Theory Teacher's Blog

Somalis, Hmong, and Whites in Minnesota’s Public Schools

About two weeks ago, Minnesota Public Radio did a story [here] on rising racism and anti-Somali feeling inside public schools. Specifically, some students at one high school created an “I hate the Somalians at Tech High” FaceBook group. As I mentioned in my blog before [here], the population of Somalis in Minnesota has increased dramatically since the beginning of the civil war in Somalia in 1991. I myself noticed this when, a couple years ago, I did some volunteer tutoring at a local chicken processing factory where about a third of the employees are Somalis, a third Mexicans, and a third southeast Asian (mostly Vietnamese and Hmong) — some of them recent immigrants with limited ability in English. A few of my former students are now student-teaching in the public high schools and have told me about their experiences there, and in addition many of my first-year students have also told me about the new popularity of the Confederate battle flag on the backpacks, blue jeans, and binders of their former classmates. Meanwhile, almost immediately after a study [here] revealed discriminatory lending practices in Minnesota’s banks in February 2009, the Minnesota Bankers Association produced a resource guide [here] for why and how bankers can better reach out to the African immigrant population.

This situation is complex and difficult, and I don’t want to pretend I have an answer. Many of the Somalis are still recovering from the trauma of the protracted civil war, gang violence, and long years in refugee camps, so some have trouble adjusting. Schoolyard fights are just as often Somalis fighting Somalis as they are white Americans fighting Somalis, though it needs to be admitted that the vast majority of Somalis do adjust, so the problems of a few shouldn’t be made to represent the whole community. Meanwhile, at the same time, racist feeling among whites in America has been exacerbated by high unemployment and recent debates about taxes and health care. But despite the complexity and my own lack of knowledge about the challenges of administrating public schools, I do want to offer a  suggestion based on my short experience as a high school teacher many years ago and on my experience as a college teacher now.

My suggestion is admittedly simplistic but potentially effective and not hard to implement: public schools need to include some instruction about the history and cultural achievements of the immigrant populations they serve. Perhaps I’m being naive and overly hopeful here, but I think this will go a long way to reduce racist feeling among whites and foster the integration of immigrant populations. Few Americans seem to understand why the Somalis are here. They aren’t aware that the United States was itself partly responsible for the civil war that began in 1991 like so many other civil wars in Africa after the end of the Cold War. They aren’t aware that Great Britain, Italy, France, the United States aggressively conquered Somalia earlier in this century. Yes, there is always a reason why immigrants come to the United States and Europe — very often it’s because the United States and Europe were over there (and not  just because America is the mythic land of opportunity as so many journalists and teachers constantly repeat over and over again.) The United States continues to meddle with Somali affairs, and not too long ago recruited the aid of one of Somalia’s enemies, Ethiopia, in bombing the country.

So, what might teachers teach? Do we teach narratives of recent immigrants such as the book The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees? Or what about a history book about the more than one thousand years of Somalia’s rich heritage? Or what about hip hop artists such as the Somali-Canadian K’Naan, who has recently become a global celebrity? Or how about novels by the critically-acclaimed and world-famous Somali author Nurrudin Farah? It doesn’t seem like it would be terribly difficult to include a short unit on Somalia or a Somali novel in history and literature courses. My point here is that so far, it seems to me that while school administrations are worried about how to teach Somali students, they should also be worried about how to teach white students — and even more importantly, how to retrain some of their teachers. This might cost some money in the short run but save some money in the long run. It is clear that the Minnesota economy needs Somalis, Oromos, and Hmong (as the Banker’s Association indicates), in part because demographic data suggests that white Minnesotans aren’t having enough children so if it weren’t for immigrants the population would actually be in decline. And so, learning about the cultural achievements of its population is simply pragmatically useful for the next generation of Minnesotans. Moroever, if the next generation of white students grows up familiar with such cultural achievements by Somalis, they might be less likely to spit on them at school.

We can make a useful parallel between Somalis and Hmong. I think the Hmong have been more successful at getting their story out than the Somalis and other African groups such as the Oromo in Minnesota. For instance, educational material such as Chia Vang’s Hmong in Minnesota and Lillian Faderman’s I Begin My Life All Over are very accessible, but I was not able to find a similar book by the Minnesota Historical Society Press focusing on Somalis or Oromos. More recently, the memoir The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang beautifully articulates the emotional experience of Hmong refugees in Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States. Quite a few college classes (including my own) taught Yang’s memoir last semester.

