“What Are We?” A Narrative Study of the “Trickiness” of Identity for Asian American College Students

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Kim, Yoolee Choe
Park, Julie J.
Asian Americans are a significant and growing population in U.S. higher education, yet their positionality within the U.S. racial landscape has often been unclear. Acknowledged as neither Black nor White, Asian Americans have occupied an often marginalized yet nonetheless racialized position, which has disguised much of their lived experience as racial beings. This study sought to understand how Asian American college students see themselves as racial beings by exploring the role and salience of race and its intersections with other social identities. Using intersectionality as a theoretical framework, this narrative inquiry study was guided by the following research questions: (a) how do Asian American college students describe and make meaning of their racial identity; (b) in what ways, if any, do their other social identities, such as gender, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, religion, ability status, socioeconomic class, and immigrant generation status, interact with the way Asian American college students describe and make meaning of their racial identity; and (c) how do Asian American college students experience the intersections of their multiple social identities? Following in-depth interviews with four Asian American college students representing a range of identity backgrounds, individual narratives were written for each participant, telling the story of how they came to make meaning of their racial identity, other salient identities, and their intersections. A metanarrative was then generated based on the commonalities of participants’ stories. Through these narratives, the lived experiences of Asian Americans as racial beings were centered. For these four participants, identifying as Asian American was a conscious choice whose meaning was created through reflection on experiences with race, often in conjunction with intersecting identities. Systems of power, oppression, and privilege acted upon those intersections and indelibly shaped the way participants made meaning of their identities, as illuminated by intersectional analysis. The study’s findings indicate paths for future research on Asian American identity development, particularly using critical theoretical perspectives that foreground the influence of systems of power and oppression. The findings also suggest implications for supporting Asian American students and for developing and integrating intersectional approaches in order to create more socially just and inclusive institutions.