Violent Invisibilities: The Battle for Hmong and Southeast Asian American Legibility in Higher Education

Kong Pheng Pha, Kaochi Pha, and Dee Pha

Asian Americans are situated in a precarious, but violent, position within the U.S. racial system (Tuan, 1998; Wu, 2002; Hong, 2020). Their so-called status as “model minorities” occlude the many struggles that they experience in a white supremacist, anti-Black, and xenophobic society. In particular, Asian American students who do not fit neatly within the model minority stereotype are rendered invisible within discourses about Asian American experiences in higher education. This is inarguably the case for Southeast Asian American students, including Hmong, Cambodian, Lao, and Vietnamese American students who, being refugees and children of refugees from the American imperialist wars in Southeast Asia, are not neatly situated within dominant paradigms of “success” (Lee, 2005; 2009; Lee et al., 2017). Furthermore, the lack of Hmong and Southeast Asian American representation in academic institutions means that these student populations also experience a host of racist experiences and microaggressions. For example, Hmong American students in college classrooms are asked to explain who Hmong people are to their non-Hmong peers. When students say that they are Hmong American, “What is that?” would be a common reply. The word “Hmong” is often also willfully mispronounced through the question, “What is H-Mong?” Additionally, academic studies of Hmong have relied on stereotypes of them as timeless objects bounded in a static culture. This objectification of Hmong as simply objects of study rather than living subjects elides their marginalization and heightens their invisibility (Kwan, 2015; Smolarek et al, 2021). 

In this article, we, as three Hmong American children of refugees and previous graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Minnesota (UMN), detail the ongoing violent systems of racial inconspicuousness that Hmong and Southeast Asian American students continue to experience at UMN which perpetuates our invisibility within the neoliberal and corporate university. In particular, we recount the firing of our longtime mentor JL, who has fought tirelessly on behalf of Hmong and Southeast Asian American students for twenty-four years at UMN. JL’s unjust and arbitrary termination in the summer of 2015 represents the larger struggles of Hmong and Southeast Asian American students in higher education. This article situates the racialized educational experiences of Hmong and Southeast Asian Americans in the neoliberal university in the context of JL’s termination, the reorganization of the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence (MCAE), a unit within the larger Office of Equity and Diversity (OED) where JL was employed, and the activism of Hmong and Southeast Asian American students during the fall semester of 2015 responding to JL’s firing and the reorganization of MCAE.

Given the ongoing Hmong and Southeast Asian American marginalization within the university, we argue that mentorship from Hmong American staff constitutes a form of resistance that works to negate the violence of invisibility. This article argues that JL’s practices challenged the corporate landscape of “diversity” within the university, which envisions diversity as a form of predatory inclusion rather than social transformation. This in turn led to his firing. We argue that MCAE’s reorganization and JL’s dismissal aligns with neoliberal regimes of “corporate diversity” within the broader context of the corporatization of higher education in the U.S., which, we maintain, is ultimately a barrier to Hmong and Southeast Asian American success in higher education. 

A Firing and a Fight

JL was a staff member at the MCAE and an instructor at UMN. Historically, MCAE existed to provide mentorship, tutoring services, community-building events, and an overall “safe space” for first-generation, low-income, historically underrepresented, and marginalized students of color at UMN. In his role as a staff member at MCAE, JL provided day-to-day support for students of color, particularly first-generation Hmong and Southeast Asian American students. JL also taught the first and only class on Hmong youth at UMN, which was groundbreaking for its time. Many first-generation Hmong and Southeast Asian American students relied on JL to establish communication with their parents who possessed little understanding of higher education. Thus, JL was a bridge connecting generations of Hmong and Southeast Asian American communities to UMN. He fostered and cultivated relationships between parents, staff, and students at UMN by serving as advisor to student organizations such as the Hmong Minnesota Student Association (HMSA) and Hmong Men’s Circle, while acting as an accrediting expert and language proficiency proctor for the Hmong language. JL’s approach to working with students focused on slow, careful, and in-depth processes of relationship-building, teaching, and mentorship that connected staff, students, and parents to each other. JL’s position as a staff member in MCAE functioned as a family member rather than a manager (Jenkins, Conerly, Hypolite, and Patton, 2021). In essence, his unapologetic belief in nurturing the personhood of marginalized students enabled Hmong and Southeast Asian American students to thrive at UMN during the two decades that he was employed there. 

