Why I Dislike The Word Assimilation (And You Should Think Twice Before Using It)
There are few words I dislike in the English language. Assimilation is one of them. Do you want to know just how much I dislike that word? Well, think about how much you hate the screeching sound of fingernails clawing down a chalkboard. Yes! That’s how I feel whenever I hear someone say, “we have to assimilate – [plug in the name of a person or group].” My inner voice immediately asks, “what are we asking this person to give up and why?” “How can this person become more like us?” Because that’s usually the context in which the word is used.
The historical roots of the word and acts of assimilation should give us pause today. Here’s a quote by Josiah Strong (1847-1916), an American clergyman. He was a believer in American imperialism and White race superiority. Strong warned of widespread immigration as a threat to American supremacy. He believed the White race was to save the “lesser races” through assimilation.
Nothing can save the inferior race but a ready and pliant assimilation (Josiah Strong, 1847-1916).
Assimilation or Diversity and Inclusion
I have a visceral reaction to an expectation or even a demand that someone or some group relinquishes who they are, their values, and even some of their ways of behaving just to fit in with a dominant group. I believe that expectation is the antithesis of what we say we value about diversity and inclusion. For those reasons, I don’t love the word assimilation and what it usually means when enacted.
Sociological Definitions of Assimilation
Assimilation is a complex concept and process. The dictionary defines the term in various shades, meaning there are psychological and cognitive definitions and there are sociological definitions. I’m focused not on how we process information (psychological and cognitive assimilation), but on the process by which a person or groups take on the characteristics of a dominant group. The sociological definition of assimilation breaks into two camps: forced and voluntary. While forced and voluntary assimilation stands at different ends of a continuum, the outcome is relatively the same. One group, usually the group in a weaker position, becomes more like the stronger group and at a cost of relinquishing some of their distinct cultural traits, beliefs, and ways of behaving.
In an article shared by Shelly Shah on Sociology Discussion (sociologydiscussion.com) several definitions of assimilation are offered. I provide just two of them here. First, assimilation is defined as “the process whereby persons and groups acquire the culture of [the] other group in which they come to live, by adopting its attitudes and values, its patterns of thinking and behaving – in short, its way of life.” A second definition speaks of a mutual adjustment. It states, “assimilation is a word used to designate a process of mutual adjustment through which culturally relevant groups gradually obliterate their differences to the point where they are no longer regarded as socially significant or observable.” Other definitions imply more strongly that assimilation is a process of compromise between two individuals or groups. In my opinion, the mutual giving up of differences is rare. It is more typical that the dominant group expects and even demands that the subordinate group adopts the way of life of the dominant group.
I found a short video tutorial by Chegg Study on the definition of forced and voluntary assimilation that is helpful for this discussion. In that video, they define assimilation as, “the gradual process by which a person or a group of people who belong to one culture begin to adopt the practices and traditions of another culture in order to become a member of that second culture.”
When assimilation is voluntary, those individuals or groups take on the characteristics of another group or culture of their own free will. This seems reasonable and expansive on its face. However, it’s when the person or group feels they must take on the characteristics of the dominant group for fear they will be ostracized or even banished. We have examples of this in history. The Chegg tutorial provides a great example of pretentious voluntary assimilation with the Protestant Reformation. People would pretend to convert to Protestantism for fear of religious persecution. In private, they maintained their native religious practices.
Still, true voluntary assimilation is not what ruffles my feathers. A heterogeneous culture like
we have in the United States has many examples of positive assimilation. We have hundreds, if not thousands of different cultures, foods, languages represented within the U.S. And, the celebrations of Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo and Independence Day are assimilated experiences for most, if not all, Americans.
I loathe forced assimilation, whether explicit or implied, and it is more prevalent than we care to admit. Assimilation is forced when a dominant person or group forces the subordinate person or group to adopt their beliefs, attitudes, and ways of behaving. We see this in society-at-large and in our workplaces most prominently. There is a dominant culture and a minority culture or several minority cultures. It is generally the minority people/cultures who have to relinquish their mores and do most of the borrowing from the dominant culture.
The Assimilation of Native Americans and Slaves
Again, the Chegg Tutorial provides a poignant example when the first Europeans settled in the New World. The Europeans encountered the indigenous peoples, the Native Americans. They were threatened by these people and sought to convert them to the European, now American, culture. They sent them to Indian Schools, which was designed to tear the Indian out of them. If you read nothing more in this article, I encourage you to read Becky Little’s article, “How Boarding Schools Tried to ‘Kill the Indian’ Through Assimilation.” It is the story of how the U.S. Government forced tens of thousands of Native American children to attend assimilation boarding schools in the late 19th Century.
