Hyunhee KIM

Dissertation: Ethnic intimacy: Race, law, and citizenship in Korean America (2009)


This dissertation is an ethnographic study exploring how different Korean ethnics such as legal professionals, small business owners, and manual laborers navigate the diverse meanings of law, race, and citizenship in New York City. Particularly, I focus on the relationship between Korean legal professionals and their coethnic clients comprised of mostly small business owners or manual laborers. This particular coethnic relationship exemplifies various divides within the New York Korean community according to class, racial/ethnic identities, migration, and family history. Specifically, I examine how Korean legal professionals are interpellated as ethnic subjects in mediating the paths of Korean immigrants toward U.S. citizenship. In contrast, other Koreans–small businessmen and laborers–often challenge the U.S. legal order or disrupt clean-cut legal categories of citizenship and its entitlements. I employ “ethnic intimacy” to illustrate how the coethnic relationships become laden with tensions and ambivalence in coping with different understandings and approaches to citizenship. In spite of their differences, most Koreans feel marginalized socially and politically and even legal professionals feel insecure about their place in the U.S. society. I argue that the coethnic relationships are grounded in, consolidate, and reproduce racial meanings implied in the contrasts of “being Korean” and “being American,” and of “being a minority” and “being in the mainstream.” I posit that Korean ethnics’ struggles for American citizenship illustrate the process of the differential, but converging, ethnic subject formation of a late immigrant group.