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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Asian Youth and Race-Making in an Urban School: The Institution and its Power


Drawing from interview and participant observation data collected during an ethnographic study of Asian students and race in a multiracial urban school, I examine the school’s role in the racial construction and academic and social positioning of Asian students vis-à-vis Black and Latino students. I analyze the subjective categories and racial paradigms through which adult members of the school community understood minority students as normatively differentiated racial subjects. I also examine the school’s role in giving material structure to racial categories through formal and informal practices that reinforced racial stereotypes, social divisions, and academic disparities. Overwhelmingly, I found that teachers and staff simultaneously utilized a color-blind discourse that denied the significance of race in shaping school life and advanced dual tropes of the Asian model minority and Black and Brown oppositional and/or deficient minority. Despite purporting ideals of color-blind equality, teachers and staff generally gave expression to unequal notions of Asian-ness, Blackness, and Latino-ness and privileged Asian students who aligned with model minority expectations over Black and Latino students. While a minority of teachers and staff attempted to redress these dynamics, they were institutionally unsupported in their efforts. The implications for educational equity were significant, as the positive racialization of Asian students reinforced hierarchy and stratification among Asian and non-Asian youth as natural functions of a meritocratic system, ultimately masking the reality of low educational quality experienced by all students in a struggling school.

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