Living in and out of multiple cultures
The first time I learned about assimilation is while I was attending UC Davis in the early 2000s. I heard about the concept in classes, heard it in debates and even heard about it at spoken word venues as many of the artists frequently used rhetoric against the idea of assimilation. Sadly, had I never attended UC Davis or gone to college I am not sure I would have ever learned about this concept.
Learning the definition of the term seemed simple enough, assimilation specifically meant to integrate, to take on the customs of a new culture and immerse yourself into that culture. However, there was a broader definition relating to culture, how assimilation is something forced upon you — either directly or indirectly — and happens when the dominant culture strips away your cultural identity for you to assimilate into the dominate culture successfully. By this broader definition, it would mean that I, a Trinidadian-American would have to fully disregard my own culture in order to assimilate completely into mainstream “American Culture,” or what some might call “White America.” Throughout history there are times and places in the world that cultures have enforced embracing the dominate culture and forgetting about your own. However, 20 years removed from my college curriculum I am not so sure that it is always the case and that assimilation is always as naughty as they say.
My experience of assimilation has been fluid more than anything over the years. There was never a time and period that I thought “Ahhh, I am a fully assimilated American now.” In fact I know many people that have chosen not to assimilate at all, speak little to no English, live in America completely emerged into their own cultures, and still have achieved high levels of success. In modern times, living in and out of multiple cultures is something many of our newer generations have been doing for decades. I speak Trini lingo at home, but I speak proper English at school or work. It only makes sense. However, let’s not simplify this concept. Let’s dig a little deeper.
I was born in New York in the ‘80s to an Italian mother and an African American father. During this time the relations between Italians and Blacks were not good. For a quick brush up “A Bronx Tale” would be a good film to fill you in on the details. My biological parents were both young and I was not planned. To no surprise, my Italian grandfather was not happy that his daughter was pregnant at such a young age. But even more upsetting to this traditional Italian man was that the father of his grandson was black. Thankfully, they decided against abortion or I may not be here, but there was no way they planned to keep me. So I was put up for adoption and three days after my birth I was with my new and permanently adopted Trinidadian family. They took me to Trinidad for some time before ending up in California at 5 years old. When it was time to start kindergarten I felt extremely out of place. I was a biracial kid in the 1980s and there were not many of us. In addition, the culture that raised me was Trinidadian, so I had little to nothing in common with all the other kids. In a sea of what was mostly Asian kids in my elementary school, I felt the immense pressure of being out of place.
Over the years without any knowledge of what assimilation was, assimilating is exactly what I began to do. I took on the customs of my Asian friends and their families participating in Chinese New Year, eating Chinese foods, and even attending temple ceremonies from time to time. Assimilating is what I would continue to do as I went on to a new school where I would be surrounded by mostly black kids and then to college where I was surrounded by mostly white kids. Each time I had to integrate myself into a new culture I felt nervousness and fear. But over time I learned that this was just a part of life living in America.
Never once did I forget about my Trinidadian roots, the culture that made me who I am to this day. I still participate in many Trinidadian traditions, enjoy the foods and look to connect with those from the culture. Would it have been easier to be able to speak my Trinidadian lingo and integrate my customs into the school or workplace, yes, it probably would have been. But it would have also limited my growth. The growth that I experienced when thrust into uncomfortable cultural situations.
When I think about other countries and assimilation, it seems far more clear. If I were to pick up and move to China or Iran I would have to fully immerse myself into that culture or I would not make it at all. To attempt to impose my American values into those countries seems somewhat ridiculous. So why would it be so bad to expect some level of assimilation for anyone else coming into America?
Americans have a unique experience. Regardless of our background, we are all experiencing this together. We are the first society that we know of to experience this vast melting pot of diversity. We are the flagship experiment for the rest of the world. I prefer to see us be successful and I do believe we are heading in the right direction for success.
With still a long way to go we have come so far from where we have been. While in many pockets of America we appear to be diverse, there are many of us that stick within our own groups and are subsections that do not embrace the greater American culture at all, which is okay. We have the freedom to choose so. But with each younger generation, we see more mixing, we see more biracial kids, we see more cultures intermingling and we see more corporations embracing change.
Gone are the historical ideas of assimilation because at this point we are not actually assimilating anymore. We are creating. We are creating what Americans will be. We are dictating our own future. There will continue to be bumps along the way. But the naughty undertones of fighting against assimilation are disappearing. It has to or we will continue to embrace separation and not accept our differences. Either that as I stated or we need to change the definition and the concept because the idea of assimilation is not what it once was.
No longer are there large groups of people brought to this country and forced to forget their heritage. The overwhelming majority of people that come to America come willingly and mostly enthusiastically. Thankfully they have the freedom to choose to assimilate or not. However, there does need to be some middle ground. We cannot all live in our own separated worlds. For this flagship experiment to be a success we need to develop a level of understanding and while accepting those differences we all have, at the same time embracing a greater whole. Only then can we move forward to accepting that the naughty assimilation that once was, has evaporated and has progressed towards assimilation with positive undertones that provide growth for us all.