In August 2015, amid structural changes to MCAE initiated by OED, JL was unilaterally fired (although the official term deployed was “non-renewal”) by OED’s Vice President (VP) and Assistant Vice President (AVP) for Equity and Diversity. JL requested his contract to be transferred to another academic unit instead of being “non-renewed,” but his request was denied, and he was terminated from UMN altogether by the two chief diversity officers. While JL was not the only Hmong American staff member at UMN, his leadership, advocacy, and mentorship at the MCAE substantially touched the everyday experiences of Hmong and Southeast Asian American students at the university. Undoubtedly, students lost an important voice when JL was terminated. Thus, terminating a long-time member representing one of the largest communities of color in Minnesota served as a reminder that UMN did not find it important to have an administrative voice for Hmong and Southeast Asian American students in any capacity within student affairs. It further reveals that the university’s commitment to “equity” and “diversity” is merely lip service. Moreover, OED chose a route of “non-renewing” JL’s employment during the summer, a time when the students who could question this unjust administrative decision were not on campus. For OED, JL did not fit their new “MCAE Forward” plan, which we detail in the next section. However, as Hmong and Southeast Asian American students, we understood JL’s “non-renewal” as a tactic to silence our voices on campus as well as perpetuate our invisibility in the larger U.S. society. How can UMN move forward without having a Hmong and Southeast Asian American voice at an office (MCAE) whose sole responsibility was to ensure the success of first-generation, low-income, students of color on campus?  

With support from graduate students and the larger Twin Cities Hmong American community who have benefitted from JL’s work over the last two decades, we formed the collective—Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (APIs) for Equity and Diversity—as a response to JL’s unjust termination. Our collective of Southeast Asian Americans students, led primarily by Hmong, Vietnamese, and Filipino American undergraduate students, organized protests and made media appearances interrogating MCAE’s new direction. Our decision to co-opt “equity and diversity” as part of our collective’s name was intended to highlight the irony and cosmetic usage of such terms within OED and to gesture toward a more substantial usage of these vocabularies. 

U.S. universities have adopted the language of “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion,” in the last several decades as a façade to promulgate their status as supposedly conscious of and committed to social justice issues. However, OED’s deployment of “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion,” does not substantively engage the struggles of Hmong and Southeast Asian Americans who have historically lacked access to higher education in the U.S. OED’s paradigm of change and “student success” is predicated on a shallow deployment of diversity and equally damaging practices of invisibilization that further marginalizes Hmong and Southeast Asian American students (Alcoff, 2003; Wu, 2002). When Hmong and Southeast Asian American students arrive in college, there is a lack of mentorship to retain and help them succeed in higher education. Thus, diversity within the corporate university seeks to insert differential and racialized bodies into the institution without acknowledging that these same bodies need mentorship for them to thrive. JL’s methodology of slow and careful mentorship and cultivation of students and their parents challenged the fast-paced and quick-fix-solutions approach employed by the corporate university in addressing social inequality. In sum, the deployment of diversity in the university is predicated on the erasure of students’ material personhoods, in this case, Hmong and Southeast Asian American students. 

APIs for Equity and Diversity created a Facebook group to organize as many students, staff, alumni, and allies as possible to strengthen our resistance against OED. Our first meeting as a group during the fall semester of 2015 brought in many Hmong and Southeast Asian American students who were concerned and confused about JL’s termination. This was the first time we as Hmong and Southeast Asian American students, staff, and alumni on campus assembled to debrief JL’s termination that took place the previous summer. However, it was not only students, staff, and alumni who attended our first group meeting; the AVP for Equity and Diversity also surprisingly attended to “listen” to students’ concerns about the situation. His main intention, however, was to finagle the introduction of a “revamped” MCAE by introducing to students a plan OED had implemented called “MCAE Forward.” MCAE Forward is a plan that entailed the revamping of MCAE to move its operations closer to administrative governance and management. In essence, this plan fundamentally entails the firing of existing staff members and replacing them with new workers. The presence of the AVP for Equity and Diversity created a hostile space for students, especially because he was unwilling to answer student questions around JL’s mysterious termination. Moreover, our meeting was not an open invitation and was only intended for individuals affected and concerned by JL’s “non-renewal.” The AVP’s decision to invade our space reinforced the idea that UMN is never ours to begin with.

