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Op Eds

Disaggregate Our Demographics

By Z. Forest Moua, Contributing Opinion Writer
Z. Forest Moua ’27, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Pennypacker Hall.

I am Asian.

More specifically, I am Hmong.

The Hmong people are a Southeast Asian ethnic group mostly from China, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar. My Hmong parents fled from their homes in war-torn Vietnam to America in search of new lives.

Now, nearly 50 years since the first wave of Hmong refugees arrived in America, the United States Hmong population exceeds 300,000, primarily clustered in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Growing up in California’s Central Valley, I was surrounded by a rich Pan-Asian community — including many, many other Hmong people.

It was in that context that my parents endlessly reiterated the value of learning as the ultimate means of social mobility. As my mother still never ceases to remind me when I call home: “Education is key.”

And if education is indeed the key, Harvard is the door swinging wide open.

But an unpleasant reality lurked on the other side. Despite the fact that approximately 20 percent of Harvard College is Asian, I have only encountered one other Hmong undergraduate out of a student body numbering more than 7,000. And, none of Harvard’s publicly available demographic data reflects this diversity blindspot.

Instead, Harvard has amalgamated all Asian ethnicities under one umbrella term. The monolithic label of “Asian” obscures more than it reveals.

In my experience, most of the Asian population at Harvard is of East Asian descent, while many Southeast Asian populations, like Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, Khmer, or Hmong people are less prominent. The label of “Asian” smashes and blends this jumble of distinct communities and cultures into a homogenous consolidation.

In reality, the Pan-Asian experience is complex. It’s a product of geographical, cultural, and historical distinctions that accentuate a plethora of totally different languages, cuisines, religions, and cultures. Although there is certainly a collective Asian American experience, my life as a Hmong individual (specifically the son of Hmong refugee parents) is vastly different from that of a Chinese, Japanese, or Indian person. To group the South Asian experience with the Southeast Asian and East Asian experience is an injustice to the rich individuality of each Asian ethnicity.

Simply put, not all Asians are the same. And by treating them as such, Harvard undermines its stated commitment to diversity. To honor the various lived experiences of Asians, Harvard must make disaggregated demographic data public.

First, disaggregation would directly counter the colonialist tendency to label all Asians under one umbrella term. Such language eerily resembles historically racist terms like “easterner” or “Oriental.”

Second, distinguishing Asian ethnicities would reveal inequities that would otherwise be obscured. For instance, the recent fall of race-based affirmative action, although some perceive it as beneficial to Asian Americans, will likely hurt refugee Southeast Asians and other marginalized groups that have historically benefited from affirmative action. Without clear numbers, the magnitude of this effect will be difficult to decipher.

With affirmative action newly overturned, Harvard can still commit to diversity in admissions by officially reporting its demographics — upholding its commitment to veritas in the process. Our university ought to reveal the existing heterogeneity of the Asian diaspora on this campus as a step towards promoting further diversity.

Harvard need not specify every minute ethnic distinction within its Asian population, but it should provide a more nuanced and transparent picture.

Growing up, universities like Harvard symbolized keys to intellectual, academic, and socioeconomic freedom. If our university is truly devoted to supporting marginalized Asian communities, the first step is to disaggregate our demographics.

Z. Forest Moua ’27, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Pennypacker Hall.

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