1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to secondary-content

Persistent Invisibility: Hmong Americans are silenced

By: The Critical Hmong Studies Collective, Sep 13, 2008
Tags: Opinion, Voices from The Community |

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 vangcy@uwm.edu.


  1. `yes, I sure that Kaplan dude say something that isn’t right….sure he did. But White are just trouble and hater. They never seen to learn, just look at their histroy…think of the trail of tears for the Cherokee indian? why are they protesting the free Tibet in China? China and Tibet sure live peacefully…they don’t have Trail of Tear march…hypocrites…

    –Yang on Sep 13, 2008

  2. Why? Because there are many people out there claimed they are smart and they know everything about Hmong, and went on to give wrong information about Hmong to other people. This is has been going in the Hmong professional and higher educators levels. So, who to scold? Maybe Hmong scold Hmongself.

    –Vang, Jeff on Sep 13, 2008

  3. Kudos to the Hmong Collective here.
    The Hmong were recruited and esploited in “our” cause during the Vietnam War, then were brought to this country and largely? left to their own devices, strangers in a strange land.
    And in the course of the three decades, as the authors above claim and demonstrate, they have been “invisible” but for that “hunter” headline and the likes of Prof. Kaplan’s stereotyping.
    That the last occurred in a state university setting is unsettling, but the fact is that academia and its effluence include the recent likes of one “liberal” titan of the campus targeting a fellow in the matter of tenure.
    More scary is the fact that the American Psychological Assn., if memory serves from an online article or two, has, in effect, sanctioned by its silence, the administration stance on waterboarding.
    Were our “leaders” and our “teachers” properly “schooled” in simple humanities, such conditions would likely not exist, at least not so blatantly.
    For anyone, today, who claims to be “civilized,” much less “educated” and thereby “elite”?, to “lecture” a classroom of students and make such statements is to place himself alongside the likes of the noisiest of our media demagogues.
    I find it surprising, AND encouraging, that the Hmong themselves have produced, within the brief span of three decades, the above “collective” in the face of the odds.
    And, sans condescension I hope, may I be among those to congratulate them and wish them Godspeed.
    Frank Eng

    –Frank Eng on Sep 13, 2008

  4. Jeff Vang, I asssume you’re Hmong. And I assume you’re under 30. Your comment about Hmong brought problems upon themselves shows that you don’t know much about your community (again, assuming you are Hmong, if you’re not, then you just contradict the article and yourself). There has always been those who go “live” in a culture/society different from their own for a few months and claimed to know everything about that culture. Unfortunately, the “victim” culture happens to be Hmong among many people in the world. Asian culture is so complex that unless you grew up in it, it is very hard to understand fully and able to make an intelligent assesment of it from a cultural perspective. There had been many books about Hmong written by non-Hmong (mostly white) that are inaccurate due to their limited knowledge of the entire community and its complex culture. This just show the writers’ irrogant minds inserting their bias on others. Should Hmong be blamed for this? If I’m not Chinese and start talking about all incorrect Chinese culture at a party, are the Chinese to be blamed for not being there to defend themselves? A new chapter telling the true face of Hmong - the good, the bad and the ugly - will be told honestly by Hmong. Be patient grasshopper.

    The Hmong, like any group in America encounters the complex society of America. There are intellectuals, professionals, thinkers, humanitarians, loving parents, peace monigers and Democrates as well as gang members, theives, dumbasses, cheaters, war fighters and Republicans. So for anyone to catagorized a particular group of people as this or that truly does not know what he/she’s talking about.

    The truth will speaks for itself.

    Peace out-

    –Foomanchu on Sep 15, 2008

  5. In all honesty, where is the report on his lecture? I read what was linked from this article, but I didn’t see anything offensive. Maybe I’m missing it….

    –Vang, M on Sep 15, 2008

  6. You know that if this was a topic about African-American’s, I assume Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would of been all over this topic. But since the N.A.A.C.P. should be universally re-named N.A.A.B.P. (National Association of Advancement of Black People), we don’t have a literal voice or is this being debated on Larry King Live.

    To label all Hmong’s the same is like trying to say that all caucasians are racist, all hispanics are illegals, and all blacks are thieves.

