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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

Struggle for Ethnic Identity: Narratives by Asian American Professionals
Edited by Pyong Gap Min and Rose Kim

(Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1999).
240pp. Bibl. Hb.: £30.00; ISBN 0-7619-9066-6. Pb.: £14.99; ISBN 0-7619-9067-4

The arrival of large numbers of Asian migrants in the U.S. since the mid-1960s has offered a powerful challenge for established understandings of racial and ethnic relations, which have been based upon the Black/White model. Unfortunately, students of American society have done a poor job of addressing this development. Instead, the diverse new population is often characterized via ill-fitting ingrained categories. Conservatives have depicted Asians as super-achieving model minorities (ignoring their very real confrontations with racism), while leftists often portray the group as just another set of victims of American oppression, omitting their educational, economic and cultural achievements, which generally exceed those of native whites.

Struggle for Ethnic Identity does much to correct the simplistic and ideologically-driven rendering of Asian-American experiences. The book begins with an exhaustive and cutting-edge review of social science perspectives on ethnicity. Following this, are 15 life histories written by Asian-American men and women of various nationalities, occupations, generations in the U.S., and viewpoints. The book concludes with the editors' discussion of these life histories.

The real strength of the book is in the varied life stories. They reflect the diverse and complicated outlooks of these individuals, as well as the process of growth and change - in both personal philosophy and broader circumstances - that shape self-understanding. These essays, as well as the editors' reflections upon them, grant a degree of richness and complexity to our comprehension of ethnic identity that goes well beyond reductionist clichés. We see how individuals work to fit into the larger society while building connections to their own groups, and others both within and beyond the U.S. Respondents describe how they have both idealized and loathed the various cultures and nationalities with which they are associated (American, co-national, pan-ethnic). Reflecting an array of attitudes, some contributors trace the origins of their personal troubles to larger social structures. Others blame parents, spouses or employers. Finally, these men and women critically reflect upon the gendered roles and structures of opportunity available within their countries of origin, ethnic communities, and in American society.

In conclusion, Struggle for Ethnic Identity: Narratives by Asian American Professionals offers an outstanding synthesis of social science and oral history. It provides a nuanced examination of Asian-American autobiographies that steers clear of the ideological blinders that hinder much contemporary discourse about race. Of interest to novice and specialist alike, the book reveals much about the experience of Asian Americans while also yielding insight into the importance of ethnicity, generation, nationality and gender as bases of human identity.

Steven J. Gold
Michigan State University

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