Twice last week, I heard a couple of politicians from opposite sides of the aisle say that America is about assimilation. First was former Maryland governor, Bob Ehrlich, who is running for governor again in the state. “We are about assimilation; that’s what this culture’s about,” he said during a televised debate last Thursday in answer to a question about illegal immigration. “We talk about multiculturalism—we are a multi-ethnic society but we are a singular American culture, premised on English, democracy, capitalism, equal opportunity, living the American Dream.”
The very next day, President Obama reflected a similar sentiment at his televised town hall meeting with young voters. “Each wave of immigrants that have come in have been able to assimilate, integrate and then rise up and become part of this great American Dream,” he said in answer to a question about the Dream Act, which would allow young undocumented immigrants to get a college education.
While I should have expected such comments from the conservative Ehrlich, I was slightly shocked to hear Barack “Dreams from My Father” Obama tout assimilation. Assimilation. It’s always been a dirty word to me. Reminiscent of the forced acculturation that African slaves—my ancestors—were subject to upon being brought to this country. Assimilating to a certain extent was, of course, inevitable, but it was something to resist giving in to completely; a process to approach with the utmost caution. For holding onto one’s native culture and customs, in my mind, is necessary to maintaining an authentic identity.
It’s an idea I’m thinking about more now that I have a son to raise and instill with information about who he is and where he comes from. Already, people want to take the culturally significant, three-syllable name his father and I gave him and Americanize it into something just three letters long. It’s fine—I understand the desire for nicknames (I have a bunch myself). I just don’t want my son to ever feel like he has to eradicate his African American-ness, his Trinidadian roots or his Muslim heritage in order to homogenize—to assimilate—with people pursuing “this great American Dream.”
Individuals’ differences are what make this country interesting. I have long been more fond of the idea of a stew pot, that maintains individual flavors and allows each ingredient to contribute to the taste of the total dish, than “the melting pot.” I thought that this view would have caught on by now. After hearing from Ehrlich and President Obama, I’m beginning to wonder, though, if post-racialism—the state this country’s supposed to be in—is simply the end result of decades of assimilation.