In those schools, boys had to cut their hair, they were not allowed to speak their native language, and their names were changed to reflect more European names. The immediate and centuries-long impact of the Indian schools is still felt on that population of first Americans. Another example is the forced assimilation of the African slaves. In order to survive, slaves had to adopt ways of behaving, beliefs and religious practices of slave owners. Their names were changed and their language.
Today’s Examples of Forced Assimilation Through Attitudes
In the U.S., we have a multicultural society – at least we have the representations of many cultures. What lags behind the representations is the embrace of differences. We are a diverse culture, but not always an inclusive culture. Recently, we read about a New York attorney, Aaron Schlossberg, who went on a rant because he heard customers in a store speaking Spanish. Now, we can call him a racist, and he very well might be. But, let’s look underneath his rant. Mr. Schlossberg, along with some other Americans, has a problem with immigrants who come to the U.S. and retain their native language and practices. If they are slow to adopt what is perceived to be “American” culture – which is not homogenous – those people are ostracized. The lawyer’s attitude of dominance or superiority is what I hate most about forced assimilation. It’s likened to Josiah Strong’s belief in the superiority of one group and the inferiority of another. There is a presumption that the new hire or the immigrant is “less than” instead of someone who has much to offer the dominant group. There is not the implied appreciation of difference.
We also see it with the treatment of Muslim women who wear hijabs or African Americans who wear their natural, unprocessed hair to an interview. Now, the law is on the side of the culturally less dominant group. There is no law that says a person cannot speak a different language, a woman cannot wear a hijab, or a person’s hair must be processed. But, assimilation is forced just as strongly through attitudes and acceptance or implied consent. It’s like shaming the minority person or culture into behaving the way “we” expect them to behave or making them extremely uncomfortable until they get on board. That is just as destructive to our ideals of an open and free society.
Where Would We Be Without Assimilation?
You may question why I have such a negative reaction when someone uses the word assimilation. Isn’t the process of assimilation needed to bring different people together toward a common identity? Where would we be as a country if immigrants didn’t assimilate? We take great pride in our unified identity as Americans. After all, we’re the great melting pot. And where would companies be if new hires did not assimilate into the corporate culture? There is truth to these assertions so long as a person or group of people is not made to feel inferior and not expected to abandon their differences, their values, and culture in the quest to be accepted by the dominant culture.
The melting pot definition of fully assimilated society is fraught with problems. Do we really want an American society where our differences are obliterated to the point that groups are no longer distinguishable? No! For good reason, I don’t see that happening and it’s not desirable. Instead of the melting pot, I prefer to see our differences celebrated, observed and recognized as part of our strength, kind of like a good cobb salad. All the ingredients are distinct but come together in a way that is additive and delightful.
Not Assimilation, But Integration
So, if assimilation is a dirty word, then what is the right word? After all, we do need to have a process by which people unite. That word for me could be integration. It too is not perfect, and it has a history in the U.S. However, it differs favorably from assimilation. In an article published by politically conservative Matt O’Brien on the Immigration Reform blog, he quoted Sadiq Khan, the London mayor. O’Brien wrote:
“Commenting on U.S. immigration policy, Mr. Khan said, ‘People shouldn’t have to drop their cultures and traditions when they arrive in our cities and countries.’ He also stated that he believes in ‘integration’ rather than ‘assimilation’.”
I agree with Mr. Khan. In distinguishing assimilation from integration, O’Brien says, “Assimilation is generally defined as adopting the ways of another culture and fully becoming part of a different society. Whereas integration is typically defined as incorporating individuals from different groups into a society as equals. The difference is subtle but significant.” It is the value of equality in integration that makes that word more preferable to me. When individuals or groups are viewed as equals that have just as much to give as to gain, then I believe all parties benefit. Integration connotes that our country is big enough, open enough, and egalitarian enough to appreciate that Americans can enjoy the cultural differences of their native heritage and still participate in the common ways of life in America.
In the end, assimilation as a word may not draw a strong, negative reaction from you. That’s okay. It’s my thing. However, I hope you agree that our aim should not be to obliterate our differences such that they are indistinguishable. I hope you also agree that our country and our workplaces are better served when people can contribute diverse perspectives and ways of doing things. We are better when new employees bring all they have to bear into our organizations so that we can learn from them. Let us be aware when we are demanding that someone or some group assimilates. Let us just stop for a moment and ask, why? At least, make sure we define accurately what we are expecting from the person or group and we honor their differences.
© 2018, Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved.