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INTERPERSONAL DISCRIMINATION AGAINST HMONG AMERICANS: Parallels and Variation in Microlevel Racial Inequality. (Statistical Data Included)

By: Jeremy Hein, The Sociological Quarterly, Summer 2000 v41 i3 p413

International migration from Asia and Latin America is diversifying theminority population in the United States (Passel and Edmonston 1992). Between1970 and 1990, African Americans declined from 65 to 48 percent of the U.S.minority population while the proportion of Hispanic and Asian Americansincreased. These developments logically raise comparisons between historicallycreated and more recent minorities on various measures of macrolevelinequality, such as employment (Waldinger 1996) and residential segregation(Logan, Alba, and Leung 1996).

Yet comparisons have not been made among minorities with respect to microlevelinequality, such as interpersonal discrimination in public. There is awell-developed literature on immigrants' perceptions of discrimination againsttheir ethnic group (Aguirre, Saenz, and Hwang 1989; Floyd and Gramman 1995;Portes 1984; Pones and Bach 1985; Portes and McLeod 1996). But there are nostudies of contemporary immigrants' experiences of interpersonaldiscrimination comparable to those for African Americans (Byng 1998; Essed1990, 1991; Feagin 1991; Feagin and Sikes 1994). Closing this research gap isimportant so that sociological understanding of microlevel inequality amongminorities keeps pace with knowledge of macrolevel inequality.

Using Hmong refugees from Laos as a case of the new diversity in the U.S.minority population (Appendix 1 contains a brief history of this ethnicgroup), this article systematically extends Feagin's (1991) analysis ofinterpersonal discrimination against African Americans. Data from interviewswith Hmong Americans in a small city that was virtually all white prior totheir arrival reveal all of the types of microlevel discrimination that Feagindocumented for African Americans. The interview data also demonstrate thatnativism and limited English proficiency create additional vulnerabilities topublic discrimination for Hmong Americans. Byng (1998) critiques Feagin'sanalysis for emphasizing only one axis of discrimination experienced byAfrican Americans--race--and for ignoring how other axes (gender and, ifMuslim, religion) intersect with racism. This article extends her argument toforeign-born Asian Americans. It demonstrates that Feagin's analysis ofmicrolevel inequality does not account for some dimensions of face-to-facediscrimination experienced by Asian refugees who have recently become racialminorities in the United States. The conclusion discusses the implications ofthese similarities and differences for understanding microlevel inequalityamong different racial and ethnic minorities.


Psychological research on the individual's experience of racism, rather thanthe institutional form, has been ongoing for some time: (Jones and Korchin1982). A substantial literature now exists on the negative correlation betweendiscrimination and mental health among African Americans (e.g., Landrine andKlonoff 1996; Thompson 1996).

Essed's (1990, p. 257) concept of "everyday racism," however, first named thecommon forms of discrimination experienced by racial minorities: "thesituations, attitudes and customs that produce racial inequality in dailylife." Yet Essed (1991) conceptualized everyday racism as the link betweenindividual and institutional inequality rather than as an arena of inequalitydistinct from the macrolevel. According to Essed (1991, p. 52), "expressionsof racism in one particular social relation are related to all other racistpractices and can be reduced to the fundamental structuring forces of everydayracism: oppression, repression, and legitimation." Using Goffman's (1971)perspective on behavior in public, Feagin (1991; Feagin and Sikes 1994) firstdemonstrated that microlevel discrimination against African Americans ispartially independent from macrolevel developments.

Feagin (1991) substantiated the autonomy of' micro- from macrolevel racialinequality by developing and validating a typology of public discriminationagainst African Americans. The typology distinguishes five types of unequaltreatment in face-to-face situations: avoidance, rejection, verbal harassment,physical harassment, and police mistreatment. Feagin (1991) provides onlybrief definitions of each type but his qualitative data leave no doubt abouthow to operationalize the terms. Avoidance is an action and/or otherpresentation of self to increase physical distance and/or limit visualcontact. Rejection is poor, disrespectful, or otherwise unequal service inpublic accommodations such as stores. Verbal harassment typically involvesracial epithets and other vulgar language meant to demean and stigmatize amember of a minority group. Physical harassment includes assault or otherphysical actions intended to cause bodily harm, such as throwing an object.Police mistreatment is the unjustified use of speech, physical actions, and/ordiscretionary decision making to intimidate, harm, and/or unfairly assertlegal culpability of an individual on the basis of their race.

Feagin (1991) used this typology to analyze qualitative data on AfricanAmericans' experiences of everyday racism. His findings refute the perspectiveheld by the American public and many social scientists that racial inequalityhas substantially diminished since the civil rights movement, as evidenced by,for example, the new black middle class. He (1991, p. 114) concluded: "Theinterviews indicate that deprivation of full enjoyment of public facilities isnot a relic of the past; deprivation and discrimination in publicaccommodation persist." Feagin's study of everyday racism thus establishedthat microlevel inequality for African Americans is not simply a reflection ofmacrolevel inequality but is a partially independent element of the racialstratification system in the United States.

