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Globalizing Americana: Part 2

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The Metaphor of the Cultural Melting Pot

With reference to the concept of Americana, assessing how norms, judgments, and standards apply to its meaning, that is, how we come to understand Americana can help in furthering our analysis of the American way of life, in general, and Americana specifically.

In the most charitable interpretation of Americana, one need only point to the conception of the United States as the “melting pot.” Granted the cliché is a default pop culture attempt at describing the diversity that constitutes American culture and thus Americana by identifying the cultural diversity of its people and their practices.

In discussing the notion that America is a melting pot, two important questions arise, namely, (1) “What meaning can one distill from the suggestion that America is a melting pot?” and (2) “How is that meaning applied to a representation of diversity within American population?”

The former question speaks to the use of the term melting pot – that is, in what context is the term used and how, in that context, does one arrive at an understanding of its meaning.

The latter question assumes the meaning of a meltingpot based on the obvious cultural diversity of America’s population and then seeks to verify that meaning against the demography of America’s population.

Briefly, the demography of America’s population is a statistical assessment of the distribution of multivalent identifiers within the population, namely, a census. The census is a statistical representation of the actual distribution of these variances.

Thus, as a representation, the statistical demography of America’s population will always have plus or minus some degree of error, as it is improbable, though not impossible, for statistical data to perfectly match the actual data. The question, then, becomes, “What is the actual data?”

In discussing the demography of America’s population, the best we have been able to achieve, and the best that is arguably achievable, is census data. Speculating as to the nature of the actual distribution of some variable across the population is futile.

If it is agreed that census data is the best representation for the distribution of multivalent identifiers within America’s population, and it is also acknowledged that such data, comprehensive as it may be, must take into account some degree of error, then any analysis, especially theoretical analysis based on this data, must admit some degree of error in its conceptual approach.

Thus, before I continue with a further description and analysis of the melting pot, I must acknowledge that much of this analysis will be buttressed by census data and is therefore prone to error.

Since no one has an actual model of the spread of variables distributed across America’s population, the best I can do is to model my theory against the most effective representation, namely, yearly census data. Surely, then, there will be irregularities within my account. As America’s demography changes and the dispersion of variables increase and decrease throughout the population, our analyses must change to reflect these new trends.

Returning, then, to the notion of America as the melting pot, our first task is to interpret the meaning of this claim.

The melting pot of society is a metaphor for the cultural and social diversity represented throughout the United States. More specifically, though, “What is a melting pot?” Imagine that cubes of chocolate and marshmallows are placed in a pot, which is then heated. Eventually the chocolate and marshmallows will melt and fuse such that one can no longer separate the chocolate from the marshmallow.

Regarding the second question, “How is this meaning applied to a representation of diversity throughout American population?” one must seek to apply this metaphor to verifiable statistical data, namely, the census.

A problem emerges, however, with such an attempt. If one is to truly hold firm to the belief that America is a melting pot of society, then the diversity represented within one segment of society should also be represented throughout, which is clearly false.

The simple fact is, America is not a melting pot, which is not an indictment of America as much as it an indictment of the notion of a melting pot. In fact, no country could ever be a melting pot as it would be impossible to assess difference. The point of a melting is to arrive at assimilation, and there will always be pockets of the population that refuse to assimilate.

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About Jason J. Campbell

  • Indeed the point of a melting pot is to arrive at assimilation – and this is, in my mind, what makes the notion of assimilation dysfunctional. It is the unreasonable expectation that all incoming (to-be) citizens must meld with society to the point of being an unrecognizable version of their former selves.

    It is enough to learn the language, use the currency, adhere to the law and observe general social customs. It is not necessary, nor should it be expected or preferred that one leave behind one’s heritage (language, history, and customs) or forsake it for the benefit of one’s new land and its citizenry.

