Moving Beyond Assimilation

I was listening to NPR the other day, and I heard a story about immigrants—particularly Syrian immigrants in Toledo, Ohio.  [You can find the story here:]
What really struck me was the comment of one of the interviewees, Jon Johnstone, who was described as being “suspicious of people who continue to wear headscarves and speak in Arabic.”  This is what he said: 
“If you want to come here and turn the United States into Syria, I’m against that. If you want to come here and speak English, you want to assimilate, you want to have a pizza, you want to eat a chicken wing, I’m all for it.”
It was that word “assimilate” that gave me pause:  what does that mean, exactly?  Frankly, by Johnstone’s definition, I’m not well assimilated at all.  Sure, I speak English—and let me just add that I do think it is important when you live in a country to learn the language of education, employment and governmental offices—it is a huge asset to an individual and her family to do so.  However, I’m actually not a big pizza fan, and I definitely don’t eat chicken wings or drink beer (which also was mentioned in the story).  So, does that mean I’m not a “true” American?  Who gets to set those standards?
In any country, but particularly in a country like the United States, built foundationally on a belief in the power of unity in difference, I think the whole concept of “assimilation” is problematic.  Instead of seeking to make “others” more like “us”—and let’s be honest, that “us” usually is defined by some version of a white male standard–who has the right to say what any American should eat, or wear, or believe in order to be counted as a “true” American?  Let me be explicit:  a Muslim is just as “American” as a Christian; a woman in a hijab is just as “American” as a woman in a headband; a man whose native language is Spanish or Arabic is just as “American” as a man whose first tongue is English.  The reality is that what “being American” looks like is constantly evolving in exciting and fresh ways—and this is a win for everyone.
Our country is strengthened as we all own different types of cuisine, music, dress, and worship as “American.”  Our country is better as I not only teach new neighbors about my cultural background (Swedish), but take the time to learn from them about theirs.
This is just a little example:  when I moved to the South, I learned about the importance of NASCAR (but still don’t like it) and also about the importance of the SEC (and learned to love it)—and I learned the proper use of “Bless his heart.”  But, I never considered myself a “Southerner.”  Regardless of where I reside, Colorado will always be my “home.”  That didn’t make me a bad citizen of South Carolina–or California, Iowa or Gettysburg, for that matter–or “illegitimate” in some way.  I don’t begrudge someone who comes here from Germany, Syria, Japan or India and continues to dress a certain way, eat certain foods, and love certain sports/movies/authors/pastimes from their homelands.  Those things help make them who there are, and they help make this country what it is, too.

I think instead of assuming that, to come to this country and to belong here, you have to give something up, we should assume that you bring it all with you–as long as you’re willing to share!  THAT is what really makes our country great.

Last night, Obama reminded us that “we can” (we did!), and throughout her campaign, Hillary reminded us that we are “stronger together.”  Both those things are true, and neither require “assimilation.”  Let’s just let that word go—to truly be American together, we don’t need it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s