Byng (1998) accepts Feagin's (1991) conclusion but critiques his analysis foremphasizing only one type of inequality experienced by African Americans.Using the case of African-American Muslim women, Byng demonstrates how sexismand religious discrimination intersect with racism. By revealing themultidimensional nature of inequality at the microlevel, Byng opens up thepossibility of extending Feagin's analysis to other minority groups.

The Asian American population contains many groups that did not exist or were few in number prior to the international migration that began in the 1960s. For example, Cambodian, Lao, Vietnamese, and Hmong communities developed in the United States only after the collapse of pro-American governments in their homelands in 1975. Research on Asian Americans, however, has largely neglected interpersonal discrimination in everyday life, in sharp contrast to the attention given to this topic in research on African Americans. Instead, the Asian American literature has disproportionately focused on the end points of the discrimination continuum: symbolic expressions of prejudice by public officials and the media, on the one hand, and extreme anti-Asian violence on the other hand (e.g., Espiritu 1992; Fong 1998). An important exception is Tuan's (1998) description of native-born Japanese and Chinese Americans' experiences of being treated as if they were foreign-born. But Tuan's analytic focus is the absence of such experiences among native-born whites, not the characteristics of microlevel inequality among different minorities.(1)

Extending the study of everyday racism from African Americans to a group of foreig-born Asian Americans creates a new type of comparison between historically created and more recent minorities. Such comparisons are commonly made for macrolevel inequality but have yet to be made for microlevel inequality. The next section therefore systematically extends Feagin's methodology for studying public discrimination against African Americans to a new minority group in a theoretically important setting: Hmong refugees from Laos now living in a small midwestern city that had a virtually all white population prior to their arrival.


Feagin (1991) used his public discrimination typology to analyze the experiences of thirty-seven African Americans. Feagin and Sikes (1994) report on a larger sample of 135 African Americans but do not use the typology. I apply Feagin's typology to a sample of forty-eight Hmong Americans living in one city. They were initially interviewed by a bilingual, coethnic interviewer who specifically asked about discriminatory experiences. I then conducted follow-up interviews. The following three subsections discuss the ways my methodology differs from Feagin's (1991).

Doing a Case Study

The thirty-seven individuals in Feagin's study came from a larger study of 135 African Americans (Feagin and Sikes 1994) in twelve large metropolitan areas. Feagin (1991) does not provide the geographic distribution for the thirty-seven individuals, although given the small sample size and the comparatively large number of cities the distribution would be neither meaningful nor representative of these locales.

The Hmong Americans in my sample live in one small midwestern city: its population of approximately 50,000 is 95 percent white now but was literally 99 percent white prior to their arrival. The Hmong began arriving in the late 1970s; the largest resettlement took place in the early 1980s, although resettlement in small numbers continued during the 1990s. At the time of my study, the Hmong population numbered slightly more than 2,000 (or 4 percent of the city's population).

Since the vast majority of international migrants in the United States reside in large metropolitan areas, data on refugees in a small city are not representative of the general settlement of the foreign-born. Nor can Hmong Americans be considered representative of Asian Americans given the unique history of the Hmong (see Appendix 1). Yet the diversity of the Asian American population means that no one group is representative. Asian Americans vary in nativity, motive for migration, language, religion, socioeconomic status, and the presence or absence of an historical ethnic community. This article, therefore, is very much a case study.

Cases are the analytical categories used to categorize or define social phenomena, not the phenomena themselves (Ragin 1991). The case study method is ideal for discovering new types of social phenomena, comparing these with well-known social phenomena, and finally reconceptualizing established analytic categories by revealing variations and sub-types (Ragin 1987). Deviant cases--situations whose atypical qualities make them of theoretical value--have long been recognized as particularly important for sociological inquiry (Bradshaw and Wallace 1991; Platt 1992). Indeed, Becker (1998) argues that a central goal of sociology should be analysis of "cases that don't fit," in order to counter-balance the tendency of scientific inquiry to focus on a small set of well-known topics that conventional wisdom dictates should be studied.

Research on race and ethnicity in the United States would greatly benefit from Becker's advice because its research landscape has a very high ratio of deviant cases. Cubans are concentrated in south Florida but also in New Jersey. Vietnamese are concentrated in Los Angeles but also in New Orleans. The largest Hmong settlement is in California but there are numerous Hmong communities in Wisconsin (the location of my case). The diversity of immigrant and refugee settlement patterns means that the value of studying a particular locale depends on its theoretical significance, not its location with respect to the group's demographic mode.

The theoretical significance of a small midwestern city with a comparatively large Hmong population is that it is an ideal setting in which to investigate an important macrosociological issue: the relationship between whites of European ancestry and a recent minority group. Prior to the arrival of the Hmong in the early 1980s, whites in this city rarely encountered people different from themselves. As the Hmong population grew in size, whites increasingly interacted with Asian Americans on a daily basis.

