"I feel like they're making a joke at my expense," Jon McCurley tells me. He's an artist who co-runs a DIY art space in Toronto called Double Double Land, and even though the venue is small and obscure, bands unknown and acclaimed alike love playing here because it has a cool underground vibe. Jon recently turned down Viet Cong's request to play at Double Double Land, informing them that he is offended by their racist name. Their management responded by saying that "[they] understand." Jon didn't go into detail, but he has family members that were killed by the Viet Cong army. He dislikes the band's name choice. "I feel like they're not listening to people of my background who are protesting this," he says. "They're just thumbing their noses at us."
Viet Cong are four white men from Calgary whose self-titled debut full-length album has been short-listed for the 2015 Polaris Music Prize. On Monday, September 21, they will be featured at the Polaris gala alongside, and in front of, many Canadian music industry luminaries. But complaints about their name being appropriative and racist have gained very little traction amongst that same music community.
As they became more popular, Viet Cong received all kinds of complaints from different Vietnamese and Asian communities. A few public letters were published explaining why seeing a name "loaded with a history of violence and trauma — ripped by a rock group who does not, and cannot identify with it" is offensive. Despite all this, the band have been irresponsible and dismissive, issuing flippant non-apologies.
In a statement published by The Guardian, the band made clear: "When we named ourselves, we were naïve about the history of a war in a country we knew very little about… we never intended for our name to be provocative or hurtful." In another Guardian piece, they explained that their name came from a moment when their bass player was holding his instrument like a weapon. One of them remarked, "All you need is a rice paddy hat and it would be so Viet Cong." The band have claimed "There are zero political connotations… we just honestly thought it sounded good and that it gives some imagery that matches our music in terms of it being explosive and dark." In an interview with Impose Magazine, the band talk about how, in old movies, the Viet Cong were so "bad ass."
Using this fantastical imagery from American cinema is problematic, in the view of people like Jon. "They're promoting the idea that Vietnamese people are these communist, war-hungry killer monsters. If you look at any Hollywood film since the '60s, the only time that Vietnamese people show up is in war. It's the same as Native people in American 'Cowboy and Indian' films. Vietnamese people and Native people in these movies are like hard, stoic robots of death. To name themselves after this army is promoting this stereotype."
Claudine T. is a social work student and friend of someone who works for the band. Lately, Claudine has been spending a lot of time caring for her aunt, who has been suffering intense PTSD from the Vietnam War, and who recently tried to stab herself in the heart. Her aunt watched the Viet Cong drown her two-year-old daughter, husband and sister-in-law and was used as a sex slave throughout her attempt to escape the war. She landed in Canada but never felt welcomed here. Claudine explains her frustration with the band name: "Once you choose something because you like the way it sounds, you're putting an aesthetic on a very long and hard history. In the face of a person calling you out and giving you context, saying 'This is why it's offensive' and for you to not back down — it's racist. It's like our voices aren't important."
What has really irked me is the lukewarm response from my own peers. Though Canada is vast, the Canadian indie music community is not. Playing in Hooded Fang and Phèdre, I've made a lot of musical friends and acquaintances across the country. I've definitely met Viet Cong band members and we share mutual friends. This network of musicians is fairly supportive and appreciative of each other's work, and I've never felt racially judged by any of my peers.
It's times like these, however, that I am reminded of how white this scene is. I obviously have white friends who share my anti-racist outlook, but for the most part, when I call out racism within my community on social media or in conversation, it's my friends of colour who are clearly disturbed.
Jon, Claudine and others I've spoken to have had similar experiences when calling attention to the racism of Viet Cong's name. My friends of colour are upset and empathetic, to varying degrees. A lot of white friends agree that something is wrong, but they are not necessarily sure why.
Yet we all know people — all of them white, mostly straight men — who are either indifferent or ask the same thing: "What about Joy Division?"
Well, what about Joy Division? The late '70s British post-punk band named themselves after camps that held Jewish women who were used as sex slaves by Nazi soldiers. After their lead singer died, the existing members formed the band New Order, a reference to Hitler's political ideologies. In an interview with Israeli news outlet Haaretz earlier this year, founding member of both bands, Bernard Sumner, described how they just liked the way it sounded. He admitted, "Now, in my more mature years, I probably wouldn't pick it, because I know it would offend and hurt people, but back then, I was very young and well, selfish. Calling ourselves Joy Division was a bit mischievous."
