Academic journal article Social Justice

The Politics of Race and Education: Second-Generation Laotian Women Campaign for Improved Educational Services

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Politics of Race and Education: Second-Generation Laotian Women Campaign for Improved Educational Services

Article excerpt

My idea of a perfect school is a school that has money, has all available school materials, can afford to go to field trips where students can learn with a "hands-on" experience, a school that has very good, intelligent, fun, and humorous faculty, a school that has counselors who guide students to their goals and to the right direction; a school with clean bathrooms, no graffiti; and a school with students who do not discriminate, no bad attitude, and students who are just there to learn and have fun (Cuo, journal entry, July 2, 1999).


At various times and in a range of contexts, second-generation Laotian women in the United States are portrayed as a model minority, as refugees and perpetual foreigners, as "problems," and at-risk of becoming single mothers. In this article, I demonstrate the ways in which teenage second-generation Laotian girls challenge these discursive delineations through their participation in a leadership development and community-organizing program established by the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) in Contra Costa County, Northern California. I draw on qualitative data from my doctoral research to provide a detailed discussion of the young women's involvement in a campaign to improve academic counseling services in their high school. I also analyze the strategies and practices that arise from such struggles for social justice, and document the generation of new social capital, networks, trust, information channels, and norms that encourage and facilitate greater community involvement in collectively solving the social problems young Laotians face. In so doing, I make visible the community activism of young Asian Pacific American women, but also argue that through their participation in an environmental justice organization, which links grass-roots activism concerning environmental protection to issues of economic development, racial and social equality, and community empowerment, they demonstrate a struggle to "'win' a sense of citizenship from below" (Mac an Ghaill, 1999: 98) rather than that which is conferred by the state.

Analytical Framing

Several aspects of second-generation Laotian women's identities are salient in the context of this discussion on the politics of race and education: their identities as Asian Pacific Americans (APAs), as members of a refugee community and one of our newest immigrant groups, as well as their class, gender, age, and generation. I first briefly discuss the dominant discursive representations that shape the life experiences of this group and introduce the ways in which second-generation Laotian women transform wider frameworks of social justice, rights, and citizenship.

With respect to Asian immigrants and APAs, discourses of new scientific racism and eugenics have intersected with an orientalist (1) discourse that defined Asians as culturally and racially "other," as a "yellow peril," and as the "foreigner-within," even when born in the United States and the descendants of generations born here (Lowe, 1996: 4-6). These discourses have been the ideological underpinnings of a series of legal exclusions, disenfranchisements, and restricted enfranchisements of Asian immigrants and have resulted in the enduring images of the nation ordered around the black-white axis. In this bipolar racial order, Asian immigrants and APAs have been either positioned as "near blacks" (as in aliens ineligible for citizenship but seen as cheap exploitable labor), or "near-whites" (as in model minority) (Espiritu, 1997: 109).

In the latter case, APAs are ideologically constructed as "model minorities" because commentators view them as more socially and culturally integrated into mainstream America than are other racial and ethnic groups. (2) They "seemingly embody the Protestant work ethic to achieve their American Dream" (Ho, 2003: 149). Though this image may seem positive and laudatory, it has multiple consequences. …

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