Challenging dominant stereotypes of young people of color

In this blog entry, Bindi Shah, author of Laotian Daughters, describes the impressions formed about an unlikely group of young Laotian girls who became advocates and leaders for social justice and community change.

In the late 1990s I began field work with Asian Youth Advocates, a youth program for second-generation Laotian girls in Richmond, California run by the environmental justice organization Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN). This excerpt from field notes on one of my early research visits portrays them as ordinary inner-city American teenagers interested in fashion, music and boys:

It’s a cold, crisp but sunny Tuesday afternoon in February. As I walk in almost everyone looks and smiles or says “hi.” The front room of this small house in Richmond, which serves as LOP’s offices, is packed today. Twenty-one of the youth members are here, waiting for the Whole Group Training on campaign options to start. Bryanna and Huk are sitting close to the radio, tapping their feet to Eminem rapping “My Name Is…” Once the song ends Bryanna turns the dial to a station that plays alternative and R&B music. Two girls are sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, sharing thumsom, a green papaya salad. Others are sitting on the chairs placed in a circle, munching on nachos, burgers, burritos, and sipping on soda.

A lot of the girls are dressed in black today, black flared trousers, black tops and black jackets. Others sport blue or white flared jeans, short T-shirts or shirts that hug the body, and platform shoes or sneakers. This ‘70s retro style transports me back to my own dress preferences as a teenager, though I wore luminous pink crimplene trousers. In the 1990s, these girls are wearing muted colors, which often bear the logos of Tommy Hilfiger, The Gap, BeBe, Nautica, or The Old Navy. Bryanna wears an oversized orange rain jacket, nylon pants that bunch up around her ankles, and sneakers. Others resemble the style of the majority of their peers in the urban multicultural neighborhoods, blue jeans, long T-shirts and sneakers or high-tops.

Their conversations revolve around boys, school, and clothes. My by-now-trained ear picks up both Black English and standard English, with a smattering of Mien and Lao words that I don’t understand.

At first sight this group of teenage Laotian girls appear unlikely candidates as advocates and leaders for the Laotian community in west Contra Costa County, California. In Laotian Daughters, I unravel popular images of young people of color and draw attention to their engagement with political activism and community building.

Politicians and journalists have tended to portray young people, particularly those growing up in poor, urban neighborhoods as social problems and as experiencing moral decline. For example, a media report on a 2001 University of California study that found Laotian high-school girls had the highest teenage pregnancy rate in California and the highest number of teen births was ominously titled “Asian Teen Mothers, a quiet State of Crisis”. Despite a steady decline in youth crime and violence over the last few decades, we continued to hear from the media, politicians and other professionals that young people were “at risk”, with proclivities for teenage pregnancy, gang involvement, violence, drug addiction, and reliance on public assistance. Such constructions provided a rationale for increased surveillance of and intervention into young people’s lives by schools, police, health services, and the juvenile justice system. In April 2001 Governor Gray Davis of California approved $3.3 million for juvenile crime prevention in Contra Costa County. One of the programs that the funding financed was a program that places probation officers in selected high schools and middle school to provide supervision and services to youths with problems ranging from truancy to major criminal offenses.

It is important to examine youth programs with a social justice agenda because such programs can help challenge such representations of young people of color and reveal how citizenship is not just an adult experience. In a community that is linguistically isolated and lives in a region experiencing extensive environmental pollution, APEN hoped to empower and engage the bilingual second generation to act as advocates for the health of their community and to organize around environmental justice, reproductive health, and broader community issues such as inadequate academic counselling resources in schools and the political challenges to bilingual education. Asian Youth Advocates was a broad, integrated youth program that aimed to nurture a new generation of women leaders, in a community where authority is traditionally vested in elderly Laotian males, as well as address issues of adolescence and cultural identity experienced by the teenage Laotian girls.

In Laotian Daughters I show that if we dig beyond the dominant stereotypes of young people of color, particularly young women of color, we can unearth political engagement and the construction of active citizenship amongst this group. Through political mobilization around issues faced by a new immigrant community, these teenage Laotian girls both re-fashioned Laotian culture and demonstrated that young people can be a positive voice for change. In the process they forged a sense of belonging for Laotians in the American nation.

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