American Dreams: Hmong hope to free themselves from ‘The Model Minority’ myth

Some Hmong artists made and sold story cloths to help families earn income. Major themes are legends or fairy tales, everyday life before the war, the war, and being forced to flee across the dangerous Mekong River to Thailand. This cloth shows Hmong people attempting to cross the Mekong River from Laos into Thailand and its refugee camps. At upper left is a tree with monkeys in it. Photo courtesy of Joe Grimm.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Michigan State University School of Journalism Bias Busters project was founded in an effort to “bust” myths about minorities that complicate and in some cases seriously harm the lives of American individuals and families.

Director of the MSU Bias Busters Project

Hmong Americans have asked the U.S. Census Bureau to reclassify their ethnicity as Southeast Asian, rather than East Asian, in part because of The Model Minority myth.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

According to the Pew Research Center, this stereotype originated after World War II and depicted Chinese and Japanese Americans as automatically successful people. The stereotype implies they naturally follow rules, work hard and have found economic and educational success. These qualities were attributed to factors including respect for parents and authority figures.

The myth was extended to include all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

All stereotypes are incomplete and accurate. Even positive ones can be problems. Hmong Americans cite some harms as they seek reclassification. Hmong Americans, who began arriving 50 years ago in 1975 as refugees from Vietnam, suffer in the model minority comparison. Their pathway to the United States is generally far different from most other Asian immigration stories.

Hmong people fled a place that was not their homeland and where their protection from enemy soldiers evaporated when the United States pulled out of Vietnam. Hmong people fled to refugee camps or were flown to the United States. Most had little formal education or English, or relevant job training. Money and even suitable clothing for new homes in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, California and Michigan was scarce. Important ties to family and belief systems were severed.

Even so, Hmong people are getting education and jobs and contributing in the United States. They are still building their new communities and lives. Is there average income as high as that for people with East Asian roots, many of whom arrived more than a century ago? No. Not yet.

The Model Minority myth hurts all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders it is applied to. The myth implies that people can be successful without even working. But with more than 20 ethnicities in this group, that is logically impossible. Eddy Ng, professor of equity and inclusion in business at Queen’s University, Ontario, points out that all Asian American and Pacific Island people started at the same point. Even within a single ethnicity, people are different. the myth can fault some people for not measuring up to this stereotypical measuring stick. People’s authenticity as a member of that group can be questioned.

A 2018 Pew Research Center study showed that, of all broad groups, Asian American and Pacific Islander groups showed the widest disparity n wages. South Asian Indians make, on average, 10 times as much as Burmese, Samoan, Native Hawaiian or Hmong people. Each ethnicity has its own story. They have different histories and are at different stages in their development n the United States. They can also take different directions.

A 2023 Pew study showed how widespread the stereotype is known among the people it is applied to and how they feel about it.

The myth has also been used as a wedge that pits larger groups against each other. The question seems to be, “why can’t the people in your group be as successful as the people in this other group?” The answer, again, is that individuals start from different places and have different opportunities or challenges. This is why some Hmong Americans say it is more accurate to classify them as Southeast Asian, where they came from.

Asian and Pacific Islander people in general have dealt with fewer racial barriers in the United States than African Americans have, but they also have less political representation than anyone. All these measures continue to change.

Bottom line: Stereotypes are a poor, broad-brush way to describe or understand people. Their individual stories, as well as those of others, can help.

100 Questions and Answers About Hmong Americans: Secret No More, addresses issues specific to the Hmong American experience. It will be available on Amazon on July 2. It addresses many questions tied up in Hmong identity and history and the U.S. Census Bureau’s decision. The guide is published by the Michigan State University School of Journalism as part of its Bias Busters series of guides to cultural competence.

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