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Study: For Asian-Americans, interracial marriage isn't the measure of assimilation it once was

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

LAWRENCE — Interracial marriage is not the single best way to measure levels of assimilation for immigrants and their descendants, based on a University of Kansas researcher's new study on Asian-American interethnic marriages.

Since the 1980s among Asian-Americans, interracial marriages have been on the decline while Asian interethnic marriages among members with heritage of a different Asian nation have been on the rise.

"In the case of Asian-American interethnic married couples, they are clearly not 'assimilating' or becoming 'American' through interracial marriage with white Americans, but one cannot say that they are not American or even that they are not assimilating in some way," said Kelly H. Chong, associate professor of sociology, who conducted interviews from 2009 to 2014 with 15 interethnically married couples and eight Asian-American individuals in long-term relationships.

Some participants did mention interethnic marriage as a potential tradeoff in the context of a society where race matters and that it could cause them to lose certain racial privileges than if they instead entered an interracial marriage with whites. 

"This tells us that despite the ascendant celebratory discourses about multiculturalism and diversity of recent years, we still have to remind ourselves that pressures for 'Anglo-conformity' and desires for 'white privilege' may still be strong and alive in contemporary U.S. society, which indicates the ongoing existence of racial hierarchy," Chong said.

The journal Sociological Perspectives recently published Chong's findings in "'Asianness' under Construction: The Contours and Negotiation of Panethnic Identity/Culture among Interethnically Married Asian Americans." She said in recent decades sociologists have examined racialized assimilation, meaning that immigrants of color may be assimilating into American society in many ways, including the adoption of mainstream culture and becoming incorporated into American social structures while maintaining racial — and some degree of cultural — distinction.

"Interethnically married Asian-American couples, who remain racially distinct and are likely to be more successful in preserving aspects of their Asian ethnic cultures, may be incorporating into the U.S. society in a different way that pushes us to question the validity of the classic uni-linear assimilation trajectory, one based mostly on the experiences of older European ethnic immigrants," Chong said.

The individuals she interviewed were all at least second-generation Americans, and most lived in metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C., which all have sizable Asian-American populations. The couples' national origins included Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Filipino and Cambodian heritage.

She said it is crucial to study Asian-Americans because as a racially “in-between” minority group — not black nor white — they are both understudied and generally treated, no matter their generation, as racialized ethnics, or non-white. Moreover, because the term "Asian" or "Asian-American" also is a socially constructed term imposed by the wider society on cultural and ethnically diverse groups of people from the Asia-Pacific region, it is important to investigate what “Asian-American” actually means for those who identify as that and in what ways this term is evolving and being negotiated by them.

Chong said that the experiences of interethnic couples reflect a highly complex process of assimilation that challenges assumptions and even stereotypes on many levels, including what “Asianness” means for the general public and for the participants themselves.

The four key elements of ethnic culture respondents mentioned were language, food, holiday celebrations and values. As Chong investigated how the couples sought to preserve ethnic traditions, food and holiday celebrations were the only cultural elements passed down among generations in a concrete way. 

Most couples had spent much of their lives eating Asian-ethnic foods, so they had no reason to discontinue eating them. Yet they routinely cooked mainstream American food, such as spaghetti and hamburgers. One couple described their gatherings with other Asian-American couples as tending to be "Americanized" where only the food "is sort-of ethnic."

Many couples also reported they grew up in households where English was primarily spoken, even though almost all expressed a strong desire for children to learn languages of both spouses; however, many lamented it was difficult to pass down because they themselves did not know the language well.

"In short, these couples recognize that sometimes, the 'default' culture for the families and children end up being 'American' rather than ethnic, with elements of 'Asianness,'" Chong said. "Culturally, their kids are just as immersed in the mainstream culture as they are in ethnic cultures, and they even feel that their families are American as anyone else's."

Respondents for the most part said they did not choose to marry fellow Asian ethnics necessarily because they were seeking to preserve Asian racial boundaries and culture, resist oppression or to demonstrate racial pride, she said. Instead, they cited reasons such as mutual cultural ease and comprehending “what it is to be a minority” as a source of attraction. Chong said that interethnic marriages can be seen as an alternative, ethnically and racially based way of being and becoming American in the face of racial stereotypes.

"In many ways, Asian-Americans hold onto 'Asianness' because they have to, due to the fact that the U.S. society continues to categorize Asians as racially and culturally 'foreign' and 'distinct,' quite possibly not fully American," Chong said. "But, despite our presumption of the cultural differences of individuals who we may think of as 'Asian' or Asian-American, many Asian-Americans feel just as American as anyone else and wish to be considered as such, while they may elect to maintain ethnic identity and culture."

She said the study puts a focus on ways in which immigrants assimilate into U.S. society instead of assigning a racial qualification, such as the level of interracial marriages involving white Americans.

"Ideally, we can envision a society in which ethnic identification, for example, can become as optional for racial minorities as it is for those of European origin," Chong said. "The goal would be to attempt to move toward a more just, egalitarian society no longer based on racial hierarchies — though not necessarily moving away from racial differences as long as racial inequalities are no longer operative."


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CEAS offers an M.A. program in Contemporary East Asian Studies.This interdisciplinary degree focused on 20th and 21st century East Asia provides students with in-depth interdisciplinary knowledge of a selected East Asian country (China, Korea, Japan); a broad knowledge of modern East Asia; and social science research skills and methods appropriate to international area studies. Read more about the CEAS M.A. Program, or contact Ayako Mizumura, CEAS Assistant Director, at ceasma@ku.edu or 785-864-1478.

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