Acculturation or Assimilation?

“Yet, faced with a man clearly in decline, Mrs. Kirschner seemed unmoved. She found him troubling. Though skilled and vastly experienced, a professional who’d helped thousands of immigrants make the transition from the old world, making the transition had been based on the act of letting goabandoning belief systems that were quaint and out of date in favor of the modern, the new, the progressive ideas that were so uniquely American.

That is what assimilation was all about, yet the overly polite genteleman with the vaguely British accent and the severe limp rejected the notion out of hand.

My father was by no means convinced the values of New York trumped those of Cairo. He couldn’t see abandoning a culture he loved and trusted in favor of one he barely knew, and which he instinctively disliked. He preferred being an “old Egyptian” to a “new American”. He had, in short, no desire whatsoever to assimilate. “We are Arab, madame,” he told Mrs. Kirchner. ” It was a tragic clash of cultures….” from “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” p. 207

I quoted from “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” in the past in my post “Coats Too Big, Shoes Too Small:Shopping as an Immigrant”. It is by far one of the best books I have read that describes the immigrant experience. The quote above comes from a section in the book describing the family’s arrival in New York and their interactions with a social worker at an agency then called the New York Association for New Americans or NYANA. The cultural clash came between the social worker in charge of the case and Leon, the patriarch of this new immigrant family. I believe the quote captures much of what newcomers feel as they embark on the arduous process of adjusting. I don’t think it is a case of people not wanting to live in the United States so much as the fear that those things with which they disagree or find culturally disturbing will make their way into the fabric of the family and community, threatening to destroy that which they hold dear.

The word assimilation sounds exactly like the meaning. To “become or cause to become similar.” Basically it’s the process minority groups or individuals go through to “absorb” culture and take on the culture of the majority of people. As I think about a multicultural society is that really what I want? What we want? It sounds too robotic and sterile.

Acculturation, by contrast, is when behaviors and attitudes of people are adjusted or shaped as a result of contact with a different culture. There is a hypothesis that at least some cultural equality has to exist between cultures for acculturation to occur. Compare this with assimilation where it is the stronger cultural group that influences and compels people to adopt values rather than modify or integrate values.

In an op-ed piece in today’s edition of the New York Times there is piece called “Assimilation’s Failure, Terrorism’s Rise”.  I found it to be an interesting and provocative piece written by a British writer, Kenan Malik. He begins by looking back at the terrorist attack in Britain on July 7th in 2005 where London’s mass transit system was attacked spreading fear and chaos. He makes the distinction that while America’s 9/11 was the work of an outside terrorist group, 7/7 in London was the work of British citizens and that fact has troubled and confounded authorities.

The writer goes on to talk about multiculturalism and it’s two meanings that are rarely distinguished.  He states  “On one hand, it refers to a society made diverse by mass immigration, and on the other to the policies governments employ to manage such diversity. The failure to distinguish between these meanings has made it easier to use attacks on multiculturalism as a means of blaming minorities for the failure of government policy.”

It is an interesting read and I haven’t figured out what my response to his points are, but as I work with immigrant communities on an almost daily basis, I think acculturation is critical. Assimilation? That continues to be a more difficult and controversial issue.

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