put up a billboard that shares the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. I did not receive any outside funds. The opinion expressed is 100% my own. It is not a political message. It does not support any particular organization. It supports the simple idea of the Black Lives Matter movement to stop racism and injustice for all. It does not mean other lives do not matter. I believe every life matters. But, if we do not stand up for the lives of those most marginalized, how can we say that all lives matter? I have heard many of the complaints about the message: Some mentioned rioting and looting, which I do not condone. The peaceful protestors far outnumber the troublemakers. Some pointed to crime committed by African Americans against Vietnamese Americans. I empathize with the victims but not all African Americans are criminals. Others reminded that Vietnamese Americans are also victims of discrimination. I understand and agree. I grew up being called names. I was in jobs where I was limited by the color of my skin. That is why I support stopping racism and injustice – period! Finally, some of you argued that this is the land of opportunity and all you have to do is to work hard. It is true, America is a great country and I am forever grateful to this land. I came here at 9 years old without my parents and worked hard to build an amazing life. And, I am very fortunate to have a beautiful family. However, I did not grow up with people who ran when they saw me. I did not have to fear for my life anytime I saw the police. I was never told I am worthless by those with different skin colors. I know that my life would have been a lot harder to build if I did. Who am I to judge the enduring challenges that others face? When I put up the billboard, I had three goals: 1. To show my public support for stopping all racism and injustice 2. To inspire future generations of leaders 3. To speak up & to start the hard conversations about racism and injustice Having proudly accomplished these goals, I’ve decided to put up a new billboard that honors our First Responders. The new billboard will be installed in the near future. In closing, I would like to share one of my favorite quotes: “Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler While you might not agree with this statement from Alfred, it does not mean we can’t respect one another. Respectfully, Lê Hoàng Nguyên
Posted by Farmers Insurance Le Hoang Nguyen on Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Shortly after the backlash, people organized to support Le. They rallied in front of the billboard. They defended him on social media. An online fundraiser for Le’s business has been shared more than 3,000 times.
“I’m really encouraged by how many people have donated,” said Ngoc Anh Nguyen, a doctor in Houston who created the GoFundMe page.
“At first it was only Vietnamese Americans, or Vietnamese people donating,” Nguyen said. “Then it went to people in other countries, people in other states, and then non-Vietnamese people who literally have no bone in this fight.”
She said the billboard controversy has sparked difficult conversations in their community, particularly among young people and their parents, who are more likely to be conservative.
Evolving conversations on race
Bao Huong Hoang, 35, is one of the many Vietnamese Americans in Houston who support Nguyen Le and Black Lives Matter. She’s an administrative director of protocol research at MD Anderson Cancer Center and generally steers clear of controversial topics, like race, with her parents.
But, she said, earlier this week, she sat down for dinner with her parents and her mom mentioned the billboard out of the blue.
“She said ‘you know about that billboard, I’ve been hearing in the Vietnamese radio they’ve been talking about it’ and she said, ‘initially it made me very uncomfortable,’” said Hoang.
Her mom told her about the media reports showing people of all different races supporting the Black Lives Matter billboard.
They tried to tell us they cancelled it when we showed up.
But we stayed to represent SW Houston and to stand against the racists & bigots. pic.twitter.com/8iZWGQQCci
— Gene Wu (@GeneforTexas) July 12, 2020
“She said she saw all these different faces, masked faces, but faces out at the protest. She said she’s had a change of heart. She said she thinks it’s now a good thing,” Hoang said.
Hoang said she’s pleasantly surprised to see her mother change her mindset.
Jacqueline Dan’s mother was less supportive when she found out her daughter was a supporter of the billboard. Dan’s mother, who lives in Houston, questioned her daughter when she saw her name on the GoFundMe page.
“She said, ‘the Vietnamese community… does not like this billboard,’” Dan said.
Her mom argued that Vietnamese stores are targeted by Black people. But Dan, who works as an immigration attorney at the public defender’s office in Orange County, California, rebutted.
“I represent the people who [are accused of] break[ing] into Vietnamese stores and homes — and they speak Vietnamese,” Dan said.
These divisions are not uncommon in Asian American families, especially among the first and second generations, according to Janelle Wong, who studies Asian American public opinion at the University of Maryland.
“Those who are older or first-generation tend to be more conservative when it comes to racial justice issues than our younger people.”
Janelle Wong, University of Maryland
“Those who are older or first-generation tend to be more conservative when it comes to racial justice issues than our younger people,” Wong said.
In the last 5 1/2 years, she’s seen a small but vocal minority emerge that aggressively opposes racial justice.
But nearly 75% of Asian American voters she polled in 2016 said the US government should do more to enforce equal rights for Black people in the country. And, she said, there are many older Asian Americans who have paved the way for the younger generation.
“The community as a whole is — among adults — 73% foreign-born, and we actually see that group is still more progressive than white Americans as a whole in terms of their ideas about race,” said Wong.
Nguyen Le said even though his 70-year-old mother was upset about the billboard — especially the attacks it spurred toward her son — he saw her opinion of its message “Black Lives Matter” evolve.
“I explained to her [that I had to do something] when I watched a grown man call out for his mama after his last breath,” Le said. “She finally understood that.”
Le said his mom’s own fear for her son’s safety made her realize why he could no longer remain silent on anti-Black racism.
Editor’s note: This article is republished from Houston Public Radio through a partnership sharing agreement. Read the original article.