Constructing ethnic identity through discourse : self-categorization among Korean American camp counselors

Munkyung Agnes KANG

Copyright © 2004 John Benjamins.

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In this paper, I demonstrate how Korean American camp counselors locally construct ethnic identity through the practice of self-categorization in discourse. Self-categorization, or the identification of oneself in terms of ethnic identity, serves to position counselors in terms of Korean ethnicity and to associate that identity with one’s personal goals in participating in the Korean camp. Using videotaped data of counselors’ meetings, I show that while debating their views on what a Korean camp should be and their motivations for participating in the camp, counselors make relevant their ethnic identities by describing themselves as more ‘American’, more ‘Korean American’, or more ‘Korean’. In addition, the counselors discuss whether the teaching of Korean heritage or the mentorship of the campers should be the primary objective of the camp. This opposition between ‘heritage’ and ‘mentorship’ is cast as a source of tensions that map onto ideologies of identity, whereby ‘Korean American’ identity acquires the local meaning of being linked to the importance of mentorship over Korean heritage. In this way, counselors construct their ethnic identities as a means of classifying themselves relationally within a field of oppositions, at the same time indexing a particular stance about what a Korean camp should be.