Counting the Hmong

Population numbers give the reader a sense of certainty and clarity, but sometimes it is useful to take a look at where they come from and how they might be interpreted.

The data in the Hmong entry derive from the U.S. Census of Population from 1980 to 2010 and from the American Community Survey (ACS). The census and ACS ask several different questions that can be used to identify a race or ethnic group, including a question on race, place of birth or nativity, ancestry, or language spoken. The most common question used for the Hmong is the race question, which includes the Hmong as a write-in category in the “other Asian” population. So, if a person writes on the census form that they are “Hmong” on the race question, the person is added to the tally.

But census responses are sometimes ambiguous, and sometimes people do not write in that they are Hmong in answer to the race question, perhaps just checking the “other Asian” box without writing in a term. Later in answer to additional questions, they may respond that their ancestry is Hmong, or that they speak Hmong at home. Should they also be considered part of the Hmong community?

That question “bedeviled” census takers and scholars alike, and recently scholars Wayne Carroll and Victoria Udalova have argued that using a broader definition of Hmong would increase the size of the Hmong community by 18 percent in 2000. They analyzed the census microdata files that the Census Bureau publishes after each census, and included the broader definition of Hmong.

As they write, “The definition of ethnic groups has bedeviled scholars and policy makers for decades…Our study …shows…that the usual definition …—based only on the respondents’ answers to the race questions—excludes a large number of people who identified themselves as Hmong elsewhere in the Census.” If, they suggest, the definition is expanded, “we obtain a more accurate picture of the Hmong community.”

What do you think? How do we measure race and ethnicity?

–Margo Anderson, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


Carroll, Wayne, and Victoria Udalova. “Who is Hmong? Questions and Evidence from the U.S. Census.” Hmong Studies Journal 6 (2005): 1-20.