It is perhaps these stories that inspired Clint Eastwood’s recent movie Gran Torino about a white Korean-War veteran in Detroit who gradually overcomes his own racism as he befriends his Hmong neighbors. I appreciate the cultural work this film does for race relations in the Midwest even though I personally have a lot of problems with the film. To briefly outline my problems, first, just like movies such as Avatar (about which I’ve blogged extensively [here]), Gran Torino is yet another classic case of a film about a white male saving the poor non-whites instead of them saving themselves. Strangely, not a single adult male Hmong person ever appears in the movie — since if such a person were present, then Clint Eastwood’s character would not be able to become the paternalistic surrogate father to the cute Hmong girl and her brother. And finally the event that first sparks genuine empathy and understanding between the white racist and the Hmong girl is when he saves her from some black men. Hence the movie uses one racist stereotype in order to overcome another racist stereotype. My Hmong students have also told me that the movie makes a few mistakes in how it represents Hmong culture. Yet, despite all the problems I have with the movie, I think it was perfectly pitched toward a conservative and mostly white Minnesota audience and perhaps did some positive cultural work in shifting attitudes towards the Hmong here. And for sure, it is a much better movie than the stupid and dehumanizing Black Hawk Down — a movie about the Somali civil war that made no effort whatsoever to understand that conflict. Someone watching that movie would leave the theater knowing less about Somalia than he or she knew before watching it. It’s one of those films that, like much of network news today, actually makes you more stupid and more ignorant.

In my opinion, scholars such as myself should collaborate with Oromo and Somali intellectuals and scholars to produce books and movies to tell their story — the kind of books and movies that would be of use to elementary and high school teachers. Nuruddin Farah has already attempted such a thing in his novels and in his book of non-fiction Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora, but in his journalism Farah tends to talk over the people he interviews, and his convoluted, allusive prose style is far too high-brow for a high school student. I personally have had some success teaching Ethopian-American Dinaw Mengestu’s novel The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears.

Moreover, another problem is that the Hmong story is easier to tell than the Somali or Oromo story. The Hmong people were allies with the United States during the Vietnam War and fought many covert battles in Laos and Cambodia. Since they were financed and trained by the United States, they became targeted by the Vietnamese and Laotian governments after the war was over. Hence, the U.S. owes them since it is clearly our fault that they have to leave Laos and Vietnam in the first place. The Oromo and Somali never allied themselves with the United States in this way; they were instead simply victims of European colonial projects in the late 19th century, Cold War politics in the late 20th century, and the anarchy of globalization that proceeded after the end of the Cold War. Another thing that might make the Somali story harder to tell is that many of the Somali women are strict Muslims. So, while in Gran Torino what enables the white racist to overcome his racism is the flirtatious relationship he forms with a pretty Hmong girl, such a scenario would be harder to film in the case of veiled Somali women, though movies like Outsourced and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Body of Lies suggest  possibilities. I am usually cynical about these kinds of romantic plot lines just as I am critical of movies such as Gran Torino, but I recognize their utility given the current context of racist hostility at schools and on the streets.

In sum, a lot of attention has been paid to the Somali problem and what teachers should do with their Somali students, but perhaps the problem is not just a Somali problem but a white problem. It is a problem that needs to be addressed quickly and decisively. But it also can be addressed subtly — just a little bit of content in a world history class here, a novel or memoir in a literature class there.


March 28, 2010 - Posted by | race, teaching


  1. One of the most formative experiences of my life was when I peer-tutored Hmong students in Rhode Island as a late teen/young adult. The most effective content: their stories. Helping my peers to put their experiences –first to talk and then to write–into a new language (english) taught me more than any film, book, theory, or course content ever could. It also made me realize how little I knew and how fortunate I had been–I didn’t have to know a second language in which I needed to describe the indescribable. The indescribable: How a father would rather poison his children to let them die quickly, rather than be tortured. How a child would hear a baby, his sibling, smothered, rather than be found by an enemy.

    If only people would listen to each other. Give each other the opportunity to connect, beyond language. And there’s the rub, the problem. These issues really do transcend–and rely–upon language.

    Comment by Moura | March 28, 2010 | Reply

    • This is one of the most biased article I’ve ever read. Im not racist nor am I trying to degrade any population on one color, race or creed. I am growing tired of the emphasis that try to make everyone feel sorry for somalians. Listen people, these people use our “minnesota nice” attitude against us, they get government funding and assistance to live here and they bring violence and sex trafficing in to our state. I for one am sick of all our hard earned tax money going towards funding and housing for these people. We have AMERICANS who are in much more need of help and assistance than these people. And what do we do? we give it all away to these people who only hinder our population. I know what you all think, “ohh this guys some white-power rascist.” Fact of the matter is I’m a multi-degree earned college graduate who has worked for everything, including fighting in Iraq for 2 years. So, I feel it’s my right to inform the readers of this website article that everything is not what it seems. It’s time for Minnesotans to stop allowing our state to be abused by this problem.

      Comment by Rob | December 13, 2010 | Reply

  2. I am glad you addressed the point that rather than simply being a Somali issue, racism against Somalis is also a problem of the race committing the offenses, in this case a white problem as well.

