Lost Ideal- The American Melting Pot

Sophia Zhu ‘18
Opinions Editor

This semester, I am interning at the Washington D.C. office of a non-profit political foundation affiliated with the German Green Party. As a Chinese person working in a German organization at the U.S. Capitol, I always have endless conversation topics with people around me because of our cultural differences and genuine curiosity to learn from each other. Since coming to Smith, I’ve had a great opportunity to have a look at the cultural richness on this land — despite the occasional conflicts and clashes that we are constantly trying to resolve.

During the introductory meeting with my director, he shared with me his appreciation of the American melting pot model. Because of the cultural tolerance, he said, he and many of his friends coming from foreign lands and speaking with foreign accents can live comfortably in this heterogeneous society.

But unfortunately, the modern version of this metaphor is either a myth or a puzzle. The question becomes “Is the United States still a melting pot?” or “Should it be a melting pot?” Whether you admit it or not, a new rhetoric is developing in this country both from the political right and the political left.

On the right, especially, there is always a fear attached to the unknown, foreign cultures brought by immigrants. America has not always been like it is today; the melting pot metaphor didn’t become popular until the eighteenth century. Before then, it was non-entanglement and noninterference that dominated American foreign policy. Today, we witness a resurgence of anti-globalization tides. As Alternative for Germany wins its popularity, right-wing parties are surging everywhere in Europe, and people have yet to experience the aftereffects of Brexit. The melting pot image that had been elevated to an American identity is now losing support from around the globe. As cultural isolationism is gaining traction, misunderstanding and xenophobia are spreading as well. The non-western values are no longer acceptable for the far right. In the debate on the French Burkini Ban, for example, 43 percent of Republicans support such a ban, as reported by YouGov in the August.

Then for the left, the fear for cultural appropriation has exceeded the level of mutual respect and reflected instead a modern isolationism and apathy. There is a clear line between cultural misappropriation and equal cultural exchange, which is often treated as nonexistent. It is not okay, for example, to perpetuate negative stereotypes or misuse sacred items with spiritual significance. But when schools start banning their yoga classes, I wonder if one day sushi and tacos also be forbidden altogether just because they are of foreign origins and consumed by people with a different heritage.

Today, we sadly observe a skewed salad bowl model playing to its extreme. People of different cultural origins keep distance from each other just to avoid any risk of finger-pointing. There is nothing essentially wrong with the salad bowl metaphor where cultures are juxtaposed.  But while everyone’s uniqueness is highly valued, a unifying character or binding material has gone missing. And the question left without an answer is whether the individuals in this bowl are comfortable with their isolated situation. While we should by no means allow oppression by the dominant culture, culture is by definition fluid, and thus a channel should always be left open for cultures to morph into one another over time. It is often a natural process for the younger generations who grow up in a multicultural environment to become fully open-minded to the differences and create a “cultural creole.” But the geographical or psychological isolation, which breaks communication and nurtures misunderstandings, can easily disrupt such a transition and perpetuate a culture’s status of marginalization.

Immigration is not just about people moving to another country. They bring their ideas with them. Inclusivity can transform, enrich and enlighten a land and I identify it as a unique characteristic that defines the core value of this nation. It is truly alarming that this core value is rotting away.

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