Quiet Neglect: Southeast Asian Refugees Amidst U.S. Denial
This dissertation focuses on the concept of “quiet neglect” or the institutionalized silence of Americans’ misdeeds during the Vietnam and Secret Wars that subsequently eschewed Southeast Asian Americans’ (SEAA) issues, is a key factor leading SEAAs to reconsider panethnicity. Using 62 in-depth interviews with Southeast Asian refugees who were resettled in North Carolina and the service providers who work with them, I examine how the erasure of U.S. culpability and responsibility to SEAAs has impacted SEAAs’ racial experiences in their new homes. The chapters of the dissertation are as follows: Chapter 1 examines the link between collective memories and quiet neglect, and how the former impact refugees’ present-day encounters with intergenerational trauma and racialized emotions. Following the Vietnam and Secret Wars, the U.S.’s rescue of Southeast Asian refugees was both lauded for its humanitarianism and criticized as a means for obscuring the military’s wartime atrocities. I examine how narratives of U.S. heroism have impacted the former’s encounters with trauma. I argue that our collective memories of the Vietnam War have (1) made refugees into a group whose histories are to be forgotten or “quietly neglected,” and thus (2) indicate that refugees’ trauma is not purely psychological but linked to racialized postwar emotions. First, I observe how collective memories of the Vietnam and Secret Wars have denied refugees’ suffering while bolstering ideas of American benevolence. Second, I explore how these collective memories shaped the institutionalized denial of refugees’ ongoing trauma. Finally, I examine how some respondents challenged the systemic neglect shaping their communities and attempted to construct “countermemories” of the war and resettlement. Chapter 2 looks at how quiet neglect uniquely shaped SEAAs’ experiences relative to those of voluntary immigrants and pushes for a reconsideration of how they are categorized and identified. Namely, Asian American panethnicity is popularly used as an umbrella term housing SEAAs alongside other ethnic groups. Increasingly, scholars have questioned whether panethnicity accurately reflects the diversity of different ethnicities’ experiences and identities. In mainstream culture, “Asian American” has become synonymous with East Asian Americans and stereotypes—albeit biased ones—of their affluence, thus erasing the realities of working-class, South, and Southeast Asian Americans (SEAAs). I focus on the last group and join other scholars in emphasizing how ethnic groups’ unique historical relationships with the U.S. differentially impact their racial identities and attachments to panethnicity. I explore how quiet neglect shapes refugees’ connections to Asian American panethnicity and their decision to align with alternative identities. At stake is our capacity to recognize individuals’ agency to challenge racial boundaries and assert identities that they find meaningful. Additionally, I examine how SEAAs situate themselves within our broader racial structure and harness their identities to connect with other people of color. Chapter 3 considers the connections between quiet neglect and SEAA deportations. Integral to quiet neglect is the casting of Southeast Asian refugees as “good refugees” whose resettlement represented American heroism and humanitarianism. However, starting in the immediate post-9/11 era and ramping up under the Trump administration, these very refugees have been subjected to new deportation agreements that stigmatize them as “violent criminal aliens.” Despite these developments, the “racialization of illegality” has continued to frame deportations as a Latinx issue, eschewing its impacts on Asian Americans. Using 62 interviews with Southeast Asians and service providers in North Carolina, I explore how refugees and their support systems both reify and reject conventions of racialized illegality as they respond to changes in deportation policies. Southeast Asian Americans’ responses indicate the challenges of imagining a highly racialized phenomenon like deportations as an opportunity for interracial cooperation.
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