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Thoai Nguyen on bridging the racial divide through hip hop

This week, in our ongoing series American Voices, we examine tensions between new Asian immigrants and African-Americans in the inner city. For example, in Philadelphia in 2009, 30 Asian students were injured there during a racially motivated attack at school. Vietnamese-American Thoai Nguyen talks about growing up in a mixed neighborhood there — and about his new program to bridge the racial and cultural divide:

THOAI NGUYEN:  When my family first arrived in South Philadelphia in 1975, we were one of the few — and first — Vietnamese refugee families to have been resettled in South Philadelphia. Our immediate neighbors were either Jewish, Italian, Irish, Polish and African-Americans. And, you know, we were treated as something of a curiosity.

When you have one of something, that’s different, it may seem odd to you.  It may seem exotic, and curious. When you have 100 of those things within a more dominant culture, then it becomes more of a threat. We’re put side by side in very socially economic depressed neighborhoods. And we both look at each other, and say, “You know, why am I in this situation? Is it because of you?” And, you know, for African-Americans living in the same social-economic conditions, environment that I live in, or that the Asian refugees live in — there’s a lot more cause to unite than to actually divide.

The Hip Hop Heritage program is a program to use hip hop as a tool for community building. It’s open to everyone. Whether they’re black or Asian or Latino or white kids, they’re there because of their love for hip hop. They learn how to make relationships work between kids of different races. You have to examine your thinking, and what your belief systems are. And you have to be brave about saying, “I’m not threatened by him or her. I wanna become his or her neighbor.”