Sunday, February 12, 2012

One of Us! One of Us! Or Are You?

I just finished reading Nancy Abelmann's The Intimate University: Korean American Students and the Problems of Segregation (Duke, 2009). Abelmann is an anthropologist from whose work on Koreans, both in Korea and in the US, I've learned a lot. As you can tell from the title, her most recent book is about Korean American students at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where she teaches. It's based on interviews and participant-observing (or "hanging out," as she wryly glosses it) with a large number of students and their families, often over a period of years. And it goes deeper than you might think, because Abelmann and her informants probe questions of what "the" university is for, for anyone; Abelmann is also good at teasing apart the contradictions in the desire of immigrants and their children to belong and not to belong, to assimilate or not, so the book has implications not only for recent immigrants but for those whose ancestors came over several generations back.

The Intimate University made me think more about something that has been nagging at me for some time now, namely the meaning of "multiculturalism." On one hand, the term can mean recognizing that one's society -- any society, not just the US -- comes from not just one cultural source, but many, a recognition that means one should adopt a respectful attitude to other cultures. By "respectful attitude" I don't mean unthinking acceptance or celebration of everything in other cultures, any more than one should unthinkingly celebrate everything in one's own; only recognition that those other cultures had something worthwhile to contribute. To quote again an exchange from Thomas Mann: "Can anything be greater than love?" "Yes: interest."

On the other hand, multiculturalism can also intend to break down all barriers, and ultimately all differences between cultures, under the classical liberal guise of claiming that everyone has common humanity, which just happens to be upper-class Anglo-Saxon. This is not really so different from the old racist approach, except that the gate to acceptance is open as long as those outside divest themselves of any difference from the white norm.

I think it's this contradiction that leads to so much misery -- the word isn't too strong, though the misery is more intense for some than for others -- for so many of the Korean American students Abelmann writes about. They tend to view The University as a place that will inspire them, teach them the meaning of life, and lead them out of the immigrant enclaves where they mostly grew up into an open, accepting America. On the other, they are wary of American materialism, soullessness, and secularism (most of Abelmann's subjects are Korean Protestants, with a minority of Catholics and an even smaller group of others). But they also tend see their families as only surface Christians. They don't even trust American churches, so they continue attending a big Korean student church off-campus. They insist that their parents don't fit the Tiger stereotype of obsessively pushy, instrumentalist, ambitious model-minority control freaks; yet they concede, or hint, that in fact they do fit the stereotype, and that they themselves feel the burn of that ambition. Many of them begin their undergraduate careers trying to broaden their horizons -- taking humanities courses, making non-Asian friends -- but drift back to mainly Korean social circles by their senior years. It doesn't help that many of the Koreans on campus already know each other from growing up in the same Chicago suburbs, the same high schools, the same Korean megachurches. Nor does it help, as Abelmann points out, that The University's role is changing; even during the years (1997-2004, give or take) when she was doing her fieldwork, the US economy was starting to crumble, and it was no longer certain that a college degree would get you a job, and more and more people were questioning the wisdom of going deep into debt for a liberal arts education. Much of the pressure on Korean students (and others) to stop exploring and stick to the robot-producing majors was economic.

Which brings me to the issue of "self-segregation," a charge that has been leveled at numerous minorities in the US, and to the question that this book made me ponder: What's wrong with self-segregation? Without it, there wouldn't be the beautiful cornucopia of diversity that multiculturalism is supposed to celebrate: "diversity" means difference, not sameness. Segregation is mainly a problem when it's imposed from outside, though admittedly as Abelmann and others have pointed out, there are other ways of imposing segregation than brute force and violence. Still, is it self-segregation if white kids from Chicago also find themselves hanging out in college with other white kids from the same suburbs, schools, churches instead of with white kids from other cities or states? The thing about a comfort zone, as Abelmann calls it, is that it's comfortable, and comfort can be positive as well as negative. It's important to remember too that some Korean students disaffiliate themselves and socialize primarily outside the Korean community -- some even (gasp) drop out of college -- but such students were not the focus of Abelmann's research, which makes me wonder if there isn't some circular reasoning going on here.

I once made fun of a campus rightist's misunderstanding of diversity issues by saying that as a strict professional enforcer of Political Correctness, I demand that every American be 51 percent female, 12 percent black, 12 percent Latino, 6 percent Asian, 2 percent Jewish, and 10 percent gay, lesbian, and bisexual. I also wondered what role minority students were ideally supposed to play in integration. Would every black student have to have 9 white friends, and so on? (The guy I was mocking seemed to think so.) The trouble is that we don't really know what a genuinely "diverse" society would look like. I'm pretty sure, though, that it wouldn't be one with all difference diluted into gray mush. (Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time is an intelligent suggestion of the kind of thing to aim for: on "race," for example, her imagined future society breaks the link between skin color and culture.)

Abelmann also wrote about
the persistent urge (or need?) of many students to distinguish themselves from other Korean Americans, regardless of the shape of their ethnic life. Their offered collectively powerful instances of what some scholars have labeled “intraethnic othering.” Both during and beyond the fieldwork phase, I wrestled with this: why were the members of this community working so busily to be anything but “typically Korean,” even in their most ethnic social circles, such as the Korean American church? ...

Well documented, for example, are the ways Asian Americans often disidentify with other communities of color, effectively claiming their own model minority status (e.g., from other Asian American groups, among them refugee populations in particular, and blacks and Latinos) [161, 162].
Intraethnic othering also occurs in non-ethnic groups -- gay men, for example, will gladly tell you at length how they aren't like those other trashy gays, while confirming in the process that they are exactly like them. It's not that different from interethnic othering.

Abelmann talks about what has been done at Champaign-Urbana -- principally a major discussion that led to new Asian American studies courses -- and what more she thinks should be done. A lot of it comes down to not being afraid of difference. She even says:
... I also think that the Korean American students in this book challenge the university and its observers to imagine segregated spaces that nobody has to worry about or apologize for, or for that matter to label as self-segregated. Instead, these ethnic [and, she might have mentioned, other] spaces can be understood as inevitable features of a country and a university still gripped by the realities of race, even as the university makes its own noteworthy efforts to forge new ties and spaces [166].
But as I suggested above, while race is a problem, eliminating race wouldn't eliminate people's tendency to group together and distinguish themselves from others. As trivial as it may sound at first blush, Asian American studies courses, joining the other racial/ethnic studies and quasi-ethnic ones like gender and GLBT studies probably do help a lot, by encouraging people to talk about and not be frightened by difference. They don't build walls (as the popular "balkanizing" accusation would have it), they make some openings in the ones we already have. It's not enough, but it's a start.