    That any citizen of this land (or any land receiving immigrants) is uncomfortable hearing a language they don’t understand or observing a lawful custom they’re not familiar with is not the same thing as the immigrant doing something wrong or a violation of anyone’s civil right. Speaking Swahili to one’s family in public instead of English is not, as some would assert, a refusal to assimilate. That this bilingual (more often quad lingual) person can turn around and defend him/herself in the language of their new land to its citizens is the very assurance we seek that the concept of many differences coming together under one allegiance works.

    Peaceful coexistence is a more apt term and should be the desired goal. Different foods on a plate make a more palatable presentation than putting all the foods in a blender and hitting puree. People can come together in one place under one allegiance without ditching — or being expected to ditch — who they are and where they come from at the door.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Well said, Diana.

  • Jason,

    Before commenting on your series, I thought I would take the trouble to read some of your other pieces here. It was worth the look. The term “melting pot” comes from a play written 109 years ago by Israel Zangwill, “The Melting Pot”, about a new Jewish immigrant to America and how he ultimately falls in love with the Gentile social worker assigned him by some organization or another. The play ends with the Jewish immigrant marrying her and proclaiming that only thus could he truly assimilate into American society. The point of the play was that when the couple would have children, the children would no longer be Jews (the basic definition of a Jew is the child of a Jewish mother) – and they would be part of a big American melting pot, denied of their ancestral identity altogether.

    Israel Zangwill wrote the play as a warning to Jews struggling to Americanize themselves – a warning of what would happen to them. They would lose their ancestral identity. And by and large, he was right on the money. American Jews have in the last century and nine years lost their ancestral identity, missing out on the biggest opportunity to assert that identity by coming home to Israel – something a lot harder to do in 1900.

    You might wish to consider though, that in writing this series, you should get to the point sooner. The fact of the matter is that American culture has been globalized by the power of the prosperity that America enjoyed immediately after WWII. This prosperity, gained because America was not a battlefield during this terribly destructive war, made American norms world-wide norms, as the Statue of Liberty and the American dollar – and the movies that Hollywood put out – made America and American culture something that kids in Jordan and Israel, to give you just two examples, both have sought after, while ditching their own native cultures in many ways.

    I thought that this was what I was going to read about in some way or another when starting to read this series. Instead, you seem to have lost your way in the starting blocks of trying to rewrite and re-define sociology. Having fallen asleep in a number of sociology classes in college, I do not need to snooze through more efforts to assert what we all know – that water is wet!

    What are you getting at here?

  • Mar(k E)den

    If I put chocolate, marshmallow, almonds, raisins, walnuts and pecans in a pot, put the pot on the flames and only get the chocolate and marshmallow to meld, is it reasonable for me to conclude that my pot isn’t a ‘melting pot’?

  • Cindy D

    Assimilation…is a strategy deeply rooted in the ideology of white supremacy and it advocates urge black people to negate blackness, to imitate white people so as to better absorb their values, their way of life. –bell hooks

    Substitute for black: any immigrant, or indigenous person.

    I would modify what bell hooks says by including any colonial power in its view toward the colonized. Really, any culture with an imbalance of power, where one group dominates (not necessarily white). This can even be seen at the level of a social grouping with an imbalance of power.

    Jason, you might like to read what Mary Louise Pratt has to say in Arts of the Contact Zone.

    Assimilation is insidious. It is not solely based in prejudice. The dominating group cannot really see the subordinated group as it sees itself. It is a problem for fields such as anthropology where the ethnographer records “the other” through a set of values and interpretations based on being a member of a dominating culture.

    It becomes a problem for schools, as the dominating culture fails to even guess at the needs of the marginalized. What kids who are facing gang wars every day (among other things) will care about learning science or think it’s important or that in their life “they” could actually use it?

    Even the best intentioned, wonderful, caring teachers will generally fail if they cannot create what Pratt calls a contact zone with students.

    The dominating culture has certain values. It transmits those values automatically. I won’t put any examples here for now. But, so far, that is how I see it.

  • Cindy D

    Addendum: The dominant culture presupposes assimilation and fails to understand anything else.

  • Cindy D

    It thinks (sometimes unconsciously) it is the one right way.