Dissecting Assimilation

In my interview with my mom, we touched a bit on how assimilation was enforced through school. Students were actively discouraged from speaking Spanish, thus relegating it to something only to be spoken at home. In my mom’s case, she gradually lost her fluency in Spanish until she reached the point where she would respond to her mother’s Spanish in English.

I’ve never perceived assimilation as something to aspire to, and I don’t think my mom consciously did either as she grew up. But I question whether assimilation a good thing as it is so often portrayed, and what its true definition is.

Is it possible to adapt to American cultural norms while still retaining a sense of identity? And what are American cultural norms? When we say “American cultural norms”, are we just saying American white people’s cultural norms?


I look back to the forced assimilation of Native Americans as a case study on this. Native American children were taken from their families and raised in an environment where they were not allowed to retain any sort of cultural connection to their families.

As part of this federal push for assimilation, boarding schools forbid Native American children from using their own languages and names, as well as from practicing their religion and culture. They were given new Anglo-American names, clothes, and haircuts, and told they must abandon their way of life because it was inferior to white people’s.

When Americans angrily demand that groups assimilate or leave, they claim simply to be referring to the laws of the land. But it’s obviously possible to obey a nation’s laws while retaining your cultural identity, so what is it that they are really demanding? Why does culture make these sorts of people so uncomfortable, and why is it that “ethnic” (read: non-white) holiday traditions disturb them while they’ll gladly partake in holidays like Christmas or St. Patrick’s Day?

The answer lies in history, in the way so many American Indigenous peoples were stripped of their families and cultural identities. This eradication of culture and destruction of families was a means to an end of subjugating them. This is one main reason the term “assimilation” has always left a bad taste in my mouth. This is why whenever someone uses it as if it is a positive thing, a sort of ultimate goal for immigrants, I know to be alert.


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