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Perspectives: Knowledge, Authority and Hmong Invisibility

In February 2007, Leonard Kaplan, the Mortimer M. Jackson Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison unwittingly ignited a firestorm when he used Hmong Americans as a case example in his lecture on legal formalism. While the exact language and context of his statements is disputed, no one debates that he depicted Hmong men as warriors and killers, and referred to a high level of gang activity among second generation young men, among many other comments. Hmong law students in the class protested his characterization of the Hmong, and demanded an apology. Students met with deans, with the professor, filed a legal complaint with the University of Wisconsin and posted a Web site.

On Feb. 24, 2007 the Chronicle of Higher Education’s News Blog reported Kaplan to be “in full apology mode.” Suddenly, however, dialogue came to an abrupt halt. Students organized a public forum which Kaplan agreed to but did not attend. He then sent a letter to his dean for public release denying that he had made some of the comments and asserting that context was “critical.” The students were increasingly dismissed as taking his words out of context, of being “oversensitive” and of pursuing identity politics by making ungrounded accusations of racism against a sympathetically inclined professor.

In December 2007, controversy was reactivated when Kaplan gave an invitation-only talk at the Madison rotary club. Press coverage of the event was unilateral, implicitly championing Kaplan’s courage in having taken full advantage of academic freedom to pursue controversial issues. Even as he invoked truth to characterize his own language, Kaplan criticized Hmong for a kind of hypertrophied political correctness: “Students and society are harmed if professors avoid controversial material in deference to accepted or imposed correctness or an apprehension that a topic may offend sensitivities,” The Capital Times of Madison, Wis. reported Kaplan as saying. 

We submit that “political correctness” does not apply in its conventional sense to this issue. Hmong identities are not sufficiently gelled in American popular discourse to allow political “correctness” to take on meaning. Hmong Americans, with only 30-some years in the U.S., have not had a civil rights era, a history of campus activism, elementary or high school curricular coverage, or a body of popular and academic literature in which some sense of what is “correct” to say and not say about Hmong has been stabilized. Instead, there has been a persistent invisibility: Some of us have taught Hmong history and culture to hundreds of college students. We have found that most American students have little or no knowledge about Hmong except for media coverage of sensational events, which are then interpreted as the only truths about this ethnic group.

Interlocutors might retort that political correctness is not about the specificity of any American ethnic group, but rather about a request on the part of whatever interest group to be free of discursive injury or discrimination. They might maintain that any group that calls for political correctness draws equally upon well-canonized conventions established by women, Blacks and other historically vocal advocates. These conventions would purportedly condemn hate speech and distorted representation no matter what group was at stake.

However, within the conventions of American public discourse, Hmong Americans have at least three strikes against their call being heard. First, we fall outside the recognized categories of active political agents, such that our voices can come off as unintelligible because audiences still see us as long-suffering “preliterate” mountain people, if they see us at all. Second, there is a widespread view that Hmong, as immigrants, should be grateful for our refuge here, for our access to American resources, as we are incessantly reminded in hostile commentary telling us that if we have issues living here to go back where we came from. Third, as Asians we stand to be classified as model minorities who work hard and achieve quietly without rocking any boats of racial conflict.

In the post-Sept. 11 security state, it has become well-nigh impossible for Hmong to avoid rocking the boat. As the millions of Americans still don’t know, Hmong are one of the newest U.S. ethnic groups, having arrived here only beginning in 1975. Hmong had lived as ethnic minority farmers in the northern highlands of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma for several generations, having emigrated from China after conflicts with the Han majority and the Chinese state. That we fled from Laos was a matter of political exigency, as we confronted a regime bent on reprisals directed specifically at us. Why was the Lao government so vindictive? Because Hmong had been recruited by and had given amply in lives and military service to the CIA. This was the so-called Secret War in Laos, in which Hmong were on the frontlines, armed and trained by Americans, in an effort to battle the North Vietnamese on terrain that was officially neutral. That the secrecy of that effort has meant the invisibility of their military service has been irksome for Hmong Americans, but the situation turned much more serious when the Patriot Act of 2001 placed us on the list of immigrant groups who were to be denied entry or naturalization because we had formerly acted as or materially supported guerillas or terrorists. Only in January 2008 did Congress exempt Hmong from this exclusion recognizing the irony of denying us refuge after causing our political refugeehood.

