Byko: “Hair privilege,” power and guilt at Villanova

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Fearful at first, Yvonne Nguyen delights in removing her hair, freeing herself from "society's oppressive gender norms."

In addition to white privilege and male privilege, we now have “hair privilege.”

That’s what I hear from Yvonne Nguyen, who wrote an op-ed for the Villanova student newspaper a few days back on hair, oppression and power.

A first-generation American -- her mother and father immigrated from Vietnam decades apart and their marriage was arranged -- Nguyen’s passionate essay caught my eye because she feels she is both privileged and an oppressor in America.

She cut off her hair on St. Patrick’s Day, which is also St. Baldrick’s Day, when people go bald to express solidarity with people living with cancer. Nguyen had a second reason: To free herself from “society’s oppressive gender norms.”

In a telephone conversation that lasted close to an hour, the 19-year-old sophomore said in her case those norms came largely but not solely from her traditional Vietnamese family, which believes girls are supposed to have long hair, and that’s that. Some of her female relatives, she says, had cosmetic surgery to “Westernize” their eyes and her mother believes that had the French not colonized Vietnam, it would have remained a backward culture. 

In that remark, Nguyen feels her mother disparages her own culture, but at the same time Yvonne disapproves of her culture's arranged marriage custom. Life is complicated.

She grew up in Bridgeport, Conn., in a lower socioeconomic household and “thankfully” gets needs-based financial assistance from Nova. She’s president of Villanovans Against Sweat Shops and plans to major in peace and justice. Her Facebook page reveals she’s hip deep in social justice projects.

She had posted a video of her hair being cut off on Facebook, and got nothing but positive feedback from her friends at first, but took it private after “random white men started posting on it and being insulting,” she says.

For two years, she wanted to cut her hair to cut her ties to gender norms she felt were being forced on her, but feared being ostracized.  “I was the most insecure person,” she says. “”I was afraid I would not live up to the expectation of an Asian woman in society.”

Through her life, she says, “people were trying to dictate how I should look -- you needed long hair to be beautiful and accepted.” When it was long, she says, she had “hair privilege.”

So she cut her hair off and wrote about it.

Guess what?

She wasn’t ostracized, she wasn’t shunned, people said they liked it -- at least on the Nova campus where she lives. Her fears were unfounded.

I ask her about the duality of being both oppressed and oppressor.

“For example, racially I am an Asian person and in America Asians are [viewed as] somewhat higher in social status than say an African American or a Hispanic. I will never be able to understand the plight of an African American in America or a Hispanic. I am privileged in that way,” Nguyen says. I know white males are routinely shamed and guilted in college, but Asian females, too?

She wasn’t as clear at explaining how she, personally, oppresses people.

Stereotypes are harmful, “and by playing along with these stereotypes, that’s how I continue the cycle of oppression,” she says. 

Except she doesn’t go along with the stereotypes, she fights them. 

I tell her she’s carrying a bundle of guilt she shouldn't own.  

“Feeling guilty is a response,” she says, “but you have to move on from your guilt” and channel those feelings into something positive. She does that.

I believe no one should feel guilty for anything they had no hand in, but I’m a white male, so what do I know?

I ask when she first became aware of her unearned privilege, because that doesn't fall to the ground like a coconut off a tree.   

“Maybe I learned about my privilege in college, in my freshman year when I learned I have easy access to food,  water,  education, hair, freedom of speech, shelter, things I take for granted,” she says.

Yep, she got her privilege card in college.

When you generate a victim culture, you’ve got to have oppressors.

Everything makes sense now.