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Up Against Whiteness: Race, School, and Immigrant Youth

reviewed by David Urias - 2006

coverTitle: Up Against Whiteness: Race, School, and Immigrant Youth
Author(s): Stacey J. Lee
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080774574X , Pages: 152, Year: 2005
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A good ethnographic study not only clearly presents information in a user-friendly fashion for both the academic and the lay person but also provides the reader with an opportunity to question his/her own belief system and perception/notion of reality. Stacey Lee’s Up Against Whiteness, Race, School, and Immigrant Youth is such a book. The reader is not only introduced to the Hmong in America (a lesser known group) but is also exposed to the “hegemonic racial conditions” (p. 21) that inform and constrain the identity options for Hmong American youth in our schools and communities. The Hmong are a people from Southeast Asia that has transplanted itself into American society after enduring centuries of religious persecution and genocide. Originally from China, Hmong identity has largely been defined by a string of relocations, first to Vietnam and Laos, then to Thailand, and eventually to the United States, England, and Australia. In essence, this book is an exploration in dichotomous relationships—good versus bad, traditional versus contemporary (or Americanized)—in resistance to structural racism.

The central theme of the book examines the means by which Hmong American youth living in Wisconsin form their identities in the social context of school and in response to their school experiences. Specifically, the author provides an in-depth exploration into the symbolic interactions between interracial peer relationships, relationships with teachers, types of extracurricular participation, and academic expectations/achievement. The book also examines how the Hmong students’ experiences “in the larger society and in their ethnic community influence their identities” (p. 2). Gender, generation, school, and community ethos are some of the factors which shape their identities and behavior as Hmong Americans living in the United States. Dr. Lee articulately illustrates, through the stories and voices of individual Hmong American youth along with her own observations, the various ways youth in this group respond to their marginalization and social disenfranchisement.

The first chapter sets the stage for the study by putting it into context. The reader is not only provided with an outline of research questions and a basic conceptual framework based on what the academic literature says about the topic of immigrant assimulation/acculturalization, but also is provided with a discussion about the nature and specifics of the research process in true academic form. Chapter 2 focuses on the culture of the main research site, University Heights High School. Here, she discusses the interactions of Hmong students in this well-to-do, “good” Wisconsin high school with teachers and other students and the social constructions these students encounter among teachers and administrators. The third chapter explores identity differences between “Traditional” and “Americanized” Hmong American students. Both types of students negotiate and form their identities in response to messages about race and otherness from home, school, and the larger society. How gender has an impact on the experiences of these youth is the focus of chapter 4. More specifically, how gender correlates with race and class informs and limits the experiences of this group in their homes, communities, schools, and so forth. The premise is that the experience of what it means to be a Hmong American male is different and often contradictory to what it means to be a female Hmong American. The author further argues that “the negotiation of various expressions of masculinity and femininity and the struggle over gender roles are central to the stories of immigrant students” (p. 122). Although valid, I do not believe such struggles are limited to the Hmong or minorities. Chapter 5 purports that “whiteness is the standard against which all others are judged…. Through their school experiences Hmong American students learn that whiteness and ‘normal’ Americanness are constructed as one and the same” (p. 123). This chapter is concerned with race and the notion of what a “good” school is. I agree with Dr. Lee’s position critiquing a multicultural curriculum as an additive and band-aid to cure racial inequities. Typical multiculturalism not only celebrates difference and otherness, but also seeks to contain it, fixing minority “others” into discrete boxes of racial and ethnic identity. Newly arrived Asian immigrants, the Hmong in particular, are thus forced to assume the “Asian-American” label regardless of their individual identifications. Rather than challenging assumptions and empowering students to be active agents for change, multiculturalism is often narrowly equated with domestic identity politics and its focus on managing diversity. In the author’s exploration and review of the literature on assimilation and acculturalization, it would have been interesting for the reader to have been exposed to the paradigm of diaspora as a potential alternative model for thinking about Asian bicultural identity. The concept of diaspora could provide a more positive point of identification than the status of ethnic minority—a sense of belonging to a larger transnational group. This paradigm moves one beyond the nation-based perspective of U.S. multiculturalism by providing a global and comparative perspective on migration and culture.

To understand the implications of how dominance and subordination are reproduced by the school as a social vehicle, Lee focuses her attention not just on a particular subset of immigrant students, but also on how a “good” school shapes the identities of immigrant and second-generation Hmong students. In this context, the notion of “good” is associated with the hegemony of “whiteness.” Whiteness “defines what is normal, desirable…” (p. 23); it is associated with “all that is ostensibly good about America and being American” (p. 4). The whiteness of the faculty, staff, and parental majority of the community shapes the educational opportunities for minority students:

The process of identity formation is complex due to the “negotiation of cultural differences within a context of unequal power relations…dominant messages regarding race that position [Hmong first and second generation Americans] in a subordinate position in society” (p. 1).

This work is significant in that it contributes to the research on segmented assimilation by considering the way race informs immigrant encounters with social structures, the school in particular, and how that interaction molds identity formation within and outside a particular group. The book highlights how race and class influence the process of “Americanization” within the context of the school as the social transmitter of dominant culture. Finally, it “contributes to the growing and important conversation about the educational experiences of immigrants of color” (p. 22).

It has been said that a painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by light. This book is appropriately titled. Looking at the shadows or rather the “darkness” of the Hmong and questioning the darkness of ignorance enables the reader to see an aspect of reality through corrective lenses. Hegemonic messages about race and “goodness” from the dominant white majority become the standard by which others in various shades of “darkness” are judged.  Stacey Lee has woven a rich tapestry for the benefit and edification of those of us who were ignorant of the Hmong and unquestioning of our own assumptions of “whiteness” and what is good.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 824-827
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12121, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 2:51:06 AM

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About the Author
  • David Urias
    Drexel University
    E-mail Author
    DAVID URIAS is an Assistant Professor of Educational Policy and Program Evaluation at Drexel University. A former secondary level Social Studies and Special Education teacher, he holds an M.A. in Education from The Johns Hopkins University and earned his Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies & Evaluation from the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. Current research interests include, but are not limited to: examining the complex issues surrounding international education and the role it plays in global societies. Another area of research interest is the role of corporate philanthropy/corporatization in financing higher education here in the U.S. and abroad. Both areas encompasses a myriad of complex social, political, and economic variables and consequences that have impact not only for schools, but for global societies. During 2005, his articles appeared in such publications as the International Educator, Teachers College Press, Thought and Action, and Elsevier, Inc. Press. He has also presented research at state, national, and international venues.
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