"Will the Model Minority Please Identify Itself?": American Ethnic Identity and Its Discontents
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Diaspora 5:1 1996 “Will the Model Minority Please Identify Itself?” American Ethnic Identity and Its Discontents Ruth Y. Hsu University of Hawaii at Manoa In a society such as ours, but basically in any society, there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterize, and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated, nor implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation, and functioning of a discourse. (Foucault 93) Analyzing Lord Cromer s writings on the proper governance of Britain s colonial subjects in Egypt, Edward Said notes that one of Cromer s assumptions is that he, and the West in general, are able to divine the true nature of “the Oriental,” and so know him better than he knows himself. Said describes the assumption that undergirds this viewpoint as the conviction that “knowledge of subject races is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge” (36).1 Indeed, the work of empire can be enhanced if the knowledge that the ruler defines as his exclusive realm is used not to put into place draconian laws or brutal armies, but rather to convince the native (who, according to Cromer, is “in statu pupillari”) that whatever the colonial master does is for the native s benefit.2 In short, knowledge is the key to power; and true power is held through the acquiescence of those who are ruled. Said s observations in Orientalism on the relation between knowledge and power are central to the critique I wish to undertake of what I call a rehabilitative concept of ethnicity that is nestled within a larger, American “nationalistic” hegemonic discourse. As Said points out, the dominant group is most effective when it can sustain its rule with the “cooperation” of those who are ruled. A main premise of this article is that the political and historical entity we call America or the United States is itself a discursive construct, constituted of multiple cultural narratives that do not so much reflect an objective reality of this nation as it actually is as they tell us—its residents and the rest of the world—how we are supposed to think of “America.” In other words, I wish to focus on this term, “America” as, to borrow again the words of Foucault, “the producxxxxxxxxxx 37 Diaspora 5:1 1996 tion, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse” (Foucault 93). This ideological construct is designed to maintain and buttress the values and interests of the dominant group, and to do so in such a way as to remove all but the most banal signs of the center s rule. A crucial element of this discourse of domination is the concept of ethnicity, which is itself constituted of cultural narratives that undertake to emplot immigrants and other “ethnics” into the existing socio-ideological framework of national narratives. The ways in which the dominant concept of ethnicity is intimately tied to the national discourse can be seen by examining any of a number of popular myths about this country, none of which is more ideologically revealing, perhaps, than the idea of the American Dream, a trope that signifies this nation as one that offers limitless opportunity . Indeed, this is the Promised Land in which anyone who is willing to work hard can see his dreams come true. The American Dream, however, is not simply about the fulfilling of individual ambition, but bespeaks a larger vision of what this country is “really” about. In that vision, “America” is open to all, because it is an inclusive and generous country founded upon the principles of equality, democracy and freedom. What matters in this land are hard work and belief in the fundamental principles that make this country unique in the world. In a sense, then, anyone can become an American. The past does not matter; identity is a fluid invention , and America is the place of rebirth, a land in which one may shed old allegiances and Old World notions, or replace one s name and identity with new ones. For according to Werner Sollors, anyone can become an American, since being of the nation is a matter of...