On Korean American students in Illinois

Continuing with my sequence of book reviews, I recently sent LATISS a review of Nancy Abelmann‘s fascinating 2009 book The Intimate University. It should be coming out in the new issue of LATISS; it reads as follows:

Nancy Abelmann’s The Intimate University is at heart a study of the relationship between a university and a social group. The university is the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign; the group is that of Korean American students hailing from the Chicago area; and the relationship between them, as Abelmann effectively demonstrates, is tangled up in contradictions. Foremost among these is the matter of race; the Korean Americans she studies are caught in the bind of being an American model minority. They are not white enough to comfortably enact the American fantasy script of a universalist (but implicitly white and affluent), liberal, liberating and “fun” higher education, of a kind that would license “the luxury of ‘experience'” or a freedom from immediate vocational concerns (10-11). But they are “too white” and too affluent, from the point of view of national ideology, to comfortably identify with the nation’s oppressed racial groups. This implies a fraught relationship with other groups — one student describes her “bad impression” of “weird,” implicitly African American break dancing in one Chicago suburb (28) — but also a powerful “compunction to dissociate” from stereotypes of Koreanness, particularly with the Korean instrumentalism and “materialism” they associate with their petty-bourgeois immigrant parents (161, 7). This disidentification with their own group — or at least with its more problematic typifications — is, as Abelmann emphasizes, the product of a malicious American norm that identifies full individuality with whiteness, and ethnicity with groupness (161-2).

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