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Shifting Boundaries of Asian America: Asian American Intermarriage, Ethnic Heterogeneity, and Race Relations in Contemporary United States

Creative Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

The hierarchical racial structure in the United States are products of continuous power struggles among ethnoracial groups and have reinforced continuing white racial dominance throughout history, disproportionately limiting socioeconomic mobility and cultural legitimacy of minorities. In such contexts, Asian Americans—the fastest growing immigrant-origin group, one that is characterized by upward social mobility—occupy an ambiguous racial position as a group. Yet, in discussions of Asian Americans’ ethnoracial group positioning, scholars have seldom attended to the increasing ethnic heterogeneity, which have situated Asian Americans in various social structural location, resulting in intra-group tensions and inequalities that further perpetuate the hierarchical racial and ethnic relations in the larger U.S. society.

This dissertation project remedies this gap through rigorous statistical analyses of a nationally representative sample of Asian Americans from eight distinctive ethnic backgrounds. Using intermarriage as an indicator for ethnoracial group relations, this project investigates the effects of individual-level group processes on Asian Americans’ ethnically heterogeneous group boundaries and their implications for the larger U.S. race relations. I provide a critical test of claims that correspond to a specific sociological theory and/or concept in each of the three empirical chapters using data from the 2016 National Asian American Survey and the 2008-2016 American Community Survey (pooled 1-year Micro Public Use Data). The first chapter explores how Asian Americans distinguish each ethnic group using cultural sociological concepts of symbolic and social boundaries, and where these boundaries are crossed the most in marriage. Then, I revisit existing theoretical framework of segmented assimilation to investigate how intermarriage outcomes may vary by ethnic membership and provide distinctive paths of marital integration into the larger society. In the last empirical chapter, I explore gendered implications of ethnically heterogeneous intermarriage patterns for Asian American ethnoracial boundaries by merging theories from minority incorporation and marital racial-status exchange literature.

Together, this project reveals that Asian Americans’ incorporation is an on-going social process and that the “mainstream” American society that Asian Americans reach may not always be that of the dominant White racial group. In so doing, I highlight the importance of ethnically disaggregated investigations of pan-ethnic groups to adequately capture and analyze the effect of heterogeneity on their social processes. Ultimately, Asian Americans are not simply subscribing to the existing American racial order, but rather actively participating in nuanced and subtle power struggles both among themselves and with other ethnoracial groups, perpetuating the existing systems of inequality.

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