This article is not a case study in the traditional sense of a "thick description" of social interaction in a particular place over time, what Burawoy (1991) calls the interpretive case study method. That type of case study uses evidence from the microlevel to illustrate macrolevel processes, thus blurting the distinction between micro and macro. Instead, I approach the pioneering experiences of Hmong refugees who settled in a virtually all white city through what Burawoy (1991) calls the extended case study method.

The extended case study begins with a macrolevel topic--in this article a racial stratification system--and demonstrates how social structure shapes everyday life. Rather than using a case study to induce a macrolevel theory (as advocated by Glaser and Strauss 1967), the extended case study reconstructs existing theory by showing the interplay between macro- and microlevels. According to Burawoy (1991, p. 280), "the extended case method derives generalizations by constituting the social situation as anomalous with regard to some preexisting theory (that is, an existing body of generalizations)." I juxtapose the experiences of Hmong Americans in a small midwestern city with existing knowledge of interpersonal discrimination derived from African Americans' experiences. This extension and comparison yields a broader understanding of the similarities and differences in microlevel inequality among minorities who vary in their position in macrolevel patterns of race and ethnic relations in the United States.

Gathering a Sample

Feagin (1991) employed black interviewer's because as a white sociologist he assumed that his race would influence black respondents. In addition to the thirty-seven interviews conducted by black interviewers, Feagin also drew upon five follow-up interviews that he conducted.

Like Feagin, I assumed that Hmong Americans might be hesitant to divulge discriminatory experiences to a white sociologist who does not speak Hmong (myself). To circumvent these racial and linguistic barriers, I employed a Hmong research assistant with a master's degree in psychology who worked for a Hmong Mutual Assistance Association. During 1996-1997, he used a questionnaire that I had developed and pretested to conduct in-person interviews with forty-eight foreign-born Hmong Americans, lasting between one and one-half and two hours; he also translated the material into English. I allowed him to choose respondents based on his contacts in the ethnic community and the snowball sampling method but required that respondents not come from the same household and should represent as many clans as possible. In addition, I provided a demographic checklist of types of respondents to contact to ensure further that the sample reflected the diversity within the Hmong community. This technique yielded an extremely heterogeneous sample in terms of clan membership, sex, age, length of U.S. residence, English proficiency, and socioeconomic status (see Appendix 2).

Also like Feagin, I conducted follow-up interviews with a small number of individuals (seven) to verify that respondents had interpreted key questions as I intended and to obtain additional qualitative data. A series of factors limited the number of possible follow-up interviews. Respondents had to have reported experiencing discrimination (seven did not). They also had to be fully proficient in English: only nineteen of the remaining forty-one individuals were by their own assessment. These nineteen individuals then had to be available and willing to provide a second interview (some had moved and others were too busy). Finally, I wanted a mix of respondents in terms of education, occupation, and sex. The seven individuals (four men and three, women) met all of these criteria.

Asking About Discrimination

The thirty-seven respondents analyzed by Feagin (1991, p. 103) were culled from a larger sample of 135 because these individuals specifically mentioned public discrimination during interviews: "There were no specific questions in the interview schedule on public accommodations or other public-place discrimination; the discussions of that discrimination were volunteered." Feagin (1991, p. 103)justifies this indirect approach by assuming that "these volunteered responses signal the importance of such events," while those experiences withheld by respondents must therefore be of little importance to them. I considered this approach inappropriate for Hmong Americans.

Hmong respondents in my sample were specifically asked to indicate which of the five types of public discrimination they had experienced.(2) This direct assessment of discrimination was required because of an important difference between native- and foreign-born minorities. Members of a native minority, such as African Americans, develop a minority identity partly through parental and peer socialization and thus grow up with a vocabulary for describing discrimination (Demo and Hughes 1990; Jackson, McCullough, Gurin and Broman 1991). Indeed, African Americans' interactions with whites have an important historical dimension: "Particular acts, even antilocution that might seem minor to white observers, are freighted not only with one's past experiences of discrimination but also with centuries of racial discrimination directed at the entire group" (Feagin 1991, p. 115). In contrast, recently arrived Asian immigrants and refugees become minorities in the United States through a process of resocialization, often with limited or no awareness of the history of racism in the United States. A Hmong high school student provides a chilling portrayal of the consequences of becoming a minority without the social support that might prepare an individual for discrimination. Asked if her parents had discussed racism with her before such incidents occurred, she responded:    It's already happened by then. It's not something you sit down and talk    about, like, hey, someone is going to be racist to you. Maybe just saying    there are good people and bad people, but not saying you are going to    experience this and that. It's hard to sit down ... you will hear it from    your friends first, or have already experienced it yourself. I knew the    words gook, chink, since middle school. But experiencing it later was    something different. Hearing and experiencing are different. Parents don't    have to tell you, they can see it in your face after it happens.

