In February of last year, University of Wisconsin at Madison law Professor Leonard Kaplan unwittingly ignited a firestorm when he used Hmong Americans as an example in a lecture on legal formalism.
The exact language and context of his statements are disputed, but no one debates that he depicted Hmong men as warriors and killers and referred to a high level of gang activity among young, second generation Hmong men, among other comments.
Hmong law students in the class protested his portrayal and demanded an apology. Students met with deans and the professor, filed a legal complaint with the university and set up a website. A few weeks later, the Chronicle of Higher Education Newsblog reported Kaplan to be in full apology mode. Suddenly, however, dialogue came to a halt.
Kaplan sent a letter to his Dean for public release denying some of the comments and asserting that context was “critical.” The students were increasingly dismissed as being oversensitive and accused of identity politics and ungrounded accusations of racism.
The controversy rekindled in December when Kaplan gave an invitation-only talk at the Madison rotary club. Virtually all press coverage of the event championed Kaplan’s courage in exercising academic freedom to pursue controversial issues. Kaplan criticized his Hmong detractors for a kind of over-eager political correctness: “We are all harmed if professors avoid controversial material in deference to some accepted or imposed correctness or an apprehension that a topic may offend sensitivities.”
But political correctness does not apply here in its usual sense; Hmong identities are not sufficiently gelled in the American mainstream for political correctness to be meaningful. Hmong Americans, with only some 30 years in the United States, have not had a civil rights era, a history of campus activism or entries in school textbooks. What is “correct” to say and not say about Hmong hasn’t been established.
Instead, there’s been a persistent invisibility. Hmong lived as ethnic minority farmers in the northern highlands of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma for several generations, having emigrated from China. In the late 1970s, fleeing from Laos became a political necessity, as the regime’s reprisals were directed specifically at us.
Why was the Laotian government so vindictive? Hmong had been recruited by and given military service to the CIA in the so-called Secret War in Laos. On the frontlines, we were armed and trained by Americans in an effort to battle the North Vietnamese on terrain that was officially neutral.
The secrecy of that effort has meant the enduring invisibility of Hmong veterans. But the situation turned much more serious when the 2001 Patriot Act placed us on the list of immigrant groups to be denied entry or naturalization because we had formerly acted as or materially supported guerillas. Only in January did Congress exempt Hmong from this list, recognizing the injustice of denying us refuge after making us political refugees.
Hmong indignation at the incident in Madison is less about Kaplan than the forces that make experts’ voices heard while Hmong are silenced. Kaplan sometimes denied his comments while simultaneously defending their accuracy: “Sometimes you do harm to people’s sensitivity by speaking the truth.” That Kaplan believed he was sympathetic toward the Hmong, that he presented stereotypes not as slurs but as “truths,” is what’s alarming.
Before dismissing Hmong reactions as oversensitive, we need to remember the larger experience of hate speech and acts in Wisconsin, where a white man was recently convicted of brutally murdering a Hmong man. He told the sheriff immediately afterwards that he did it because, among other reasons, “Hmong men kill everything that moves.”
This is the kind of social context that confronts Hmong Madisonians outside the classroom. What we want to illuminate here is why such statements become even more of a problem when they are validated by the authority of academia.
The Critical Hmong Studies Collective, established in 2007, is a network of faculty and graduate students, mostly Hmong, who are concerned with contemporary issues for Hmong in the U.S. and transnationally. Situated in universities across the U.S., members represent a range of specialties including American Studies, Anthropology, Education, English, Ethnic Studies, History and Sociology. For more information, contact Chia Vang email@example.com.