We are used to celebrating America with symbols and analogies. One such analogy is the “melting pot,” a term that has long been used to describe our cultural diversity. In the wake of our recent Fourth of July celebrations, it is worth reflecting on this diversity and the term we use to celebrate it. What is a melting pot and what does this analogy really mean?
The earliest use of this term likely referred to a crucible or blast furnace in which various metals melted together into one – also known as a “smelting pot.”
An 1875 article by Titus Munson Coan described the American melting pot as follows: “the fusing process goes on as in a blast furnace; one generation, a single year even, transforms the English, the German, the Irish immigrant into an American . . . the individuality of the immigrant, almost even his traits of race and religion, fuse down in the democratic alembic like chips of brass thrown into the melting pot.”
For the early American (mostly European) immigrants, the mere fact of different nationalities living together as equals was astounding and exhilarating. Back in the old country, dominated by rigid social hierarchy, such multiculturalism was unheard of.
Ralph Waldo Emerson took things a step further, celebrating not only the mixing of European cultures, but also proposing the assimilation of African, Asian and other non-European immigrants into the great American melting pot. He wrote about this assimilation in a journal entry in 1812, a time when such ideas would have stirred up much controversy. But that was then, and Emerson was way ahead of his time.
Today as in Emerson’s time, the hopes and ambitions of immigrants fuel the melting pot, reshaping our culture and breathing new life into our collective notion of the American Dream. According to David Dyssegaard Kallick, senior fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrants are more likely than American-born citizens to own businesses and contribute to local economic growth. In an article in the New York Times this January, he described how the influx of working immigrants is essential as more older American adults reach retirement and leave the work force.
According to Ildiko Szabo, Community Life Coordinator at Youville Assisted Living (as well as a former citizen of Austria, France and Canada) one need only look to The Boston Globe’s spring valedictorian profiles to understand the important immigrant influence on American life.
“So many of these kids, when given a second chance in a free country, are motivated beyond belief. It is really inspiring,” she says.
Of the 41 local valedictorians listed in The Boston Globe this year, 19 were born outside the United States. Many are bound for top tier colleges in the fall, and many have extraordinary family stories. One of the featured students, named Fatah Adan, was born in a Kenyan refugee camp to parents fleeing civil war. He told The Globe that he credited his parents and their struggle to adjust to life in America with motivating him to become successful: “They did everything they could to come to America. I have that want to give back to them. That’s what’s driven me all throughout middle school and high school. That’s what’s going to continue to drive me.”
Melting Pot or Salad Bowl?
Although still in common usage, today many sociologists look down on the term “melting pot,” preferring alternatives like “salad bowl” or “kaleidoscope.” Their point is that diverse cultures should be simultaneously assimilated and preserved, accepted and celebrated rather than blended together and lost.
Such alternate terms also acknowledge the difficulty many immigrants face as they try to adjust to an American way of life. In a new, strange country, falling back on one’s old cultural identity can be an enormous source of support.
Part of what makes Youville such a special community is that our resident body is comprised of many immigrants with their own interesting stories. Youville residents hail from all over the world, including France, Egypt, Malaysia, Ireland, Japan, China, Germany, Britain and Argentina. Youville staff are similarly diverse, coming from Austria, Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, India, Uganda, Colombia, and elsewhere. Even more of us are second generation immigrants – American by birth, but with deep family connections to other cultures, and stories to go along with those connections.
Whether you prefer to call it a “salad bowl” or a “melting pot,” the continuing influx of diverse cultures gives everyone a fresh perspective on what it means to be an American.