As part of our efforts, our collective wrote a letter to OED that garnered over fifteen signatures from campus, local, and national organizations or institutional bodies, including the Asian American Student Union, Midwest Asian American Student Union, Cornell Asian Pacific Americans for Action, University of Maryland Asian American Student Union, East Coast Asian American Student Union, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum – Twin Cities Chapter, OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, African American & African Studies Department and the Asian American Studies Program at UMN, UMTC Colony of Delta Phi Omega Sorority, Inc., UMTC Colony of Pi Delta Psi Fraternity, Inc., Vietnamese Student Association of Minnesota, Hmong Minnesota Student Association, Hmong Men’s Circle, Hmong Cultural Center, and UMTC Colony of Alpha Phi Gamma Sorority, Inc. In our letter to OED, we critiqued JL’s unilateral termination, while also critiquing the new direction of MCAE. We wrote:

“We believe that the new theoretical model ‘MCAE Forward’ is in line with the university’s paradigm of institutional change founded on a crippling colorblind diversity and an equally damaging black-white binary that further marginalizes Hmong, Southeast Asian, Asian American students, as well as other communities of color who don’t fit neatly into those two binaries.

Ultimately, we firmly believe that the leadership of the OED is thoroughly disconnected from the everyday experiences of Hmong, Southeast Asian, and Asian American students at the University of Minnesota. We have yet to see any concrete plans or discussions on how to develop Hmong, Southeast Asian, or Asian American-specific initiatives, and this is a problem.”

Moreover, we initiated a petition on the platform to call for greater engagement with Hmong and Southeast Asian American students at the university and increased transparency within OED. Our petition amassed 687 signatures.

We organized two demonstrations against OED during the fall of 2015. The first demonstration occurred outside of UMN’s Coffman Memorial Union (a building that houses the offices of various student cultural groups) where the AVP for Equity and Diversity was set to publicly reveal the new MCAE Forward plan in the Black Student Union’s (BSU) cultural center. With BSU’s allyship, along with student organizations such as La Raza, Asian-American Student Union, and others that utilized the second-floor space in Coffman, we assembled a multiracial group of organizers and supporters and attended the AVP for Equity and Diversity’s presentation on MCAE Forward at the BSU cultural center. During the presentation, the AVP for Equity and Diversity essentially blamed students for not understanding the changes happening at UMN, within MCAE, and in higher education at large. The AVP for Equity and Diversity argued that the new MCAE Forward plan was going to benefit students of color, even though the plan was created over the summer with zero input from students. 

Our second action occurred during OED’s annual Equity and Diversity Breakfast held at the McNamara Alumni Center on November 11, 2015. The event brought in alumni, donors, faculty, and corporate entities who often donate to OED as well as other leaders from the university to recognize students receiving the Scholarly Excellence in Equity and Diversity (SEED) awards. Our goal in protesting at this event was to demonstrate that OED was not engaging equity and diversity in ways that nurtured Hmong and Southeast Asian American students’ academic success at the university. We staged a “silent” protest by taping our mouths to reveal how OED perpetuates the silencing of Hmong and Southeast Asian American students. Although the local news covered our demonstration, we did not receive any response from OED or the larger university administration.

In the next section, we perform a close reading of the MCAE Forward plan to reveal its neoliberal logics to argue that the restructuring transforms MCAE from a student-centered engagement entity to one of administrative governance.

Neoliberal Visions and the Racial Politics of MCAE Forward

Neoliberalism is a system of complex ideologies that favors free-market capitalism and privatization. Among its basic tenets is the notion that “success” must lie within the individual acting in the free  market (Harvey, 2005; Ong, 2006). However, the notion of individual success has also infiltrated other domains of U.S. society, including higher education. As higher education becomes more neoliberal, its ideologies are shifted toward individualism which neglects and outright disregards the social dimensions of student mentorship and learning. Only the most privileged thrive under neoliberal policies, namely wealthy white students who already possess the resources necessary to be individually successful. Hmong and Southeast Asian American students are harmed under ideologies and structures of neoliberalism that privileges self-reliance and individual responsibility. This neoliberal and capitalist shift in higher education is evident in the new MCAE Forward plan envisioned by the OED.