    To put things into retrospective, we are just like any immigrant group, let it be the Armenians, Irish, Italians, Russians, Koreans, etc.

    Remember, we have a gang problem. But didn’t the Irish have that too? As I recall, the 40 Thieves was New York’s first street gang. That lasted from the 1820’s up to the Civil War. That’s 40+ years. Wait, let’s talk about the Italians, who was responsible for over 1,000 of murders every year starting in the early 1900’s. And we still have that problem today. Yet they glorify it on Television and give them awards. So are we still that bad?

    Okay, no on us being warriors and killers. If you lived in the woods without running water and electricity, without a supermarket or without the means to get food, what would you do? Most Hmong children learn how to shoot a rifle as a way to survive. So it only became natural to us to be able to kill someone when the AMERICAN’S called upon us to do. Is there something wrong with a caucasian child learning how to kill deer on a farm in Nebraska, not to survive, but to learn how to shoot things? Or what about the gun problems that plague the African-American community? They learn how to shoot EACH OTHER as a survival tactic. So are we that bad? Are we killers? When other ethnicities kill for the fun of it or without just cause?

    I wish I was in his closed “forum”. I bet he had the Klu Klux Klan and the KILL CHAI VANG Club in there only.

    Here’s my thing: If Leonard Kaplan is a man, a scholar, a professor, a man of any intelligence, HOLD AN OPEN FORUM with Hmong Business Professionals, like myself.

    Simple lesson to anybody who wants to open their mouths about stereotyping should think twice, if you ask for the Bull, obviously your going to get the horns too!

    –David Xiong on Sep 15, 2008

  7. As a Hmong student who goes to school at UW-Madison and was there during the Kaplan issue I think this article makes some really good points. But one aspect that I don’t think this article touched on was the disunity of the Hmong students. A lot of people give the Hmong law students the credit for protesting and making demands but on the campus the Hmong students here really give credit to the Hmong undergraduates. They are the ones who actually organized both Hmong and American students around the Kaplan issue and really gave the University a scare. Credit should really be given to people in HASA and APAC like James Chang who really spoke up at the Law School. For us who go here the Kaplan event really shows why it is so easy to dis the Hmong here. Because when Hmong people like the Hmong undergraduates actually rally enough support behind an issue to really get something they are undercut by other Hmong people, like the Hmong Law school students, who would rather wait for the University to feel bad for them and hopefully give them something. For us Hmong undergrads I remember the Hmong undergrads rallying a hundred students and demanding a real discussion before walking out of the Law School after Kaplan didn’t show up to talk and the Law School students crying and hoping the University would make Kaplan apologize.

    –Actions Not Words on Sep 22, 2008

  8. Dear “Actions Not Words”:
    I salute you AND your undergraduate fellows at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
    I can remember when UW-M was anything but a reflection of “white hunter” angst and a beacon of academic openness and inclusiveness.
    But that was then and today is now.
    But, I also believe that you are missing a point here.
    Your law-school compadres are NOT the enemy.
    They are your colleagues and your cohorts.
    And “words” are, in truth, possibly even MORE important than “actions” in the final analysis.
    Don’t diss your felliows. Go after Kaplan AND the deans and the administrators, whatever their “color.”
    They, of all people, should know better than to stereotype, much less feed the angst and the hatreds of those who are, at heart, racists and bullies.
    Time to join together, NOT fight one another.
    Frank Eng

    –Frank Eng on Sep 22, 2008

  9. Mr. Frank Eng,

    Please contact me at my rsdong@sbcglobal.net to have a dialogue.

    Roger S. Dong, Chairman, Chinese American Heroes

    –Roger S Dong, Chairman, Chinese American Heroes on Sep 23, 2008

Post your comments.

Comments using inappropriate language will not be posted. AsianWeek reserves the right to re-publish comments, into "Letters to the Editor," in which case, we reserve the right to edit comments for length and style. If you would like to write a letter to our editor, please email: asianweek@asianweek.com.

© 2005-2008 AsianWeek. The information you receive on-line from AsianWeek is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any copyright protected material. Privacy Policy

E-mail It