The bands Gang of Four, Black Pussy, British India and Slaves are equally unacceptable names. All these bands are comprised of white men who have named themselves after something to which they have no tangible emotional or socio-political connection. All these bands chose their names because they felt it gave them an edge and liked the sound of it. (There's also no small amount of irony in using the "historical precedent" argument of previous offensive band names in the face of the real historical precedent of war, violence and extreme loss.)
I spoke with Xuan Yen, who does anti-racist work in Toronto and is an avid supporter of the Canadian indie music scene. Both sides of her family fled the war, relocating to France and Canada. She volunteered at an orphanage in Vietnam not long ago, and met children born with defects as a result of their parents being exposed to Agent Orange during the war. She wonders how the band would feel about their name if they made the same journey. Xuan Yen believes that, like these other bands, Viet Cong are acting from a place of entitlement. "I think in terms of why it's racist boils down to power," she says. "It's a lot easier for white people to take something from other cultures and other people and just make money out of it. They don't really face any real repercussions relating to issues other cultures they're appropriating from have to deal with; they just take something, making it shiny and new for their own benefit."
The journalism surrounding the band Viet Cong has been no different. Claudine observed that it has mostly been white people — who lack a deep understanding of the Vietnam War, or don't come from an anti-racist perspective — who've written about the band. People have written about the possible offensiveness of Viet Cong, but I haven't really seen anyone write about it being racist. Charlene Hay at the Centre for Race and Culture, an organization that does anti-racist research and education explained that, "the word racism frequently elicits powerfully resistant emotions. Racism is an emotionally charged term. White people often resent the implication that they may have prejudice and discriminate against non-white people. Charges of reverse-racism and political correctness gone wild are common."
Xuan Yen's sentiments echo this: "There is this fear of 'Do we have to be so politically correct all the time?' without putting into consideration the power aspects of it." In fact, when the promoter at Oberlin College in Ohio cancelled the band's show because of "a name that deeply offends and hurts Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American communities, both in Oberlin and beyond," The National Post chided him for "moralistic grandstanding." The band are up for the 2015 Polaris Prize alongside Buffy Sainte-Marie, the New Pornographers, Drake and others. The jury for this Canadian accolade is composed of almost 200 music journalists, bloggers and broadcasters. I wonder what would have happened if half of them were Vietnamese, or saw the world through an anti-racist lens?
Brenda Johnston, a Human Rights Educator at the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre at the University of Calgary, explained to me that, "For the most part, white people don't think about racism and racial discrimination in Canada, because they don't have to — it is out of their realm of experience." This doesn't mean that they shouldn't. Charlene Hay highlights that, "The first step for white people is to recognize we all have prejudices and hold privilege. It is not our fault; we absorbed this from our surroundings. It is, however, our responsibility to become critical of our own attitudes and actions. We can listen to all perspectives and look for those that critique mainstream information."
The Vietnam War only ended 40 years ago. The Vietnamese diaspora is still dealing with the aftermath of this war and the Viet Cong. It doesn't matter if the band's music is good or if they are nice guys; people who organize our concerts and who attend our shows are deeply hurt and affected by these young men naming themselves Viet Cong.
While nobody is getting beat up or visibly excluded, there are several other kinds of racism happening here. Instead of trying to exercise a little bit of empathy, a lot of people are quick to make "intellectual," derailing arguments. These guys can name themselves whatever they want, but they should know that by ignoring a marginalized group of people and taking something that isn't theirs to take, they are ultimately excluding people because of race. Brenda Johnston breaks it down thusly: "In human rights law, intent is irrelevant — it is the impact that counts, and this has had a negative impact on many individuals from Vietnamese communities. They are appropriating a term or identity, and this is inappropriate and racist."
This has been a annoying task. Johnston, Hay and anyone with an anti-racist understanding will tell you that it's not my job to educate others on racism. Nor is it the responsibility of any Vietnamese person to explain why the name Viet Cong is racist. Instead of working on my band's new album, I have been exhausting my time collecting stories and facts for this article. It's hard to focus when your peers and your greater community, whom you'd like to think are progressive, lack the level of empathy and critical thinking you expect.
Update: Viet Cong announced on Saturday, September 19 that they will be changing their name; their new moniker will announced at a later date.
April Aliermo is an educator and musician who plays in Toronto bands Hooded Fang and Phèdre.
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