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Contours of Race and Ethnicity: Institutional Context and Hmong American Students' Negotiations of Racial Formation in Higher Education

  • Author(s): Vue, Rican;
  • Advisor(s): Allen, Walter R;
  • et al.

Hmong American students and their struggles are largely invisible yet grossly misunderstood when seen. This study reveals how Hmong Americans negotiate the contours of race and ethnicity to construct an affirming identity on their respective university campuses. A framework of campus racial climate is employed to investigate how institutional context shapes students' experiences of race and ethnicity, which are processes of racial formation. Case study methodology and semistructured interviews with 40 Hmong American students are used to compare the experiences at two selective public universities with varying institutional dimensions. At one institution, Hmong Americans exhibit a critical mass inside and outside of the predominantly White campus. In the other institution, there exists a plurality of Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans (AAPIAs); however, Hmong Americans are underrepresented on campus and absent in the larger institutional context.

The findings illuminate the complex negotiations of identity for Hmong students and how contexts inform racial formation. First, the project of identity involved constraints from both ethnic community outsiders and insiders; however, constraints from the inside were complicated by racialization. Race and racism operated through various stereotypes to constrain the identity and experiences of Hmong American students as both Asian and Hmong. These racial stereotypes mirrored larger racial understandings and reflected how students experience the campus racial climate. Second, individual and collective acts of ethnicity benefited from community, but also necessitated addressing intercommunity tensions and commitments. Ethnicity was cultivated in community spaces and provided a means for identity affirmation and self-determination through expressions that acknowledged diversity and difference inherent in the Hmong communities.

Finally, the contours of race and ethnicity were shaped by structural diversity, historical legacy of inclusion and exclusion, and the proximity of co-ethnic community, illustrating how these dimensions inform racial formation processes. The dynamics of these institutional dimensions inform negotiations regarding the status of Hmong students within educational spaces and illustrate that status is never fixed and subject to agency and structure. The findings elucidate the intersectional marginalization of Hmong Americans in higher education in order to inform policy, practice, and research.

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