Imagine Otherwise: Eric Tang on the Cold War Origins of Refugee Policy

Imagine Otherwise: Eric Tang on the Cold War Origins of Refugee Policy

March 23, 2016

Eric Tang wearing a blue shirt


What can we learn about structural oppression through the analysis of one person’s story? How can collaboration transform the way we make decisions about our work? How can empowering others to imagine otherwise liberate us all?

In episode 6 of the Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews activist-scholar Eric Tang about why the US state resettled Cambodian refugees in historically Black neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s, how urban spaces are shaped by slavery’s aftermath, and why scholars should join the vital movement for welfare rights.

Guest: Eric Tang

Eric Tang is an assistant professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department and faculty member in the Center for Asian American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

He is the author of Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in NYC’s Hyperghetto (which Ideas on Fire edited and indexed!), which tells the story of the approximately 10,000 Cambodian refugees were eventually “resettled” in the Bronx over the course of the 1980s and ‘90s, in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Chronicling their unfinished odyssey through the eyes of one woman, Ra Prohn, and her family, Unsettled tells the story of an immigrant community’s survival and resistance in historically Black neighborhoods in New York City, those spaces created as “hyperghettos” by US state terrorism directed at African American and Black diasporic communities in the aftermath of slavery. For that project, Eric draws on his previous work as a welfare rights and migrant youth community organizer.

He’s been awarded both journalistic and scholarly prizes for his writing on post-Katrina New Orleans. Eric is currently working on a new book titled East Avenue: African Americans in Austin’s Terrain of Inequality.

We chatted about

  • Eric’s new book, Unsettled (02:00)
  • How hyperghettos have been used as strategic sites of warfare for Black Americans and South Asian refugees (05:00)
  • Eric’s choice to structure his book through one woman’s story (09:57)
  • Refugee exceptionalism (15:30)
  • Collaboration (14:30)
  • Imagining otherwise (25:35)

Eric Tang wearing a blue shirt. Text reads: It's important for those of us researchers to situate ourselves within the field of power that the research is taking place in.


The myth of peaceful refugee resettlement

We often think of it as a moment where they’re able to experience peace and respite. In fact what happens for many of them is that they begin an entirely new journey, and entirely new struggle, if you will, that is defined by derelict housing, extreme poverty, welfare dependency, and state violence.

Studying the resettlement of Cambodian refugees in American hyperghettos

It’s not historically incidental or sociological temporary, this phenomenon of resettling those who are subjects of US warfare to the hyperghetto.

Eric’s choice to structure his book through one woman’s story

It seemed like a more effective strategy to tell the story through one woman [Ra Prohn] who experienced all of these things over the course of 30 years, because then you get to see these connections more clearly.

How collaboration with Ra Prohn transformed Unsettled

Not only is refugee exceptionalism false, but this notion she is somewhere else other than the war zone and the camp, is also false. And what she wanted to do was bring that to the story. She wanted to bring her story of continuance, of an unbroken refugee sojourn.

Imagining otherwise

This is the moment in which [communities we work with] are articulating their grievances towards this world that they want to see, and we need to pay attention. Sometimes we are not going to have a takeway, a key demand, but it’s this very process of giving people space where they are able to get to this world that they would like to see…the political work.

More from Eric

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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