The absence of parental or even peer group support in coping with discrimination is compounded for Hmong Americans when an incident occurs early in their resettlement. An excerpt from an oral history with Hmong Americans reveals how a nine-year-old Hmong boy with limited English proficiency perceived verbal harassment that happened only six months after his arrival in the United States:    I remember one day, when I was walking home from school with my two    brothers, my sister, and my cousin, we encountered a group of    Euro-Americans who were playing baseball in the middle of the street. They    yelled and made faces at us as though we had done something wrong. It was    the first time something like that had happened to me. I had neither the    capacity nor the knowledge to fight against such cruelty. I did not know    what they were saying but sensed by the way they acted that they felt a    great hostility and hatred toward us (Chan 1994, p.157).

Since some Hmong Americans have little or no anticipatory socialization about prejudice and discrimination, I assumed that length of U.S. residence could influence their awareness of and ability to describe such incidents, particularly subtle forms such as avoidance and rejection. I thus chose to have respondents review a discrimination checklist, rather than spontaneously relate experiences, and then to describe their worst discriminatory experience.


Of the forty-eight Hmong Americans in the sample, only seven reported that they had never experienced any type of interpersonal discrimination, primarily because they were isolated from contact with Americans. The mean age of these seven individuals was fifty, significantly above the mean age (thirty-two) for the forty-one Hmong who had experienced interpersonal discrimination (p [is less than] .001). Of these forty-one Hmong Americans, almost a quarter (24 percent) reported that the first incident occurred during their first year in the United States. By the end of their second year in the United States, 49 percent had experienced at least one of the five types of interpersonal discrimination.(3)

[Graphic omitted]The forty-one individuals who had experienced discrimination checked a total of eighty-five types from the checklist. This figure is not the total number of discriminatory incidents (which would be much higher), but the sum of different types, such as respondent A checking verbal harassment and rejection, respondent B checking avoidance, and so on. The distribution of these types of discrimination reveals that Hmong Americans experience all of the forms of public interpersonal discrimination that Feagin (1991) documented for African Americans (see Table 1). Respondents' descriptions of their worst experience follow the pattern for all types except for the overrepresentation of verbal harassment and the underrepresentation of rejection. Selected quotations from the survey and follow-up interviews further illustrate a common microlevel inequality structure for Hmong Americans and African Americans.

TABLE 1. DISTRIBUTION OF INTERPERSONAL DISCRIMINATION BY ALL TYPES AND WORST EXPERIENCE (IN PERCENT) Interpersonal Discrimination                      Worst                                All Types(a)   Experience(b)

Verbal harassment                   40              55 Rejection                           21               5 Physical harassment                 17              21 Avoidance                           13              11 Police mistreatment                  9               8 Total                              100             100

(a) N = 85 types ever experienced (not total number of incidents) by 41 individuals.

(b) N = 35 individual worst experiences (several comprise more than one type). Six individuals are excluded because they reported institutional discrimination as their worst experience (e.g., being denied a job; a landlord refusing to return a security deposit).

Verbal harassment is the most common form of interpersonal discrimination experienced by Hmong Americans and also the experience most likely to be remembered as the worst incident. For example, a Hmong woman who is now in her twenties reported that her worst experience occurred as a teenager:    When I went to middle school and high school, many American students    bothered me and called me bad names. Sometimes I was angry and had some    tears. Sometimes they spat on me and my Hmong friends. We were afraid. We    did not do anything because we were afraid of them. It seemed like they    didn't really like us at all.

A Hmong mother of five children, three of whom were born in the United States, provides a parental perspective on such incidents of verbal harassment. Asked about her worst discriminatory experience, she chose to discuss those of her children: "At school American students bother my children every day. They call them bad names. Teachers and principals do not do anything. I think this bothers my children a lot."

Poor service in stores and other indications that Hmong Americans are considered undesirable customers is the second most common form of interpersonal discrimination. However, few respondents chose to discuss this type when asked about their worst discriminatory experience because it paled in comparison to other types. Nonetheless, for some Hmong Americans rejection can be a key event in defining their personal history in the United States. A Hmong man who recently graduated from college vividly recalls an incident that occurred nine years prior to the date of the interview. His description of rejection closely matches those of African Americans (Feagin 1991; Feagin and Sikes 1994):    The worst thing that ever happened to me was rejecting me at a sporting    goods store in 1988. It happened when I was in high school. Americans,    Caucasians hated me for who I am. I was in a small store. The owner never    took his eyes off me. I can still picture that now. It made me so nervous I    was scared to touch anything. I realized that in a small town, they are not    familiar with other cultures, they are still afraid. That incident showed    me that discrimination exists even though I had Caucasian friends and would    hang with them.

Physical harassment, such as assault and throwing objects, is the third most common form of public discrimination reported by Hmong Americans. Their descriptions of these events are similar to those of African Americans (Feagin 1991; Feagin and Sikes 1994). A Hmong man in his twenties describes a serious assault that occurred a year after his arrival in the United States:    In 1988 I was employed as a newspaper carrier for a paper route. While I    was carrying a bag of newspapers, three white American teenagers surrounded    me and they fought with me. I was hurt and bleeding. I was hospitalized for    a day.

