Why Suni Lee Doesn’t Have To Use Her Platform To Educate About Hmoob People
By Cassandra Xiong
In a recent text conversation with my cousin, we were talking about a few famous, well-achieved Hmoob women. This conversation revolved around the topics of representation and what each of them are doing to help the Hmoob community. Our conversation happened shortly after Payengxa Lor - the first Hmoob woman to ever be a contestant in the Miss Universe pageant - was not selected to be in the Top 5 Miss Universe Finalists. Notably, Payengxa works as an English teacher in Laos and promotes education as a means of getting out of poverty. We talked about how her philanthropic efforts are admirable, along with her achievements in competing in Miss Universe.
And then my cousin switched the conversation to Suni Lee. My cousin had expressed to me how she felt sad that Suni Lee (19-year-old gymnast and Olympic gold medalist) has such a huge platform that she doesn’t use to educate about the Hmoob people. “I’d rather see a post about educating people of the Hmong people rather than [an outfit picture],” she wrote to me.
Now, I completely understand where my cousin was coming from. Her feelings are valid. I can understand why a young Hmoob American woman would want the only currently famous young Hmoob American woman to use her platform to educate about our people. But I wanted to use this as a teaching moment to open up my cousin’s mind and help her reframe her thinking. I wanted to use this teaching moment to explain to her that Hmoob celebrities don’t owe us every responsibility that we expect from them. I first responded to my cousin by saying that Suni Lee is still in the prime of her gymnastics career and she is also currently attending university. She must be mentally focused on gymnastics and school right now. While she may not be using her platform to educate about the Hmoob people, she very well may in the future if she chooses to do so.
The next few messages I sent to my cousin were about how I don’t believe that every famous Hmoob person must use their platform to educate the public about the Hmoob community. For one thing, it’s just not fair of us to put that responsibility onto famous Hmoob people if they simply don’t want to, or if they just don’t feel qualified to - both of which are valid reasons. We can’t just unsolicitedly put that expectation onto famous Hmoob people, and then get disappointed when they don’t live up to that expectation. Sure, it would be nice if Suni did choose to use her platform to educate about the Hmoob people. But are we as the Hmoob community really owed that by her specifically? Why do we feel like we are allowed to expect this from her? Why do we feel like we are owed this from her? Two key ideas that I believe we must come to terms with in order to have a more healthy view of celebrities are that: 1) we must free ourselves from the idea that we are owed something by famous people just because they come from the same ethnic background as us, and 2) we must not expect that every famous Hmoob person automatically has to do the work to educate the public about the Hmoob community just because they have a large platform. Now, why do we need to have a more healthy and realistic view of celebrities?
We Shouldn’t Deify Famous Hmoob People
Deify, de·i·fy (verb): worship, regard, or treat (someone or something) as a god. Oxford Languages. I was also excited to use this teaching moment to explain to my cousin something that I had recently learned myself: we must not deify anyone, especially famous people. Social worker and therapist, Shahem Mclaurin, introduced me to this idea in a Tiktok video.
Essentially, deification is the opposite of objectification, and is just as dehumanizing because it reduces people down to a non-human status. Whether a person is reduced to an object or a god, it is dehumanizing. This relates to my point about Suni because when people become famous, especially when they are from the same ethnic background as us, we easily fall into this mentality of deifying them. Whether we do it intentionally or unintentionally, we tend to expect that famous people should act perfectly in order for us to feel proud that they represent us. We tend to expect that famous people should be responsible for helping their community however we believe they should. We tend to expect that famous people should use their fame and resources to their advantage in order to help others. And because there are hardly any famous Hmoob Americans at Suni’s level, there is even more pressure put on her to do these things. My cousin believing that Suni should use her platform to educate about the Hmoob community is a perfect example of how Suni is subjected to Hmoob people’s unsolicited expectations like this and is therefore deified.
We also need to realize that the expectations we project onto famous Hmoob people can be harmful because it causes us to forget their fallibility. Famous Hmoob people do not owe us perfection. They do not owe us the expectations that we project onto them. And yet, they can still receive our support at the same time. Deification strips away our ability to perceive a famous person as a human being. Therefore, deification strips away that person’s ability to be seen as a full human being with good and bad characteristics like the rest of us. We must recognize that famous people are imperfect humans who ultimately do not owe us anything.
