What really struck me was the comment of one of
the interviewees, Jon Johnstone, who was described as being “suspicious of people who continue to wear headscarves and
speak in Arabic.” This is what he
"If you want to come here and turn the United States into
Syria, I'm against that. If you want to come here and speak English, you want
to assimilate, you want to have a pizza, you want to eat a chicken wing, I'm
all for it.”
It was that word “assimilate” that gave me pause: what does that mean, exactly? Frankly, by Johnstone’s definition, I’m not
well assimilated at all. Sure, I speak
English—and let me just add that I do think it is important when you live in a
country to learn the language of education, employment and governmental offices—it
is a huge asset to an individual and her family to do so. However, I’m actually not a big pizza fan,
and I definitely don’t eat chicken wings or drink beer (which also was
mentioned in the story). So, does that
mean I’m not a “true” American? Who gets
to set those standards?
In any country, but particularly in a country like the United
States, built foundationally on a belief in the power of unity in difference, I
think the whole concept of “assimilation” is problematic. Instead of seeking to make “others” more
like “us”—and let’s be honest, that “us” usually is defined by some version of
a white male standard--who has the right
to say what any American should eat, or wear, or believe in order to be counted
as a “true” American? Let me be explicit: a Muslim is just as “American” as a
Christian; a woman in a hijab is just as “American” as a woman in a headband; a
man whose native language is Spanish or Arabic is just as “American” as a man
whose first tongue is English. The reality
is that what “being American” looks like is constantly evolving in exciting
and fresh ways—and this is a win for everyone.
Our country is strengthened as we all own different types of
cuisine, music, dress, and worship as “American.” Our country is better as I not only teach new
neighbors about my cultural background (Swedish), but take the time to learn
from them about theirs.
This is just a
little example: when I moved to the
South, I learned about the importance of NASCAR (but still don’t like it) and
also about the importance of the SEC (and learned to love it)—and I learned the
proper use of “Bless his heart.” But, I
never considered myself a “Southerner." Regardless of where I reside, Colorado
will always be my “home.” That didn’t make
me a bad citizen of South Carolina--or California, Iowa or Gettysburg, for that matter--or "illegitimate" in some way. I don’t begrudge someone
who comes here from Germany, Syria, Japan or India and continues to dress a certain
way, eat certain foods, and love certain sports/movies/authors/pastimes from
their homelands. Those things help make
them who there are, and they help make this country what it is, too.
I think instead of assuming that, to come to this country and to belong here, you have to give something up, we should assume that you bring it all with you--as long as you're willing to share! THAT is what really makes our country great.
Last night, Obama reminded us that “we can” (we did!), and throughout her campaign,
Hillary reminded us that we are “stronger together.” Both those things are true, and neither
require “assimilation.” Let’s just let
that word go—to truly be American together, we don’t need it.