    My experience in St. Cloud schools is minimal and while I may be biased as I have spent much more time in St. Paul’s schools, seeing the differences in the way schools and administrations in St. Paul treat Hmong students and the way those in St. Cloud treat Somali students removes any mystery as to why Hmong students have had an easier time adjusting than Somali students. When I taught in St. Paul, the administration made sure I had at least some familiarity with Hmong culture and encouraged me to learn more on my own, recommending texts such as Kao Kalia Yang’s memoir mentioned in your blog (we even had Yang come speak to our students), which I thoroughly enjoyed. Having at least some background was quite helpful as I dealt with many Homong students and conferenced with Hmong families. While I have only observed and not actually taught in St. Cloud, I can assure you that many of the teachers I worked with knew very little if anything at all about Somalian culture. Many in the administration seemed the same way. While I am admittedly just as ignorant, if I was teaching a large number of Somali students I would try to learn as much as I realistically could about their native culture. How can a teacher understand students of a different culture if they themselves know nothing about it? Better yet, how can their students be expected to be interested in their peers’ cultures if their teachers aren’t? It’s true that schools in St. Paul have had a large Hmong population longer than those in St. Cloud have had a large Somali population, but what is St. Cloud waiting for?

    Comment by Ben | April 4, 2010 | Reply

  3. I like that you point to changes in the curriculum that can effect how students perceive the other ethnic groups that they deal with on a daily basis. Personally, my own high school education lacked this, even though I took a “Global Studies” course. These works can also be beneficial to students by broadening their understanding of the world – most of them don’t even consciously realize that places like Somalia even exist. For many central Minnesotan students – even well-intended ones – the world begins in Minneapolis and ends in Ely.

    As teachers, we make political decisions every day. Even when we try to not make controversial decisions about what to include and exclude in the curriculum, we’re always emphasizing some groups’ accomplishments while excluding the stories of other groups. At the end of the day, my questions to myself is, “What have I done to make my students better people?” We need to reflect on our decisions and make our schools into institutions that have positive effects on our students.

    I’ve blogged about this situation as well, and my suggestions are less curricular and deal more with the climate and the rhetoric of the school itself:

    Comment by mtbeck2010 | April 4, 2010 | Reply

    • I agree that your defining principle of “What have I done to make my students better people” is key in this discourse about immigration and hostility. To this end, have you taught “The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears” by Mengestu?
      I teach in a suburb of Seattle, Washington, and my curriculum for my world literature class is sorely lacking in addressing the immigrant’s story. I’m trying to articulate the novel for next year’s slate of books–what do you think about the quality of the writing and its impact on teenagers?

      I loved the novel–but I could use some advise in terms of
      relevancy in teaching. Do you have any other recommendations?

      Thanks so much,
      Rebecca Echert

      Comment by rebecca echert | April 14, 2010 | Reply

      • Rebecca, I’ve taught Dinaw Mengestu’s novel The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears to college freshmen and college seniors, and they both like it a lot. I don’t know about high school students. What’s difficult about the novel is that it jumps back and forth in time, so when I taught it to freshmen I explained that to them at the beginning. I’ve also co-written a review of that novel. Along with other good resources, that novel is mentioned briefly in my blog post above and if you click on the title, that is linked to my review. I’ve also had success teaching the play Real Women Have Curves by Josefina Lopez alongside the movie with the same title because the movie is so different than the play — the students seem to learn a lot comparing and contrasting the differences. (Personally, I love the play and hate the movie.)

        Comment by steventhomas | April 14, 2010

  4. actually public schools can also give great education to your kids, it is also as good as most private schools `

    Comment by False Nails · | November 4, 2010 | Reply

    • I totally agree with you False Nails. I don’t think I ever said anything in my blog about private schools at all, so I didn’t mean to imply that public schools weren’t good. I’m sorry if that’s how it sounded. In fact, from what I hear from my own students, the Minneapolis-St. Paul public schools do a fabulous job addressing ethnic diversity — a better job than most (if not all) private schools. However, it doesn’t seem that the public school systems in the cities of central Minnesota have fully considered the model used in Minneapolis and St. Paul’s schools. And I’m saying this not to make accusations and place blame. Rather, I hope we can look to the future and together as a community figure out a positive way forward.

      Comment by steventhomas | November 4, 2010 | Reply

  5. hmmmm…i find it interesting that i have come upon your blog but it made me understand it even more even though you have posted this in March. But it made clear and thanks for helping my on my paper!

    Comment by Maigos Vue | November 5, 2010 | Reply

  6. In and of itself, the growing movement among charter schools to target specific ethnic or racial groups is helping to cause the racism.

    Comment by Ken DeYoe | August 28, 2011 | Reply

  7. I realize this is an old thread, but I’m excited to hear about teaching students and teachers about Somali culture in the Cities. I’m trying to learn as much as I can, just out of interest for them and their culture. I would love to start up some mini-courses in Somali language. Any interested potential students or teachers?

    Comment by Loving Language | August 16, 2012 | Reply

  8. one more for reading list

    Comment by abdi latif ega | April 14, 2013 | Reply

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