Let me make one thing clear. Suni is doing enough just by existing as her authentic self! She is doing enough just by pursuing her successful gymnastics career. She inherently represents what it means to be Hmoob American whether she chooses to educate about the Hmoob community or not. And if choosing not to educate about the Hmoob community is authentic to her, then that is totally valid! Let me explain why…
Representation Of W̶h̶i̶t̶e̶w̶a̶s̶h̶e̶d Hmoob People Who Are Disconnected From Their Culture Matters!
Another point that I brought up to my cousin was that I think Suni’s lack of educating about Hmoob people is, in itself, an accurate representation of many Hmoob American youth. By this I mean that there are many young Hmoob Americans, myself included, who grew up w̶h̶i̶t̶e̶w̶a̶s̶h̶e̶d – very Americanized and are disconnected from the Hmoob culture. Those types of young Hmoob Americans are an underrepresented group within the Hmoob American community itself. And don’t they deserve to have representation? Don’t Hmoob Americans who aren’t that in touch with their Hmoob heritage deserve to be seen too? Don’t they deserve to have someone famous to relate to? They do. And let me tell you why…
At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, I remember watching an interview with Suni Lee where the interviewer asked her to speak Hmoob. “Nyob zoo!” she said shakily and clearly not using the correct tones. Watching this moment live on national TV shook me to my core in the best way possible. When I heard Suni say, “Nyob zoo” in the most American accent ever, I screamed laughing and yelled “THAT’S ME WHEN I TRY TO SPEAK HMOOB!” Because that is EXACTLY how I sound when I try to speak Hmoob! I am not being hyperbolic when I say that I have never in my life felt more seen and truly represented than the moment where Suni spoke Hmoob. It was amazing. And it’s a feeling I will never ever forget.
There are many Hmoob Americans who cannot speak the Hmoob language or can only speak basic Hmoob or “Hmonglish.” This is a hot topic within the Hmoob American community. But I know that Hmoob Americans who are disconnected from the Hmoob culture absolutely deserve to be seen and represented. We deserve to feel like we can relate to someone famous or someone who is well-achieved. We deserve to feel like we could be understood by another human who shares our same experience.
I was telling my friend Myxee about the text conversation I had with my cousin. Myxee said that Suni is a revolutionary for doing things that are considered taboo in the Hmoob culture. Not only does Suni authentically represent Americanized Hmoob people by not knowing how to speak Hmoob. She also does this by doing other things that are considered taboo, such as pursuing her dreams to be a gymnast, not appearing to hang out with many Hmoob people (or at least not that she posts on social media), and she is in an interracial relationship. Suni is truly a revolutionary just by being herself, as Myxee said. And in doing so, she represents many other contemporary Hmoob Americans who don’t follow Hmoob traditions and norms. It’s incredibly liberating to witness Suni doing what she does because it shows that you can do things that others consider taboo and still be successful in your own way. And it’s not like she has completely forgotten where she comes from either.
Use Your Negative Energy Towards Suni To Go Support Actual Hmoob Scholars
As I mentioned, I shared all of these thoughts in a separate conversation with my friend Myxee, which is actually what gave me the inspiration to write this article. Myxee added a very compelling point to this conversation. She said that if Hmoob people really want Suni to use her platform to educate about the Hmoob community, they should just go support something like the UW-Madison Hmoob American Studies program. This program is currently in need of as much community support as possible because they are trying to get the program established at the university and have been experiencing lots of pushback and little community support. The true mission of this program is more than just making sure there is a Hmoob American Studies major at the university. Their focus is not only to preserve Hmoob history, but to research and educate about contemporary Hmoob American experiences. It is an entire social justice movement in itself because it aims to preserve the authentic narratives of Hmoob people in spaces where our voices have been historically excluded.
So, please extend your support to various Hmoob people and organizations like this who are doing the intentional work to preserve Hmoob history and culture. They make it their mission to do things like ensuring that Hmoob history is recorded in academia, uplifting the Hmoob community so that people feel safer and more accepted, and providing the Hmoob community with opportunities to grow and experience joy. For example, there are many HMoob scholars and educators around the country who are conducting research and teaching about the Hmoob people. Imagine if we used a fraction of the energy that we used to support Suni Lee at the Olympics and extended it to people who are doing work like this.
Thank you to my cousin, my friend Myxee, and others who inspired and supported me in writing my first article. I’m so grateful to you all.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the Hmong Times.