I’m giving a talk at Women and Children first about how I got back on my bike after my crash in 2010. I...
On September 24, NPR show Radiolab aired a 25-minute segment on Yellow Rain. In the 1960s, most Hmong had sided with America in a secret war against the Pathet Lao and its allies. More than 100,000 Hmong died in this conflict, and when American troops pulled out, the rest were left to face brutal repercussions. Those who survived the perilous journey to Thailand carried horrific stories of an ongoing genocide, among them accounts of chemical warfare. Their stories provoked a scientific controversy that still hasn’t been resolved. In its podcast, Radiolab set out to find the “fact of the matter”. Yet its relentless badgering of Hmong refugee Eng Yang and his niece, award-winning author and activist Kao Kalia Yang, provoked an outcry among its listeners, and its ongoing callous, racist handling of the issue has since been criticized in several places, including Hyphen. When Hyphen’s R.J. Lozada reached out to Kao Kalia Yang, she graciously agreed to share her side of the story for the first time. What follows are her words, and those of her uncle.
On the date of the interview, Wednesday May 16th, 2012 at 10 in the morning, Marisa Helms (a Minnesota-based sound producer sent by Radiolab), my husband, and I met with Uncle Eng’s family at their house in Brooklyn Center. In customary Hmong tradition, my uncle had laid out a feast of fruits and fruit drinks from the local Asian grocery store. He had risen early, went through old notebooks where he’d documented in Lao, Thai, Hmong, and a smattering of French and English, recollections of Hmong history, gathered thoughts, and written down facts of the time. The phone lines were connected to WNYC studios.
Pat and Robert introduced themselves and asked us for our introductions. The questions began. They wanted to know where my uncle was during the war, what happened after the Americans left, why the Hmong ran into the jungles, what happened in the jungles, what was his experience of Yellow Rain. Uncle Eng responded to each question. The questions took a turn. The interview became an interrogation. A Harvard scientist said the Yellow Rain Hmong people experienced was nothing more than bee defecation.
My uncle explained Hmong knowledge of the bees in the mountains of Laos, said we had harvested honey for centuries, and explained that the chemical attacks were strategic; they happened far away from established bee colonies, they happened where there were heavy concentrations of Hmong. Robert grew increasingly harsh, “Did you, with your own eyes, see the yellow powder fall from the airplanes?” My uncle said that there were planes flying all the time and bombs being dropped, day and night. Hmong people did not wait around to look up as bombs fell. We came out in the aftermath to survey the damage. He said what he saw, “Animals dying, yellow that could eat through leaves, grass, yellow that could kill people — the likes of which bee poop has never done.”
My uncle explained that he was serving as documenter of the Hmong experience for the Thai government, a country that helped us during the genocide. With his radio and notebooks, he journeyed to the sites where the attacks had happened, watched with his eyes what had happened to the Hmong, knew that what was happening to the Hmong were not the result of dysentery, lack of food, the environment we had been living in or its natural conditions. Robert crossed the line. He said that what my uncle was saying was “hearsay.”
I had been trying valiantly to interpret everything my uncle was saying, carry meaning across the chasm of English and Hmong, but I could no longer listen to Robert’s harsh dismissal of my uncle’s experience. After two hours, I cried,
“My uncle says for the last twenty years he didn’t know that anyone was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. What happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been uninterested for the last twenty years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard and the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken and our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him, or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game, we can, but I’m not interested, my uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people in the process. I, I think the interview is done.”
Before we hung up the phone, I asked for copies of the full interview. Robert told me that I would need a court order. I offered resources I have on Yellow Rain, news articles and medical texts that a doctor from Columbia University had sent my way, resources that would offer Radiolab a fuller perspective of the situation in Laos and the conditions of the Hmong exposed to the chemicals. My uncle gave Marisa a copy of a DVD he had recorded of a Hmong woman named Pa Ma, speaking of her experiences in the jungles of Laos after the Americans left, so that the Radiolab team would understand the fullness of what happened to the Hmong. After we hung up the phone, there was silence from the Radiolab team.
Here I want to delve into what I’m calling hipster anti-racism. It’s a term I’m using to describe those moments when (usually) white folks perform anti-racist/liberatory attitudes about a racialized issue in an attempt to appear subversive and often “hip.”
Unlike hipster racism, it is not a performance of ironic racism but actually a performance of anti-racist attitude as a signifier of hipness. It is important to understand that hipster anti-racism can be performed by anyone, not just those we characteristically label as hipsters. Hipster anti-racism is defined by by being 1) insincere, 2) momentary, 3) subversive for the sake of being hip and not for a deeper dismantling of systems of power and oppression, and 4) present in rhetoric almost exclusively, with little indication of substantive shifts towards anti-racist behavior or action.