Avoidance is the fourth most common form of interpersonal discrimination for Hmong Americans. Several Hmong Americans described avoidance in institutional settings that parallels the experience of the African Americans studied by Feagin (1991; Feagin and Sikes 1994). A Hmong man recalls the stigmatizing feeling of being shunned: "College students always avoided sitting next to me. It made me feel bad because I did not know what was wrong with me."

However, the type of avoidance most frequently described by Hmong Americans is the "hate stare" well known to African Americans. Hmong Americans often report that their white neighbors refuse to associate with them and withhold the usual pleasantries exchanged by neighbors. These avoidance incidents are particularly painful because they occur over a long period of time, cannot be prevented due to physical proximity, and affect the entire family. The following representative excerpts, which describe such avoidance, are remarkably consistent. Respondents are identified by their familial status because they describe the avoidance as affecting their family:    Mother of six children: Our American neighbors give us mean looks. They    have never said "hi" or talked to us. It seems that they hated us so much.    I think they do not like us because we are different and we have too many    children.

   Father of five children: Our neighbor seems to hate us very much. She has    never said "hi" or smiled to us. She said that we should not park our car    on her spot on the street even though it belongs to the public. She seems    to hate our black hair people a lot.

Police mistreatment is the least common form of interpersonal discrimination reported by Hmong Americans. Nonetheless, several Hmong respondents describe incidents identical to those commonly experienced by African Americans. A Hmong man in his forties, hardly the typical age of a delinquent, reports: "The police stopped me without any reason. They stopped me because I am an Asian and they thought I was a gang member. They never gave me any explanation. They asked me a few questions and then let me go."

These illustrative quotations combined with the distribution of interpersonal discrimination across all five forms identified by Feagin (1991) indicate strong parallels in microlevel inequality for Hmong Americans and African Americans. But Hmong Americans' accounts of face-to-face discrimination in public reveal two additional dimensions of microlevel inequality not reported in the literature on African Americans: nativism and limited English proficiency.


Hmong Americans' reports of verbal harassment reveal that in addition to experiencing racism because they are not white, being foreign-born makes them vulnerable to nativism. Where racism is based on stigmatized physical characteristics, nativism is based on stratified membership in the nation-state. A nativist ideology ranks the native-born above the foreign-born by portraying immigrants as aliens who are not legitimate members of the country (Higham 1974). Nativism is therefore a central feature of discourse on restricting immigration, preventing the provision of government services in multiple languages, and limiting access to social welfare programs (Jaret 1999; Sanchez 1997). While the end result of nativism can be the same deprivation of rights produced by racism, nativism provides an additional or alternative expression of prejudice in politics and in interpersonal interactions.

A Hmong man now in his twenties describes an event in school that occurred when he was sixteen and that clearly illustrates the intersection of racism and nativism in verbal harassment of Hmong Americans:    Someone called me gook and told me to go back to my country. That was back    in 1989. I ended up in a violent fight with that person. I was upset about    the whole thing. The general population of Americans do not know and    understand who we are and why we are here. I think we deserve to be    recognized and understood.

Malls are another public space where Hmong Americans may be subjected to verbal epithets that combine racism and nativism. Asked about her worst discriminatory experience, a Hmong woman in her twenties responds:    It happened during my junior year in high school. I was shopping with my    cousins. Some junior high girls followed us into the mall and continued to    harass us by calling us names: "Chinese, slanted eyes, go back to your    country." It made me feel bad.

Another Hmong woman in her twenties, and unrelated to the above informant, describes a remarkably similar incident:    My sisters and I were shopping at our local mall and two teenage girls    yelled, "Why don't you chinks go back to your own country?!" I got mad at    their abuse so I yelled back, "Why? Because you are so fat you take up all    the space America has to offer!" Then we all ran out of the mall.

The very presence of Hmong American in public can be the result of conditions over which they have little control. During the early stages of their resettlement, the difficulty of passing the written permit test for a driver's license initially forces many Hmong refugees into public space and prevents their access to the private space of a car. A young Hmong woman describes an event she experienced as a teenager that again illustrates how foreign-born minorities can be simultaneously subject to nativism and racism:    No one in my family knew how to drive so we had to walk to the grocery    store. When Americans drove past, they would blow their horn at us and    stick their head out the window and yell very bad words at us. They would    say bad things like, "Go back to your country, your dark skin doesn't    belong here!"

While public places can be the sites of verbal harassment, Hmong Americans are also subject to anonymous telephone calls at home. Unlike African Americans, Hmong surnames are easily located in a phone book because these surnames are also clan names. There are only about twenty different clan surnames in the Hmong population. Geographic resettlement patterns and reformation of clans further limits the number of surnames in particular locales. For example, the city telephone book in my case study has numerous listings under Xiong, Yang, and a few other common Hmong surnames. The result is that Hmong Americans are vulnerable to expressions of nativism (and/or racism) even in their homes.

