Within the 287 pages of USC College alumna Wendy Cheng's award-winning dissertation are snippets from interviews she conducted with 64 residents in four "majority-minority" multi-ethnic suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley.
The interviewees, who range widely in age, race, ethnicity and sex, share stories of growing up and living in an area that, according to the 2000 United States Census, is 51 percent Asian and 34 percent Latino. It’s a group of people that Cheng believes has been historically overlooked.
“When people look at majority non-white communities, they tend to be central city places, not suburbs, and not middle income populations,” said Cheng, an American studies and ethnicity (ASE) alumna whose dissertation is titled, “Episodes in the Life of a Place: Regional Racial Formation in Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley.”
“The San Gabriel Valley is not only an important site of Asian and Latino suburbanization in the contemporary period, but it’s also a place rich in multiracial political, economic and social history.”
Cheng’s interviews are the most powerful component of her work, and one reason her adviser Ruth “Ruthie” Gilmore believes Cheng won the 2010 Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize.
Some of the personal accounts include an Asian American scoutmaster who jokingly refers to the three white boys in his troop as “the token whites,” and a Mexican American mother who refuses to send her children to the majority white school because she doesn’t want them growing up “being the minority.”
“Wendy is a compelling writer,” said Gilmore, an ASE associate professor in the College. “The committee chair simply said it was the best dissertation they read, and that it moved some of them to tears.”
Each year, the prize committee, part of the American Studies Association (ASA), acknowledges the best doctoral dissertation in the interdisciplinary fields of American studies, American ethnic studies and American women’s studies. Cheng’s dissertation marks the second time in four years that a graduate of USC College’s Department of American Studies and Ethnicity has won the award. She will receive the prize and a $500 award Friday, Nov. 19 at the ASA conference in San Antonio.
“It was a very pleasant surprise,” said Cheng, who earned her Ph.D. in 2009 and is now assistant professor of Asian Pacific American studies, and justice and social inquiry at Arizona State University. “Ethnic studies has had a large intellectual influence on American studies and the coming together of these two fields, thinking critically about race and what that means for the nation as a whole is very much where the field is right now.”
Cheng, who was assistant professor and faculty fellow in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University before moving to Arizona, said her interest in geography and ethnic studies began as a child, when her family would drive 100 miles from their San Diego home to Monterey Park to buy groceries at the Taiwanese market.
“It was the closest place we could shop at, at the time,” Cheng said. “People called it ‘Little Taipei,’ and even as a child, I had an awareness that something was happening in that area that was really different from where I was growing up.”
Her interest culminated into a dissertation topic when she moved to Alhambra during her graduate study in the College.
“Every day when I went outside and looked around me, I became curious about the racial dynamics of these spaces, and what they mean in the contemporary moment,” Cheng said. “What I noticed was that the people I talked to who had grown up in the area had a very particular way of thinking about race and place that is not necessarily reflected in formal social or political processes or in the way we typically think of racial formation.”
One of Cheng’s discoveries was that many of the people she talked to had a commitment and connection to their location that contradicted the idea that people always want to move to certain types of suburbs with certain racial compositions.
“Most of the people I talked to did not desire to move to a space that was predominantly white or racially and economically homogenous,” Cheng said. “To them, being part of the majority was not based on a specific racial or ethnic identity, but instead it meant being part of a multi-ethnic and multiracial group.”
Cheng is currently working on turning her dissertation into a book, and she is a co-author and photographer of the forthcoming book to be published by University of California Press, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles. The book — co-authored with Laura Pulido, ASE professor in the College and Laura Barraclough, an ASE alumna and assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Kalamazoo College — discusses sites of marginalized histories and struggles for power in L.A.
In the future, Cheng hopes her ideas and the theoretical framework discussed in her dissertation help to expand the kinds of places that researchers think are worthy of study.
“People seem to think that being middle-class means that you study other people, and I want to intervene in that,” Cheng said. “If most Americans think of themselves as middle-class, then what does that mean about how we look at our own lives? How willing we are to think critically about race, and how the places we grow up in shape the ways in which we think about race?”