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When White Is Just Alright: How Immigrants Redefine Achievement and Reconfigure the Ethnoracial Hierarchy


American Sociological Review

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Research on immigration, educational achievement, and ethnoraciality has followed the lead of racialization and assimilation theories by focusing empirical attention on the immigrant-origin population (immigrants and their children), while overlooking the effect of an immigrant presence on the third-plus generation (U.S.-born individuals of U.S.-born parents), especially its white members. We depart from this approach by placing third-plus-generation individuals at center stage to examine how they adjust to norms defined by the immigrant-origin population. We draw on fieldwork in Cupertino, California, a high-skilled immigrant gateway, where an Asian immigrant-origin population has established and enforces an amplified version of high-achievement norms. The resulting ethnoracial encoding of academic achievement constructs whiteness as having lesser-than status. Asianness stands for high-achievement, hard work, and success; whiteness, in contrast, represents low-achievement, laziness, and academic mediocrity. We argue that immigrants can serve as a foil against which the meaning and status of an ethnoracial category is recast, upending how the category is deployed in daily life. Our findings call into question the position that treats the third-plus generation, especially whites, as the benchmark population that sets achievement norms and to which all other populations adjust.