Five of the forty-one Hmong Americans who reported some interpersonal discrimination specifically volunteered that they had received verbal harassment over the phone. A Hmong man in his thirties describes a particularly devious anonymous phone call he received a year after his arrival; the harassment was exclusively nativist rather than racist. Now a college graduate, he was especially offended by the call's abuse of marketing research methods:    Someone called me on the phone and pretended to ask questions like a    survey. He said my cousin did not speak English so he wanted to talk to me    about the survey. But after a while he said mean things to me. First, he    asked, "Do you eat rice?" I said, "Yes." Then he said if I wanted to eat    rice I should go back to my country because there is only enough rice here    for Americans. I was very angry but tried to be calm.

Another Hmong man in his forties describes a series of anonymous calls over more than a year. His report also illustrates the centrality of nativism in interpersonal discrimination against Hmong Americans:    I heard that Americans don't like the Hmong and that they want the Hmong to    go back to Laos. They say the Hmong came here for AFDC [i.e., public    assistance]. But they also think that the Hmong take away their jobs if the    Hmong are working. Americans called me on the phone and told me that. They    said we should go back to Laos and we do not belong in the U.S.A. I was    very frustrated. Americans should know that we are humans too.

In all of these quotations, Hmong Americans are stigmatized not just on the basis of race but because they are foreign-born. The irrationality of racism means that even a native-born minority like African Americans can be subjected to nativist taunts such as "Go back to Africa." But the addition of nativism to racism is particularly painful for Hmong refugees because their migration is both recent and a consequence of U.S. military operations in Southeast Asia. Numerous respondents made comments like that of a Hmong man in his thirties: "I believe that the American people who have these kinds of feelings do not know who the Hmong are and where they come from. They don't know what the Hmong did for the U.S. government during the Vietnam war."


African Americans frequently react to interpersonal discrimination against them by verbally confronting the aggressor (Byng 1998; Essed 1990). In fact, Feagin (1991) found that verbal responses accounted for 69 percent of reactions by African Americans to discrimination in public accommodations and 59 percent of reactions to discrimination on the street. Foreign-born minorities, however, may be unable to defend themselves verbally because of limited English proficiency. In my sample of forty-eight Hmong Americans, only one respondent reported that he arrived in the United States speaking English fluently; thirty-five reported that they spoke no English at all on arrival. At the time of the survey (twelve years after arrival on average), only nineteen claimed full fluency in English; fourteen indicated that they spoke little or no English (the remainder had some but not full fluency). Learning English is particularly challenging for older refugees. A sixty-six year-old Hmong man succinctly described the feeling of limited English proficiency: "I am frustrated because I don't speak English and have no job. You have a mouth but you can't talk."

For some Hmong Americans, being unable to respond verbally to face-to-face discrimination, or being linguistically disadvantaged compared to the native aggressor, compounds the paralyzing feeling that accompanies unfair treatment in public. A Hmong woman in her thirties provides an example of verbal harassment that suggests the vulnerability of foreign-born minorities who have little or no fluency in English:    Our landlord accused my children of breaking a window in the apartment that    we lived in. This was false. He wanted me to pay. Whenever he came to the    building and saw us he said "fucker" to us. I couldn't do anything because    I was new to the city and did not speak English.

A Hmong man in his sixties reported experiencing repeated verbal harassment when he walked in public places during his first three years in the United States. He spoke no English upon arrival and still spoke no English nine years later when the interview took place. Thus, when he was verbally harassed, he could neither respond nor fully understand what was being said to him. But the demeanor of the white aggressors and the tone of their words clearly revealed their intentions to him:    When I did not have a driver's license, I walked to stores and school.    There were many young Americans who spat on me and said many things to me.    They laughed at me. I did not know what to do. I was mad but could not say    anything. I tried to avoid them. I felt very bad that no one could do    something to these people.

Not only may lack of English proficiency prevent a response to interpersonal discrimination, but it also may make Hmong Americans targets of discrimination in the first place. A Hmong woman describes experiencing avoidance in a technical college classroom and attributes this discrimination to language: "When I first came to the United States and went to school, my teacher treated me like I was not a person. I didn't speak English very well and she ignored me all the time. She served American students first."

Language also is the central feature of Hmong Americans' accounts of discrimination by police. In this respect their descriptions of police mistreatment are markedly different from those of African Americans as reported by Feagin (1991; Feagin and Sikes 1994). Encounters with police require proficiency in English since the officer will ask questions. Limited proficiency can thus transform a minor traffic violation or accident into a setting for discriminatory police conduct. These situations become an unbalanced competition to construct a narrative of "what happened" against one or more proficient English speakers (the police officer and possibly a native driver). A Hmong woman in her thirties describes such an incident when she was accompanying her husband in a car:    My husband got into a car accident. The police gave him a ticket which I    don't believe he should have. My husband didn't speak English and the    police listened to the other party and then gave my husband a ticket    without calling an interpreter. The accident was due to weather conditions.

Other Hmong Americans report similar incidents. A Hmong man in his sixties states:    I haven't had any problems yet, but my relatives had an accident. When the    police came, they only listened to the white person because they can speak    and make up a story. If there is an interpreter, then the police would    listen to the Hmong.

