Spelling Otherness: Indian Americans as the “New Model Minority”

Spelling Otherness: Indian Americans as the “New Model Minority”

Sanjukta Ghosh
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 28
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-7467-7.ch002
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In the last 15 years, as many as 11 young Americans of Indian descent have won the Scripps National Spelling Bee. This pattern of one small community's dominance in academic competitions has been seen not just in the spelling bee but also in geography bees, math competitions, and science Olympiads. This has led mainstream media to resurrect the notion of the “Model Minority,” with Indian Americans becoming the new holders of this eponym. This chapter analyzes the discursive construction of Indian Americans as racial emblems in media reports and online message boards. Using Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's notion of “color-blind racism” and Edward Said's theory of Orientalism, the chapter discusses how these children have become exemplars of racial assimilation even as they are indelibly marked as “forever foreign,” and why Indian-Americans feel the compulsion to attempt to conquer “the master's tools.”
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Color Blind Racism

Historically, the eponym “model minority” has been applied to Jewish, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants (Takaki, 1998; Wu, 2003; Lee, 2009; Wu 2013). But these very communities were also seen as political bellyaches. Like other minority communities in the United States, Asian Americans have always lacked agency in the construction of their own identity. At various points in history, they have been imagined in different incarnations of the “yellow peril”—as inassimilable, as economic apostates, as perpetually adventitious, as expendable and untrustworthy workers (Lee, 2009; Wong et al., 1998, Wu, 2003; Wu, 2013) or as invading hordes determined to destabilize the American way of life (Lee, 2007; Wei & Yeats, 2014). The migration of Indians, in particular, was labeled the “Hindoo Invasion” (Hess, 1974) and the “Tide of the Turban” (Sheffauer, 1910). But in the mid-1960s, a new construction emerged—that of Asian Americans as a “model minority,” a phrase first used by Berkeley sociologist William Petersen.

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