HAPA Assimilation & Ethnic Identity: (Article)
Although one's identity may seem to be a very personal
and individual decision ... there can be many historical,
socioeconomic, and sociological factors that can directly
or indirectly influence this decision. Just as there is
a wide range of experiences and circumstances within
the Asian American population, so too can there be
many different, overlapping, and simultaneous
forms of ethnic identity among Asian Americans...
[Remainder of article found below (following
'Related Links') or via the links below:
The Model Minority' myth ...
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF ETHNIC IDENTITY
Scholars from many different academic disciplines have
generally categorized ethnic identity formation along two
main theoretical frameworks: primordial versus situational.
While these two categories ultimately represent a simplistic
dichotomy to characterize processes of ethnic identity formation,
they are still very useful in framing our analysis of ethnic identity.
The primordial (also known as "essentialist") perspective
argues that people have an innate sense of ethnic identity
-- it is something that people are born with, is instinctive
and natural, and is difficult if not impossible to change.
This is illustrated by the natural instinct to favor
one's kin or co-ethnics over non-kin and non-ethnics.
The persistence of ethnocentrism and even outright conflict
between different racial/ethnic groups attest to the historical
and continuing validity of the primordial basis of ethnic identity.
On the other hand, the situational perspective (also known
as the "constructionist" or "instrumentalist") states that
ethnic identities are socially defined phenomena.
That is, the meaning and boundaries of ethnic identity
are constantly being renegotiated, revised, and
redefined, depending on specific situations and set of
circumstances that each individual or ethnic group encounters.
Within the situational perspective, there are several
sub-theories about how ethnic identity is formed
and reformed, shaped and reshaped.
For example, sociologists argue that ethnic
identity can resurgent or emergent.
Resurgent ethnic identity is the idea that traditional
or ancestral identities can reemerge through
historical events and particular circumstances.
One common example is the ethnic identity
of Japanese American after World War II.
Many Japanese American adults who were imprisoned during WWII
initially discarded their identity after the end of war, to avoid any
association, shame, or embarrassment with being imprisoned.
However, after movement to demand compensation and redress for
this injustice developed in the 1980s, many felt a newly resurgent
sense of being Japanese American as they united to fight for an
official apology and reparations from the federal government.
Also, many Japanese American children who were born after the
end of the war felt a resurgent sense of Japanese American identity
after learning about their parents' imprisonment experiences and
identifying with their history of perseverance and strength.
This idea about resurgent ethnic identity is sometimes
represented by the famous quote "What the father
wishes to forget, the child wishes to remember".
On the other hand, emergent ethnic identity involves
the creation of new forms of group identity due to
the convergence of particular circumstances.
More specifically, because of demographic changes or competition
and conflict with other groups, a new ethnic identity based
on group solidarity and similarity of experiences might form.
Some argue that the identity of "Asian American"
is a perfect example of an emergent ethnic identity.
That is, prior to the Civil Rights Movement, virtually no
Asian ethnic group considered themselves part
of a larger "Asian American" social group.
Rather, they identified solely based on their own
national origins (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.).
But building on the Civil Rights Movement's focus on racial/ethnic
solidarity and group consciousness, the pan-Asian identity
of "Asian Americans" eventually emerged, emphasizing shared
experiences and commonalities of having Asian ancestry.
ASSIMILATION AND ETHNIC IDENTITY
Because ethnic identity among second generation
Asian Americans is inevitably tied to the process of assimilation,
we should recognize the different forms of assimilation
and how different factors can affect assimilation outcomes.
Among the most famous conceptions of assimilation is the
distinction between behavioral assimilation (otherwise known as
"acculturation") and structural or socioeconomic assimilation.
Behavioral assimilation/acculturation occurs when
a newcomer absorbs the cultural norms, values, b
eliefs, and behavior patterns of the "host" society.
This may also involve learning English
and/or becoming an American citizen.
Within this process, Asian Americans may choose to retain much
of their traditional Asian culture, norms, and behaviors while still
acquiring those of mainstream American society, or to discard
his/her traditional forms of Asian culture entirely in favor of complete
immersion and identification with mainstream American society.
The second major type of assimilation, structural or
socioeconomic assimilation, refers to when Asian Americans
enter and become integrated into the formal social, political,
economic, and cultural institutions of the host country -- i.e., when
they begin to participate as full members of American society.
Alternatively, it can also refer to when they attain socioeconomic
mobility and status (usually in the form of income, occupation,
residential integration, etc.) equal to other members
of mainstream American society.
The process of undergoing either behavioral or
structural/socioeconomic assimilation can occur in a linear or
"straight-line" manner in which the passage of time and the
succession of generations lead to increasing economic, cultural,
political, and residential integration into American society.
