Look(in)g Asian, Accenting English: An Autoethnography of Interstitial Cultural Identity

Defense Date


Graduation Date

Fall 1-1-2008



Submission Type


Degree Name



Clinical Psychology


McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Leswin Laubscher

Committee Member

Paul Richer

Committee Member

Fred Evans


Accent, Immigrants, Psychoanalysis, Acculturation, Multiculturalism, Asian Americans


This dissertation studies the dynamics and processes of identity construction in the interstices between cultures, languages, and nations, focusing particularly on the act of speaking English with an East Asian accent in the United States. Using an autoethnographic method, the author critically examines the autobiographical description, used as data, employing the frameworks of postcolonialism, cultural studies, and psychoanalytic theory, to illustrate how a racialized, gendered, and classed identity is negotiated in cultural interstice at two broad levels: that of cultural politics and of the psychological.

The autobiographical text illustrates the destructive effects of internalized devalued differences and the psychological cost of assimilation. It shows the assimilationist desire for "passing" as an effect of Michele Foucault's disciplinary power, and reveals the seductive yet false promise of assimilation: acceptance based on sameness and likeness.

Results reveal that accent as a marker of difference—real or imagined—contributes to the practice of othering of people of Asian descent by conjuring up an image of incommunicable and inassimilable others. Yet, the study argues that accented speakers are necessary to white, Anglophone America as Judith Butler's "constitutive outside." Embodying the quality of both self and other, accented speakers can also be considered Homi Bhabha's "mimic men," whose hybrid existence betrays the fundamental incompleteness of identity. By exposing projective-identification as underlying psychological dynamics of xenophobia, this study corroborated the idea that identity is constructed through the repudiation of otherness. The construction of identity and otherness are simultaneous and interdependent, and accent and identity are always relational; accordingly, accent can only be "lost" or "found" in relational context.

Building on Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida's philosophy, this study proposes an alternative model of living with difference: a model of hospitality. This allows the self to come into itself by prioritizing the other over self—and even being destabilized by otherness—whereas the model of assimilation subsumes otherness to self-sameness. Accent commands precisely this sort of hospitality from the listener. This work concludes with an argument that the accented speech is a hybrid voice, the language of the "third space," and that it has been "American" voice all along.





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