Hmong indignation was not so much about Kaplan, we assert. What are the societal dynamics that facilitate Kaplan’s and other experts’ voices being heard, and Hmong input being muted? After the initial outcry, Kaplan was given extensive opportunity to contextualize and restage his comments. On the one hand, he denied saying many of them. But he also defended their accuracy: “Sometimes you do harm to people’s sensitivity by speaking the truth.” That Kaplan believed and was sympathetic toward the Hmong for the stereotypes he recounted is a significantly more alarming scenario than that he meant them in a mean-spirited way. That he presented them not as slurs but as “truths,” empirical bases for rigorous analysis, does much more to dignify and perpetuate them. And to the extent that Kaplan’s portrait of needleworking Hmong women and gangbanging Hmong men is dignified as “truth,” albeit painful, it becomes that much more inconceivable that there should be Hmong scholars and graduate students who have rival truths to put forward.

It is conceivable, then, that it is precisely because of the recent, virtually unprecedented, emergence of Hmong advocate voices that this issue has become so hot. There are over 20 Hmong Ph.D.s and Ed.D.s in the U.S already, and many, many more in PhD programs around the country. Isn’t it to be expected that Hmong will more and more take a stand on issues that promulgate negative and/or inaccurate images either of ourselves or of our heritage?

Proliferating forums that in turn permit the rehearsal of hate speech continue to produce collateral damage under the umbrella of academic freedom or freedom of Internet speech. On the Inside Higher Education commentary, a posting by one “college student” was held up as an example of poor Hmong English. The law students’ English level was then impugned as comparable to that of the posting and they were accused of having misunderstood Kaplan.

Online comments to The Madison Capital Times and to the Chronicle Newsblog went further. One sneered: “the Madison police blotter speaks volumes about the ‘peace-loving’ Hmong.” The Chronicle deemed the comment gratuitous and offensive and removed it within 24 hours. This act of censure affirms that there are forms of speech too incendiary to be protected.

Before dismissing Hmong reactions as oversensitive, we need also to think about the actual lived context of hate speech and acts in Wisconsin, a place where a White man was recently convicted of brutally murdering a Hmong man. He told the sheriff immediately afterwards that he did it, among other rationales, because “Hmong men kill everything that moves.” This is the lived social context that is everpresent for a Hmong Madisonian, even if she is sitting in law lecture with a bachelor’s in hand and a professional future in mind.

Here we come to our final point — about the misuses of “culture.” Kaplan averred that “recognizing the truth, like learning, may sometimes be painful.” The “truth” he appears to be defending, however, amounts to what he calls “examples of cultural practice.” Kaplan is not claiming to be an expert on Hmong culture. In his rotary speech, he instead cites Hmong law scholars who write about Hmong “culture.” We are dubious about the efficacy of citing cultural “truths,” in these contexts. One consequence may be that of contributing to the widespread belief that the Hmong people constitute a cultural monolith; that is, that Hmong are all straightforwardly as they have been described in the books, articles and films of published scholars. A second consequence is the blurring of immigrant experience with static notions of cultural identity. Issues for Hmong Americans, those that Kaplan meant to address, may be much less about a deterministic cultural past to which Hmong purportedly cling, and much more about the challenges of taking up life under circumstances of dramatic change, in a society that is economically stratified, racially tense and sometimes unwelcoming. Attributing immigrant challenges to “culture” amounts to locating those issues squarely on immigrants’ shoulders, and implicitly denying that they derive from interactions with societal hosts.

For all these reasons, we assert that this issue should not be reduced to an assault upon a law professor. Instead, what we hope to illuminate here are some as yet unaired perspectives on why it has remained so painfully acrimonious.

Dr. Dia Cha, is a professor of anthropology at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota; Dr. Leena Her is a Fulbright Scholar; Pao Lee is a graduate student of sociology at the University of Minnesota; Ly Chong Thong Jalao is graduate student of English at the University of California-Santa Barbara; Dr. Louisa Schein is a professor of anthropology and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University; Dr. Chia Youyee Vang is a history professor at UW-Milwaukee; Ma Vang is a graduate student of ethnic studies at UC-San Diego and Yang S. Xiong is a sociology graduate student at UC-Los Angeles.


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