Yellow in White Suits: Race, Mobility, and Identity among Grown Children of Korean Immigrants

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Children of post-1965 Asian immigrants experience a different mode of social incorporation than other people of color. They achieve marked socioeconomic advancement but racism and discrimination continue to haunt them. Sociologists suggest that the group falls between whites and African Americans in the American racial stratification system. However, scholars know little about how this intermediate position shapes the group's modes of social incorporation and identities. I seek to answer this question by examining the lived experiences of grown children of Korean immigrants. For this research, I draw upon 69 in-depth interviews with upwardly mobile, 1.5- and 2nd-generation Korean Americans. I focus my analysis on four distinctive but related aspects of their lives: parental socialization, neighborhood contexts, occupational standing, and racial identity. Utilizing the grounded theory and the critical discourse analyses, I found that the group experiences neither full inclusion into nor exclusion from the white mainstream, but undergoes divergent adaptational experiences due to multiple factors. First, in their upbringing, Asian ethnic advantages and racial marginality did not shape parental expectations for children's success in a uniform way; their influences differ by the parents' class backgrounds. Second, the community contexts where my informants grew up diversify their perception of race relations, leading them to have divergent ideas of social incorporation. The ethnic communities function to refract the influence of the larger society's racial categorization on the informants, rather than insulating them. Third, the Korean informants' upward mobility in the mainstream labor market does not guarantee full assimilation; their occupations partially determine the extent of incorporation. Korean informants in Asian-clustered occupations are more likely than those in Asian-underrepresented occupations to experience social inclusion while accepting the racialized image of Asians. Finally, my Korean informants do not have homogeneous racial identities; they are diversified by gender and occupational standings. Male respondents and those in Asian-clustered occupations tend to have white-like identities. Also, the majority of my informants have an ambivalent racial identity that denies that they are an "oppressed" minority while endorsing the idea that they are non-white, which reflects their intermediate racial position. By identifying multiple factors in the construction of Asian Americans as racialized subjects, the findings illustrate the distinctive racialization pattern of Asian Americans, a pattern that is qualitatively different from other racial and ethnic groups. Additionally the research confirms the ongoing significance of race in the life chances of Korean Americans.






Son, Inseo (2014). Yellow in White Suits: Race, Mobility, and Identity among Grown Children of Korean Immigrants. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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