In other words, hipster anti-racism, like much of hipsterdom, is defined by its appropriation and lack of historicity. In this case, it is an anti-racism that is not making an effort to link itself into broader histories and communities of anti-racist struggle. Note that I don’t think every instance of momentary engagement with race and racialization is an instance of hipster anti-racism. Those moments, could, after all, signify the beginnings of an awakening to ideas of privilege/power and anti-racism. It is only when someone’s anti-racism is only and continually displayed through those momentary engagements (rather than a deeper and more actionable shift in consciousness) that I think it wanders into the category of hipster anti-racism. I’m not saying we all have to (or can) become full-time anti-racist activists, but I am saying that if you’re going to talk about racism all the time, your actions had better align a little better with your rhetoric.
The amount of white whine in comments for the poster about racism and “fair skin” is kind of making me facepalm so much right now.
Oh, fellow white people. That ad? Was mild. It was a mild and rather polite way of trying to tell you something that’s been an obvious fact of life for so many others in this world. But instead of engaging, you react defensively because, well, you have no idea how to conceive of a world where white entitlement isn’t an unqualified good.
And frankly, the Jane Elliott video? Also mild. The woman only really raised her voice and spoke in a slightly brusque tone. Like one of the students of color said in her interview, no one hit them or anything.
Yet, those white students cried and got angry and generally threw fits.
If I could impress one thing upon my fellow white folks? It would be that PoC/non-white folks have been impressively patient with us. They have not even begun to be as harsh as we deserve.
They have not taken us en masse and traded us as slaves, dividing us up, putting us up for auction, parading us naked and separated from family, friends, and community and inspected us like cattle.
They have not armed themselves and rounded us up, exiling us from our homes and telling us that a government we do not even recognize has declared that we must live in some totally strange place.
They have not stolen our children and tried to eradicate all semblance of white culture, language, heritage and history from them, killing, maiming and traumatizing so many in the process.
They have not used us, without our knowledge and consent, in cruel medical experiments meant to benefit them while leaving us scarred, barren, maimed, and sometimes dead.
They have not taken sacred bits of our lives, the songs we sing to our deities or the clothing we wear when we consecrate the things most precious to us and sold them as cheap trinkets and accessories.
They have not used our hair and eyes and general skin tone to describe the things they hate, the things they consider ugly or filled magazines, pictures, and aisles full of products for themselves while leaving very little or no space for us and the things we need to match our skin tone, our hair types.
They have not posted sign after sign in the businesses and establishments they own or control, telling us we’re not welcome, telling us we must only come through the back door, telling us we may only use this restroom over here or this water fountain.
They have not taken white men who leered, cat called, or otherwise looked wrong at a woman of color and surrounded him with a mob and beat him, tortured him, and hung his body up high as an example of what happens to white men who dare to attack the sanctity of women of color.
They have not put up walls and fences and borders to keep us divided and then punished us and dehumanized us if we walk across it, seeking resources because they have taken so much from our homes even as they use us for cheap, disposable labor that they find beneath them.
They have not provided billions of dollars worth of weapons, bombs, personnel to our enemies to help them exterminate us.
They have not attempted genocide against us.
They have not patrolled the streets of their neighborhoods and communities and towns, pulling over, arresting, beating, or shooting any white person who looks remotely suspicious or shooting those white people who are already on the ground, prone and surrendering and called it justified.
They have not had white mothers so terrified for their sons that they hug them at night when they see the news, knowing that even if their sons behave perfectly they still might fall prey to simply being the wrong color and in the wrong place at the wrong time and die for it.
They have not hoarded the wealth of the country and then complained when we tried to get enough to feed our families.
They have not sterilized us against our will or talked about how we ought not to have children anymore.
They have not forced us into poorer and poorer living conditions, driving us from neighborhoods so that they can remodel and remake it according to the tastes of the richest among them.
They have not created institutions, societies, organizations, and philosophies based on how inferior we are as human beings.
Yet we, white people, have done all this and more to them. The list of things they have not done to us could take up posts and posts and posts because it is so long and so horrendous.
And yet they have approached us with more respect, patience, and tolerance than we have any right to expect. More than we could possibly deserve.
So when you see these ads or exercises like the ones Jane Elliott conducts or other such things meant to try to communicate to you that you need to rethink whiteness and the way you act and operate in the world, you need to accept with gratitude and humility. You need to take it to heart and then offer a genuine thank you to any person of color who even bothers with you.
And then you need to take action. On your time, dime, and in your own space to make sure that PoC don’t have to keep bothering with you. Because they shouldn’t have to.
“The essence of the “I didn’t own any slaves” story line is that present generations are not responsible for the ills of slavery. This story line [is] used frequently in conjuction with the story line of “The past in the past”… As can be seen, these two story lines [serve] whites as instrument to object to blacks’ demands for compensatory policies. Furthermore, they [help] whites stand on high moral ground when objecting to these policies…
This story line ignores the fact that pro-white polices (“preferential treatment”) in jobs, housing, elections, and access to social space (“No blacks and Mexicans allowed here!”) have had (and continue to have) a positive effect for all those deemed “white.”…Hence, the ”It wasn’t me” approach of this story line does not fit the reality of how racial privilege operated and still operates in America. Although specific whites may not have participated directly in the overt discriminatory practices that injured blacks and other minorities in the past, they all have received unearned privileges by virtue of being regarded as “white” and have benefited form the various incarnations of white supremacy in the United States.” (79)