Date Thesis Awarded

5-2017

Document Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)

Department

Sociology

Advisor

Jennifer Bickham Mendez

Committee Member

Deenesh Sohoni

Committee Member

Melody Porter

Abstract

This research casts critical light on the assumption that, with their high levels of socioeconomic success and low levels of political engagement, Asian Indians in the United States, are simply not a problem. As sociologists with a privileged knowledge and understanding of the disturbing outcomes of volatile race relations in this country, we cannot afford to stall our research until the very moment a population becomes the primary target of hate crimes. I aim to challenge the narrative that lauds Asian Indians as the “model minority of model minorities”—to better understand the lived experiences of American youth of Indian origin within the social institution of education. In this study, I ask: how do these professionally- oriented Asian Indian youth understand their Indian cultural heritage—one that often taints them as “forever foreign” and their American way of life often as “honorary whites” (Tuan 1998)? What role does the American public school system play in these identity formation processes? Finally, how does an understanding of the 1.5 generation of Asian Indian youth inform our insight into the lives of other immigrant groups, specifically undocumented youth?

In this study, I find that, in order to make sense of their paradoxical existence, Asian Indian youth of the 1.5 generation often adopt a hyphenated identity of Indian American. While this hybrid identity suggests a sort of reconciliation between an ethnic national identity and an adopted cultural identity, my respondents often create distinct boundaries between what it means to be “Indian” versus “American.” I argue that this persistent tension and associated boundary work is a result of a process I term split socialization, both longitudinal (over the life course) and lateral (between two primary cultural domains—home and school). This split socialization, accompanied by a system of racialized tracking which places Asian Indians in primarily white spaces in the public school system, often inspires experiences of social exclusion and “othering.”

Through these processes, Asian Indian millennials begin to understand themselves as inhabiting racialized bodies and to be racially and ethnically distinct from their white, native-born peers. While these experiences are evidently influenced by race, they are also largely influenced by class- and gender-specific dynamics, inciting my respondents to respond in different ways. Some opt for “whitewashing,” in order to fit in, while others resist the devaluation of their culture in the classroom, by engaging in forms of ethnic maintenance. However, despite the struggles of this population, we see that Indian-born youth of the 1.5 generation often downplay experiences of discrimination and “othering,” openly embracing what they know to be the elusive American dream.

I argue that the 1.5 generation of Asian Indian youth is cultivated in schools to claim and assert an identity that hinges on academic success and upward mobility. Bolstered by the stereotype promise of the model minority myth, Asian Indians experience what I term an honorary integration into the American public school system, and consequently, into the sacred fabric of American society. Simply put, these youth internalize the narrative that if they work hard they will succeed and be offered the same benefits as their white counterparts. In this project, by sharing this culmination of their stories as well as my own, I hope to break the silence of these masters of none.

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