Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Assimilation is the Wrong Goal

When I was a kid, people worried that Latino immigrants to the US weren't assimilating like earlier European immigrants had. I don't remember the details, because it wasn't a topic we dwelt on in my house. I do remember a lot of hand-wringing in the media about the fact that Spanish was still spoken so much. I don't remember if I thought a lack of assimilation was a ridiculous thing to worry about given the obvious similarities between me and the my many Latino classmates. But I remember hearing about it. I remember later learning about the "No Irish need apply" days and telling my Mom I thought that maybe in time, the slurs I heard about Mexicans would seem as weird as the old slurs about the Irish, and I remember her trying to explain to me about why racism meant it wouldn't necessarily be that simple.

And she was right, it hasn't been, not at all. But those fears about assimilation turned out to be bunk. My kids now go to school with the grandchildren (and perhaps great-grandchildren) of the immigrants people were worried wouldn't assimilate. Remember, my kids go to a Spanish immersion school. Those immigrant families assimilated so well that now they have to send kids to school to become fluent in Spanish, just like I do.

In truth, I dislike the word "assimilate." It reminds me too much of the Borg from Star Trek. I also don't think it really describes what happened. We didn't absorb each wave of immigrants into an unchanging monoculture. Instead, each wave integrated with the people already here, and the result is the regional variation we take for granted. In many cases, the integration remains imperfect and incomplete, but that is usually because we've erected barriers, not because the people who came here want to remain separate.

Whenever I hear people talk about how the earlier waves truly "assimilated," I think that those people aren't looking hard enough. Remember this tweet I found so funny?

If you aren't from the Midwest and/or of Scandinavian descent, you probably have no idea what the hell lutefisk is, right? You betcha.

And don't forget about all the ethnic festivals we have. We are in the midst of planning our summer vacation (yeah, when you have to get your kids signed up for summer camp, you plan your summer early...) and our current plan involves driving across the I-80 in Nevada. Mr. Snarky was doing some research about places we might stop, and discovered the Elko Basque Festival. Sadly, I think we will miss it by a day. But it was such a random thing to discover in a town in the middle of such a sparsely populated part of Nevada that we actually considered trying to rework our schedule to catch the festival.

If you live in a city, there are probably ethnic festivals going on all the time. Here in San Diego, I've been to a Greek festival and a Polish festival. I love the Pacific Islands festival we have, and next year, I'm going to plan to go to the Diwali celebration at Balboa park instead of stumbling into it unprepared and being unable to stay for the best part. And there are more.

But even if you live in a small town, there is probably one ethnic festival: the one for the ethnic group that built your town, like the Basques in Elko.

So when I hear worries about Muslim immigrants not "assimilating," I just can't buy into it. I suspect they will "assimilate" just as much as any other group has: which is to say, they will integrate like every group before them, unless we screw it up with our fear-mongering. Heck, they will probably integrate despite our attempts to screw it up with our fear-mongering. Others in the past did.

I do not mean to imply that everything is roses. The warning my Mom gave child-me about the impact of racism remains. Racism is a poison in our society, and as my Mom said, it will complicate the story of these immigrants. But the fact remains that the only wave of immigrants that didn't integrate with the people already here was the first one.

That particular point of history should be enough to remind us that assimilation is the wrong goal. But even ignoring history and looking only forward, I think it is the wrong goal. It shuts us off from what we can learn from the people who come here. It sets up a goal that no other immigrant group has really met, and in doing so, I think it ignores one of the sources of our strength. Just like diverse teams do better work, I think a diverse country is likely to have a stronger, more resilient economy and society. Yes, there is a price to pay for diversity. Diverse teams have to work harder at communication and inclusivity, and so will a diverse nation. But that work pays off in access to a wider range of ideas to tackle problems, and a deeper understanding of the world.

So instead of expecting immigrants to assimilate, we should look for them to integrate, and set ourselves the goal of removing the barriers to integration erected by racism.

1 comment:

  1. Sheepherders are so rare in the US that we have a special visa for them. The jobs are mostly filled by Basque herders--hence the pockets of very strong Basque influence in areas with sheep farming. There is a Basque festival in NorCal if you are interested. Also, my dad used to go to Basque dinners put on by a SF Bay Area Basque cultural group as a fundraiser.


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