Carnegie Mellon University

Negotiating the Model Minority: How Indian American Women Rearticulate Dominant Racial Discourse

Author: Nisha Shanmugaraj

Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2023

While rhetorical scholarship has demonstrated how powerful actors and institutions externally impose racial stereotypes, this dissertation upholds the stereotyped individual herself as an active agent in this process of “race making.” Specifically, I analyze second-generation Indian (Asian) American women as a demographic of understudied rhetors who must continuously negotiate the “model minority” stereotype. While the model minority’s everyday discursive effects shape Indian American women’s lived experiences, these rhetors constantly contradict and exceed normative scripts of the good immigrant woman. I argue that, in their ongoing efforts to create a sustainable sense of self, Indian American women not only reproduce racial “truths,” but also dynamically rearticulate – retell with difference – mainstream raced and gendered narratives. To make this case, I employ a blend of qualitative research methods, including grounded theory and extended case study approaches, on a dataset of twenty-five qualitative interviews conducted with participants who identified as second+ generation Indian American women. In each of my three chapters, I draw from this same dataset but focus on a subset of case studies that illustrate a distinct facet of Indian American women’s race-making. This approach enables me to understand how linked mechanisms of power function in Indian American women’s lives as I theorize the possibility of a Brown women’s collective standpoint, a shared epistemology situated in lived experience.

My chapters trace the imaginative, embodied, and interpersonal aspects of race making, respectively. The chapters move from interior to exterior sites of meaning, from rhetorical processes that occur in the mind (Chapter 1, on “disidentifying” from mainstream narratives); to those occurring in and on the body (Chapter 2, on “blending” to contain bodily excess); to those occurring between individuals (Chapter 3, on “microdisrupting” conversational power norms). Put differently, I interrogate how subjects construct difference; how they feel embodied difference; how they wield difference interactionally; and how together, all of these projects remake dominant constructs of Indian American womanhood. Taken as a whole, this dissertation contributes a perspectival shift to rhetorical scholarship by centering how minoritized rhetors simultaneously consume, reject, and remake dominant discourses about their existence. By considering how stereotypes are circulated through the stereotyped bodymind, my work demonstrates the significance of considering rhetoric through its lived attunements – individual, experiential, and internalized – even when theorizing broader social transformations.