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The Multiculturalism Versus Assimilation Question and Its AbsurdityEssay

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Multicultural or Assimilation

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, and this gives rise to the question of whether to promote the idea of multicultural or to promote the idea of assimilation. Multiculturalism is the idea that immigrants retain critical elements of their native cultures in their new homes, whereas assimilation implies that immigrants adopt the ways of the dominant culture. Arguably, however, this dichotomy is false; immigration is a far more complex matter. First, there are many different types of immigrant. Those who arrive legally are one class, while those who arrive illegally and thus lack many of the legal means to assimilate form another class entirely. The illegal class is forced to exist in an underground economy, often run by their own ethnic group, but more importantly where their freedoms are limited, including the freedom to express their own culture, much less than of their adopted country (Hilgers, 2014). It is important when framing the multiculturalism/assimilation question that the types of immigrants are distinguished, because they inherently affect the relationship of the immigrant to the country. It is hypothesized here that the multiculturalism/assimilation debate represents a false dichotomy, and in fact immigrant groups typically assimilate gradually, over the course of many generations and in doing so influence the society into which they assimilating.

Assimilation

The assimilation model of immigrant experiences is rooted in the late 19th and early 20th century arrival of multiple different European cultures. They arrived with sometimes distinctly different traditions, including religion and language, but ultimately had certain common cultural bonds as Europeans that allowed them to assimilate into what was at the time a dominant society of people descended either from the British Isles and Ireland, or from the slaves that they kept. Alba (1999) argues that the assimilation model is distinctly different today, because immigrants are even more diverse, and to an extent this is true. Immigrants today come from just about anywhere in the world. The cultural gaps are much more significant between someone from Southeast Asia and American society than someone from southern Europe.

Yet, ultimately, assimilation should not be taken to imply a one-way street. American culture has changed with each group that has arrived. Bloemraad, Korteweg and Yurdakul (2008) discuss the differences between civic and ethnic citizenship. Whereas ethnic citizenship is basically nominal -- one goes through the process of obtaining citizenship, civic citizenship implies a broader participation in a society. Assimilation to some extent implies that the immigrant group has attained full participation in civil society, in its politics and its economic systems. Yet, this does not mean that the group in question has to sacrifice its culture in order to achieve this; people can retain their ethnic identities long after obtaining citizenship in another country, and even long after they have become an active participant in their new country.

Assimilation is also something that happens naturally, though it is a process that can involve conflict. Tohidi (no date) relates that Iranian women were challenged in particular to find a new sense of identity when they arrived in America, because of the cultural conflict between traditional Iranian and American values with respect to women's rights are concerned. Over time, however, the Iranian community has drifted towards American values, as a function of Iranians of both genders growing up in America, and challenging the assumptions of their parents. No culture can expect to exist in a foreign land and remain unchanged -- some aspects of the culture will disappear, and others will merge with the dominant culture. Only a few aspects of culture can expect to remain unchanged in a land where the entire social order and way that society is organized is different.

Multiculturalism

Societies that are immigrant societies typically look like multicultural societies. This is largely because new immigrants, even those who have legal status, were often raised in the old country, and thus that is their personal dominant culture. Adults can adapt to certain aspects of life in a new country, such as learning the language, but are unlikely to ever adopt the new culture. Even if an immigrant wholly identifies with the adopted country and gains legal citizenship, it would be unusual for… [END OF PREVIEW]

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