Even when proficient in English, Hmong Americans may still experience police mistreatment because an officer assumes that the Hmong driver is not proficient in English or simply favors the native driver. A Hmong man in his thirties describes this form of discrimination:    I had an accident in 1995. When the police officer arrived, he talked to    the American guy. He never asked me a question. Then he gave me a ticket. I    was very upset but couldn't do anything. I still believe that I was not the    person at fault. The American driver made a wrong turn and caused the    accident. The police officer really was not fair to me. I wish I could do    something. I talked to some people at the Hmong association but nobody can    do anything.

Limited English proficiency is a disadvantage that affects foreign-born minorities but not native-born minorities. Being unable to effectively use the English language, or being inappropriately labeled as having limited English proficiency, creates vulnerabilities for Hmong Americans that have no parallel in the literature on the microlevel inequality experienced by African Americans.


Comparisons of inequality between native blacks and Asian immigrants are common at the macrolevel but no such comparisons have been made at the microlevel. Data from interviews with Hmong Americans reveal all of the types of interpersonal discrimination that have been documented for African Americans. These parallels suggest that microlevel inequality can be contrasted for different minorities in much the same way as are various measures of macrolevel inequality. On the basis of the present comparison, I conclude that further study of microlevel inequality among native-born African Americans and foreign-born Asian Americans will reveal that these groups have much more in common than one would anticipate from the comparison of macrolevel inequality.

The extensive similarities in interpersonal discrimination against African Americans and Hmong Americans also suggest the need to revise the concept of microlevel inequality. The literature on interpersonal discrimination against blacks interprets microlevel inequality as evidence that positive macrolevel changes since the 1960s have not erased the massive history of inequality suffered by African Americans. Feagin (1991, p. 115) describes interpersonal discrimination against African Americans as "the invasion of the microworld by the macroworld of historical racial subordination." Yet the reproduction of the same forms of microlevel inequality against a new minority in a small city with no prior experience of daily contact between minority and majority groups suggests that public discrimination is more than a practice that has survived the passage of time. Instead, the parallel experiences of African Americans and Hmong Americans indicate, following Goffman (1963, 1971), the existence of a common structure in public encounters for members of racially stigmatized groups. If groups as distinct as native-born blacks and foreign-born Asians share a common experience, then microlevel inequality is even more autonomous from trends in macrolevel inequality than previously thought.

At the same time, the Hmong case suggests that macrolevel patterns of racial and ethnic inequality are relevant. Despite the parallels in interpersonal discrimination against African Americans and Hmong Americans, the latter also experience some additional vulnerabilities. Hmong Americans are targets for discrimination not just because of their race but also because of their comparatively recent migration to the United States. In fact, nativism expressed as "Go back to your country" sometimes occurs without any expression of racism (e.g., "gook"). Another distinctive vulnerability for many Hmong Americans is real or assumed lack of proficiency in English. Speaking Hmong in public identifies them as "foreign" and therefore a target for nativism. Similarly, a linguistic disadvantage may embolden whites to express nativism without fear of retaliation since limited English proficiency could prevent some Hmong Americans from responding to verbal harassment and other unfair treatment. While minorities do experience a common set of inequalities in public encounters, they also experience variation in interpersonal discrimination due to different macrolevel patterns of racial and ethnic inequality.

Race and ethnicity at the macrolevel also matter because they influence how experiences of inequality shape social identities. Feagin (1991, p. 114) and others who analyze inequality among African Americans rightly emphasize "the group's accumulated historical experience" as central to a black individual's interpretation of discrimination. But "historical experience" is a variable, not a constant, for minorities in the United States. Homeland histories are also important for immigrant and refugee groups whose presence in the United States is largely the result of post-1965 international migration. Comparisons of interpersonal discrimination among different minorities can become a means for further research on how social identities emerge as group history meets microlevel inequality.


I thank Hwa-Ji Shin and the TSQ reviewers and editor for comments on an earlier version of this article. A grant from the American Sociological Association's Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline supported my research, and I thank Touly Xiong for conducting the interviews with Hmong Americans. A preliminary version of this article was presented at the 1997 meeting of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, La Crosse, WI.


(1.) Essed's (1990) comparison of Surinamese (Indonesian) women in the Netherlands and African American women in the United States directly contrasts the everyday racism experienced by Asian immigrants and native-born blacks. The cross-national variation in Dutch and American racial and ethnic hierarchies, however, limits the value of this comparison for understanding racial inequality in the United States. For example, Essed (1990, p. 56) concludes that the reluctance of the Surinamese but not the African American women to discuss racism "is obviously a result of both the Dutch taboo on the open discussion of racism and of the general denial of racism by the majority group."

