- Two Hate NotesDeportations, COVID-19, and Xenophobia against Hmong Americans in the Midwest
In February 2020, I received a xenophobic hate note in my campus mailbox regarding President Donald Trump's negotiations with the Lao government to deport Hmong living in the United States back to Laos. The hate note read: "Deport all Hmongs, Deport all illegal aliens HMONGS, ICE & CBP are law enforcement and should be obeyed, No room for criminals, No Amnesty ever."I was shaken and unsettled. The xenophobic hate note created intense anxiety for me because I know that my advocacy as a Hmong American scholar and professor teaching and speaking to the media about the deportation issues rendered me a vulnerable target for racists and xenophobes. In the following days, I discussed the deportation negotiations with Laos at length in my course, "Hmong American Experiences in the U.S." My students were furious about the larger American public's ahistorical, inaccurate, and misguided readings regarding the Hmong presence in the United States as forcibly displaced political refugees who fought as proxy soldiers for the Central Intelligence Agency's secret war in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s. One Hmong American student commented that the deportation negotiations made her feel unwanted in the United States. How can I convey that I care about her? My spirit was shattered; I was on edge, demoralized, and fearing for my safety.
The news reports, activism, and social discourse surrounding the deportation negotiations came to a screeching halt when news of COVID-19 broke out all over the world just one month later, in March 2020. While still recovering from a traumatic racist experience with the hate note, I was [End Page 335] thrust into another world of racism and xenophobia amidst the rapidly spreading global pandemic. A familiar wave of anti-Asian racism swept across the United States, as reckless as the virus itself. I was struck by another racist and xenophobic incident when a hate note was taped onto a Hmong American couple's apartment door in Woodbury, Minnesota. The note read: "We're watching you fucking chinks take the Chinese virus back to china. We don't want you hear infecting us with your diseases!!!!!!!!!!–your friendly neighborhood."1 The explosion of racist violence against Asians during the outbreak of COVID-19 exacerbated my fears of being Asian American in western, mostly rural Wisconsin. For my students, the couple, and myself, it is difficult to shake off that unsettling feeling of being targeted by both the U.S. settler state and racists on the ground. I find myself asking how we can turn to each other for support and care in these times of heightened racism.
There is one strand of social discourse that connects the two hate notes directed against me in Wisconsin and the Hmong American couple in Minnesota. The first note conflates Hmong as "illegals" and renders invisible the specific historical context that was the caveat to Hmong political migration to the United States. The second note conflates Hmong Americans with Chinese and China, and renders Hmong Americans invisible and anything but Americans. In the note that I received, the writer deployed the concept of "illegal aliens" towards Hmong to justify our deportation. "Illegal aliens" are understood pejoratively to be subjects whose presence in the United States is unlawful and thus whose existence in and of itself constitutes criminality. The "illegal alien" is reduced to a condition of statelessness because they do not belong in the U.S. nation-state via their lack of legal citizenship and/or formal recognition of their presence. For Hmong, the deployment of "illegal aliens" feels familiar due to the Hmong's historical and political conditions as stateless refugees. Although different from the position of the "illegal alien," nonetheless our deportability even as political refugees serves to remind us that we are neither citizens nor Americans, if not in the legal sense, then certainly in the social sense.
The Woodbury note contained an equally pernicious undertone. It aligns closer to the yellow peril discourse attributed to Asians as diseased invaders. Hmong Americans are effaced by racism, even though Hmong Americans make up the largest...