The MCAE Forward plan delivered by the AVP of Equity and Diversity used buzzwords such as academic excellence, leadership development, global citizenship, alumni making, career advancement, student engagement, and identity development and support, which upon closer examination reveal themselves to be a strategy to transform students of color into neoliberal and corporate subjects. That is, while previous programming such as student social events, peer tutoring, and close mentoring from staff were aimed at fostering retention of and community-building between students of color, the new vision seemed to be aimed solely at making students competitive in the job market. MCAE was restructured, and its staff such as JL were terminated, to create room for new staff members with the title “Multicultural Associates.” According to the MCAE Forward presentation provided by the AVP for Equity and Diversity, the new Multicultural Associates were expected to “demonstrate intellectual curiosity about higher education administration and intercultural competence,” “develop executive presence,” and “increase emotional intelligence.” Such vocabularies of diversity align neatly with capitalistic and corporatized regimes of neoliberal education whereby these Multicultural Associates are tasked with disciplining future students for market-driven occupations. Innocuous sounding phrases such as “curiosity about higher education administration and intercultural competence” and developing “executive presence” in fact seem to align closer to corporate jargon than terminology associated with a liberal arts education within an institution of higher learning. It is even more removed from a center that professes dedication to first-generation, low-income, students of color. 

Furthermore, MCAE Forward would establish a corporate hierarchy within the center with the AVP for Equity and Diversity himself as the head to further create a culture of top-down leadership that ultimately disempowers students, despite claiming that students will have a voice in their own success. Thus, the MCAE Forward plan displaces horizontal solidarities and relationship-building envisioned and fostered by JL that sought to position students and mentors on an equal level field. Instead, it implements a vertical organizational structure within MCAE, and solidifies a rigid hierarchy to achieve a narrow version of student “success.”

The fact that two administrators who were Black and had served at UMN for less than three years, unilaterally terminated a Hmong American staff member and advocate who had worked at the center for twenty-four-years speaks volumes about the complex racial politics of the situation. In fact, scholars have demonstrated how administrators of color—especially the position of the “chief diversity officer”—have operated as an extension of the corporate and neoliberal university (Tuitt, 2021). People of color are recruited to perform the work of whiteness in the institution in order to achieve tangible results (graduation and job market success rates) rather than intangible ones (empowerment of students of color). Discourses of race in the U.S. also situate Hmong and Southeast Asian Americans as model minorities, subsuming them under the umbrella of “Asian Americans” in ways that can perpetuate colorblindness and invisiblize imperialist histories and class differences. Thus, JL’s firing was not perceived as racist or as an act of harm to Hmong and Southeast Asian American students. Instead, JL’s termination was subsumed under the colorblind neoliberal logic of program restructuring that is seemingly devoid of race. Hmong and Southeast Asian Americans are harmed within this racial paradigm because they are ideologically constructed as not needing (or deserving) educational assistance, and the dismissal of their experiences and the elimination of their support systems are not understood as racial injury. 

In particular, Hmong Americans living in the U.S. are subjects of a legacy of American imperial warfare in Laos where an illicit operation that violated international law brought Hmong to the U.S. as political refugees in the mid-1970s (Vang, 2010; Vang, 2021). This legacy of secrecy and racial violence, we argue, manifests itself in current iterations of American higher education in ways that creates conditions of nefarious invisibility for Hmong American and Southeast Asian American students (Vang, 2021). The secret war in Laos serves as a context for the high levels of poverty within Hmong American communities, specifically because Hmong Americans entered the U.S. as refugees. Furthermore, this historical characterization of Hmong as refugees living in the past works discursively to render Hmong American students as incompatible with narratives of neoliberal and capitalistic futurism. In OED’s vision of MCAE Forward, JL did not fit within the ideological apparatuses of “academic excellence” or “global citizenship.” His engagements with and commitment to a very particular student population (namely Hmong and Southeast Asian American) meant that his work in the university was “local” or “niche,” and not “global.” Furthermore, JL’s methodology of student engagement, mentorship, and relationship-building in the corporate university was too slow, too careful, and too in-depth. Such approaches were antithetical to market-driven capitalism which is predicated on fast-paced, results-driven capital production. JL took up the space of a Multicultural Associate who could better transform students of color into corporate, futuristic subjects. Thus, there is a two-fold process occurring. At one level, JL’s firing was racial, while on another level, his firing was ideological. Race thus shapes ideology, and vice-versa, to frame education as a form of financial capital rather than a process for social transformation, mentorship, and community engagement, particularly for Hmong and Southeast Asian American students.  


