Although one's identity may seem to be a very personal and individual decision, as we shall examine, 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.
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.
Connections Between 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, beliefs, 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 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- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved.
Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Assimilation & Ethnic Identity" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/assimilation.shtml> ().
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