(2.) The survey used the term "American" rather than white in all questions about interpersonal discrimination. "American" is the most common term used by Hmong Americans to refer to the dominant group in the United States. Using the term "white" would have introduced a racial categorization that was not necessarily part of respondents' normal discourse. During the follow-up interviews, I asked respondents what the term "American" means for Hmong Americans, in order to verify that it is a generic term for whites. The following quotation from a college-educated Hmong woman is typical of the responses: "They assume American means Caucasian. If we talk about African Americans we say black people. For Japanese American we say Japanese. But when we say American we mean white. We have a word for African Americans, me-ka-doe, which means African American, but we don't say that often. Me-ka is American and doe is black. But we say only ka-doe for blacks." Only one respondent in the survey specifically mentioned interpersonal discrimination by African Americans (it occurred in St. Paul). This particular response is not included in the data analyzed here.

[Graphic omitted](3.) Younger Hmong Americans tend to experience more types of interpersonal discrimination than older Hmong Americans (r = .456; p [is less than] .001), but the timing of the first incident (first year in the United States, second year, and so on) has no relationship to age. In addition, there are some statistically significant correlations (p [is less than] .01) between age and type of discrimination. Hmong Americans who report experiencing avoidance, rejection, or verbal harassment are younger than those who do not. There is no statistically significant difference in age between those who had or had not experienced physically harassment or police mistreatment.


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Synopsis of Hmong History, Migration, and U.S. Resettlement

The largest Hmong population resides in China and political persecution in the early 1800s forced some Hmong to migrate to Southeast Asia. In Laos the Hmong were a preliterate, horticultural, highland people who constituted about 10 percent of the total population (Yang 1993). Most Hmong were self-sufficient farmers with few links to urban markets, although French and American contacts encouraged them to produce opium for the world heroin trade (Quincy 1988). They did not have a written language until French missionaries invented one in the 1950s. Traditional Hmong religious beliefs are based on shamanism (Tapp 1992), and their kinship system is based on clan lineage (Dunnigan, Olney, McNall, and Spring 1997).

The Hmong led a comparatively isolated existence in the highlands of Laos until the early 1960s, when the CIA recruited them to combat communist North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao troops (Chan 1994). Following the collapse of the pro-American Laotian government in 1975, the new communist regime persecuted the Hmong causing an exodus to Thailand (Lee 1982).

Since 1975 the United States has admitted approximately 125,000 Hmong refugees; a high fertility rate has rapidly increased their population (to approximately 200,000 according to Vang 1999), although the 1990 U.S. Census enumerated only 90,082 Hmong Americans. Their horticultural background and large family size initially caused the Hmong to have unemployment, poverty, and public assistance rates well above those of other international migrants (Fass 1986, 1991). Although nearly 60 percent of the U.S. Hmong population once resided in California, the majority in Fresno, out-migration has reduced the proportion to 35 percent (Vang 1999). Conversely, the Hmong populations in Minnesota (the majority in St. Paul) and Wisconsin (dispersed among ten small cities, Madison, and Milwaukee) are increasing and now account for 30 percent and 25 percent of the Hmong American population, respectively. The Hmong initially settled in Wisconsin (the location of my case study) due to the prevalence of church-based sponsor groups, a federal policy to limit refugee resettlement in California, and the regrouping of Hmong clans (Hutchinson 1992).

APPENDIX 2 Descriptive Sample Statistics

Variable                          Mean     SD     Min.   Max.

Sex (female)                       .50     .50     0       1 Age at arrival                   23      13.37     4      61 English proficiency on arrival     .42     .77     0       3 Current English proficiency       2.04     .944    0       3 U.S. citizen                       .35     .483    0       1 Years homeland education          1.60    2.63     0       9 Years U.S. education              5.02    5.52     0      16 Occupational level                2.18    1.99     0       5 Years U.S. residence             11.8     4.44     2      19 Clan (N in parentheses)   Xiong (13)   Yang (12)   Vang (7)   Lee (4)   Lor (4)   Thao (3)   Vue (3)   Moua (2)


Sex: Dummy variable coded male (0) or female (1).

Age at arrival: Age in years.

English proficiency on arrival: Respondent's self-rated fluency in English: none (0), a little (1), enough to make myself understood (2), fluent (3).

Current English proficiency: Respondent's self-rated fluency in English: none (0), a little (1), enough to make myself understood (2), fluent (3).

U.S. citizen: Dummy variable coded permanent resident (0) or naturalized citizen (1).

Years homeland education: Number of years of formal schooling in Laos.

Years U.S. education: Number of years of formal U.S. education in elementary school, middle school, high school, two-year college, four-year college, and/or university, but excluding English as a second language classes.

Occupational level: Type of current job or last job if currently unemployed: never employed (0), labor (1), production (2), service (3), technical service (4), professional (5).

Years U.S. residence: Number of years from year of arrival to year of survey.

Clan: Respondent's self-designated clan. Children are members of their father's clan and after marriage women traditionally become members of their husband's clan.

Direct all correspondence to Jeremy Hein, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Eau Claire, WI 54702-4004; e-mail:

Jeremy Hein is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. His research interests are in race and ethnicity, international migration, and comparative sociology. His current projects include a study of legal adaptation among Vietnamese refugees and a comparison of minority identity development among Cambodian and Hmong refugees in the Midwest.