In a meeting in February 2016, members of APIs for Equity and Diversity reflected on the events of the summer and fall semestes of 2015 surrounding JL’s firing, the protests, letters, and actions that students undertook to bring to light the struggles of Hmong and Southeast Asian American students. We also highlighted what we accomplished, what we learned, and how to improve the work that we had started building. It was a powerful and bittersweet moment for us as a collective to reconvene and revel in what made APIs for Equity and Diversity both incredibly demanding, fulfilling, and everything in between. 

Overall, our involvement in APIs for Equity and Diversity was different from our involvement in other “cultural” student organizations. While student “cultural groups” are expected to exist in the university as apolitical entities, our group explicitly utilized our racialized identities as political weapons to elucidate the violent colorblind structure of the American university and its neoliberalized deployment of diversity. We understood our collective as a Hmong, Southeast Asian American, and Asian American and Pacific Islander political group rather than a cultural group. It is a core belief of ours that being politically engaged is an important part of improving the experiences of Hmong and Southeast American students. As our meeting progressed, we outlined several points to contemplate that would nurture all Asian American and Pacific Islanders, including Hmong and Southeast Asian Americans:

  • Listen to our community’s needs. Beyond what happened with JL, what drives our communities to strive for change? 
  • Develop external outreach beyond the University. How do we start building Asian American and Pacific Islander political unity across the state of Minnesota? 
  • Bring awareness to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Does our work exist if people don’t know about us? 
  • Strengthen and develop further political education. What programs or resources are needed to ensure that students are able to advocate and organize for themselves? 
  • Build community. How do we work together if we don’t know each other? This work isn’t easy. There are great moments, and there are shitty moments. But we have to share in those moments together.

In the spring semester of 2016, not long after our protests for which we had not received any direct response from the university administration, UMN received a “Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI)” designation, a recognition under the United States Department of Education. This designation is bestowed upon universities whose Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population comprises at least ten percent of their student body with over fifty percent receiving federal aid. The following year in the spring of 2017, UMN was awarded a $1.75 million AANAPISI grant from the Department of Education, leading to the establishment of what is now known as the Asian Pacific American Resource Center (APARC). This grant was achieved through the labor of faculty and staff across various university departments, particularly the Asian American Studies Program. The goal of APARC is to uplift AAPI students through peer mentoring, leadership, programming, and tutoring. This new phase of UMN has the potential to bring substantive changes in engaging diverse, historically marginalized, and first generation AAPI students. Ultimately, APARC has the potential to confront the cosmetic diversity and colorblind approach to student success implemented by the MCAE Forward plan by returning to slow, careful, and intentional relationship and community building and student programming that will honor JL’s legacy.

Although the AANAPISI grant had opened up more pathways for AAPI student success, these funds were granted from the federal government, not from UMN, OED or MCAE. We are paying attention to the resources and funding from UMN and OED that is funneled into serving AAPI students on campus, and particularly Hmong and Southeast Asian American students. The question that remains is, what will happen to these programs once the federal funding is no longer available? Does UMN plan to invest its own resources in APARC to continue these programs? Our activism that resists, critiques, and challenges the neoliberal university and its erasure of Hmong and Southeast Asian American experiences taught us that we need to be wary about diversity efforts within the neoliberal institution, especially when these efforts claim to help us “succeed.” While we remain wary of diversity efforts predicated on federal grant money, and the ways the American university can easily appropriate the labor which was employed in the securing of this funding, we remain optimistic at the potential for us to utilize the funding in ways that are anti-racist, and which will actually enable Hmong and Southeast Asian American students to truly thrive in higher education.  


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Suggested citation:

Pha, K. P., K. Pha, & D. Pha. 2024. “Violent Invisibilities: The Battle for Hmong and Southeast Asian American Legibility in Higher Education.” In eds. José Manuel Santillana Blanco, Kidiocus King-Carroll, Naimah Zulmadelle Pétigny, and Kong Pheng Pha in collaboration with AGITATE! Editorial Collective. Seditious Acts: AGITATE! Special Volume with CRES:

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