Or it can happen in a non-linear, circular, or "bumpy" manner in
which Asian Americans revive or retain old cultural traditions,
norms, and behaviors and choose to remain somewhat isolated
from mainstream American society (the "ethnic resilience" model)
or alternatively, to combine elements of both traditional Asian
(although they may modify old traditions and values to fit their
contemporary circumstances) and mainstream American
culture (sometimes referred to as "segmented assimilation").
MULTIPLE FACTORS AND MULTIPLE OUTCOMES
Other research has focused on why certain
racial/ethnic groups assimilate faster than others.
One factor are racial differences.
White immigrants who came to the U.S. back in
the 1800s did experience prejudice and discrimination.
But because they were White, they were eventually
able to integrate into American society more quickly
and easily than non-White immigrants and minorities.
The second factor is the structure of the economy.
During times of economic prosperity, there are plenty
of economic opportunities to go around for everyone.
But in times of economic difficulties, there is more economic
competition and therefore, more hostility toward minorities and
immigrants who are frequently seen as economic threats.
In this situation, groups who are in similar economic situations
are likely to be antagonistic toward each other because they're
competing for the same jobs and social/economic resources.
The final reason why some immigrants assimilate
faster than others is because of class differences.
Some ethnic and immigrant groups on the whole have higher levels
of education, job skills, and English proficiency than others.
This in turn gives them specific advantages in achieving
socioeconomic success faster than others by
allowing them to get jobs that are higher-paying,
more stable, and that offer higher status.
As a result, they are able to achieve socioeconomic
mobility and success faster than other groups.
Sociological research has also found that the strength
of the child's relationship with his/her parents, along
with the level of his/her attachment to the ethnic community
also play important roles in determining ethnic identity
among second generation Asian Americans.
For example, if child-parent relationship is strong and
healthy, the child is more likely to take on the parent's
identity, whatever that may be (i.e., national origin,
hyphenated American, pan-Asian, or just "American").
However, if the child has conflicts with his/her parents, the
more likely the child will identify differently from the parent.
Studies also show that the strength of a child's
ethnic community strongly affects his/her identity.
Those who live within a cohesive ethnic community and who
regularly participate in co-ethnic organizations and activities
(i.e., peer groups, churches, etc.) are more likely to identify
with a national origin or hyphenated-American identity, even
if the ethnic group tends to be low-income or working class.
In other words, socioeconomic success is not as
important in determining ethnic identity as the level
of social solidarity within the co-ethnic community.
Perceptions of racism and discrimination can also have influences
on Asian American second generation ethnic identity.
According to the situational/constructionist/ instrumentalist
perspective, for an Asian American to have a strong attachment
to traditional forms of ethnic identity, it is not enough
to just perceive or experience high levels of
ethnic competition, prejudice, or discrimination.
It is the person's reaction to these perceptions and
experiences that will determine how s/he identifies.
That is, if s/he internalizes these experiences of competition
and discrimination and his/her self-esteem is negatively affected
as a result, s/he is more likely to be embarrassed
to be identified as Asian American.
On the other hand, these experiences of competition
and discrimination can also lead to a greater sense
of unity and solidarity and as a result, greater
identification with his/her Asian ethnicity.
THE PERSONAL AND THE POLITICAL
Finally, one of the most famous theories of
assimilation comes from sociologist Milton Gordon.
He theorized that there are three possible outcomes of assimilation.
The first is Anglo conformity, which is when the minority
or immigrant is taught that the norms, values, and institutions
of the majority group are superior and that they
should adopt them in order to be accepted.
This is symbolized as A+B+C==A.
The second outcome can be the melting pot,
a term that almost all Americans have heard about.
That's when different racial/ethnic groups come together
and out of this interaction comes a new culture
that incorporates elements from all groups into one.
This can be represented as A+B+C==D.
The third possible outcome is cultural pluralism,
which others have also called the "salad bowl.
This is when the different racial/ethnic groups keep their unique
cultural norms, traditions, and behaviors, while still sharing common
national values, goals, and institutions -- A+B+C==A+B+C.
Gordon concluded that up to this point in American
society, Anglo conformity has best represented
the history of assimilation in America.
In the end, there are many internal and external factors
that can affect how ethnic identify among
second generation Asian Americans.
Research suggests that there can be notably
institutional patterns to this seemingly individual process.
These identities can also overlap, change over time, and even be
one of many simultaneous identities in effect at the same time.
Copyright © 2001- 2005 by C.N. Le. All rights reserved.
Suggested reference: Le, C.N. 2005. "Assimilation & Ethnic Identity"
Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America.
> (August 24, 2005).