Why Assimilation Sucks and Isn’t the Goal

8247590.jpgFirst, we need to pay tribute to Prince who died on Thursday. As Gen Xer/Millennial, Prince defined the music for many of us and our peers. Prince was unapologetic in fighting the call to assimilate and conform to music industry norms. This quote Heidi heard on the radio sums it up well “[Prince] resisted the pressure to do music like everyone else and that was freedom.” This article, Prince Was The Patron Saint Of Black Weirdos, also sums up Prince’s ability to stay true to himself: “He was a beacon for all of us who were told that we must cut out a part of ourselves in order to fit.”

Assimilation Isn’t the Goal and It Doesn’t Work
Every so often I do what I know not to do, read the comment section of a news story focused on race, immigration, or the like. I ‘armor up’ and think of the exercise as ‘opposition research,’ but I’m still blown away with the blatant racism and tenaciousness of commenters. On a recent story about a partner’s work advocating for language interpretation, the majority of the comments called for having immigrants and refugees to learn English, build a wall (as in the wall Donald Trump wants to build), and these comments:
“[O]ther countries do not pander to immigrants like the US.  If you want to live here, integrate and assimilate into American culture and stop being an outsider or go home.”

“We do not need to divert more of our school resources to bilingual education. The resource should instead be spent on things that could benefit all kids – sports after school, better science education, music, PE equipment, gifted education etc. Learn English if you want to stay here, otherwise, please go back to where you came from.”

Many immigrants and refugees want to learn English and want to fully participate in their communities. Racial equity work and creating a welcoming community for all, not just those whom we like, who understand what we’re saying, or have the ability to communicate with us. One of my favorite interpretations of the term racial equity comes from Junious Williams, a lawyer and Executive Director of Urban Strategies Council, while speaking on a panel at PolicyLink’s conference he said he thinks of the legal definition of equity “What it takes to make a person whole.” Language is an important part of a making us feel whole – language and culture help us connect and is an important part of the fabric that keeps our communities and ourselves whole.

In racial equity work we need to understand others, this is why we learn about history and need to once in a while crack open the ‘World’ section of the newspaper. Understanding our roles as US and global citizens also explains the good and bad we have contributed to why we need to step up and work with immigrants and refugees. Many immigrants and refugees would choose to remain in their home countries if given the choice, but make the painful choice of leaving to literally preserve their lives — war, persecution, famine , violence — and they seek a new home as a result.

Assimilation Works so Well it Destroys Communities — Dearly Departed We Gather Here today 2 Get Through this Thing Called Life
I’ve spent time with partners from various Native American communities in Washington. In getting to know different Native American communities, Elders shared how they or their grandparents were forced to assimilate to American ways. The most brutal of the assimilation practices involved ‘benevolent’ government agencies forcibly taking children from families and sending them to boarding schools. At the boarding school children were striped of their Native culture including clothing, families, and language. They were forbidden to speak their native languages and in some cases if they were caught speaking their home languages they were punished, sometimes with corporal punishment. Many Native American languages died and whole generations do not speak their family’s language because of these harmful assimilation practices. Heidi’s friend is half-Native Alaskan and grew up in a rural town. Lately she’s been thinking about how to preserve their Native language, but she also wonders has too much been lost. The last native speaker died last year. When a language dies culture dies as well. Assimilation worked so well it destroyed entire communities and many Native American communities are still reeling from these harmful practices.

In many ways the Japanese community experienced a similar forced assimilation during the World War II internment. Japanese families, including American citizens, were forced to leave their homes and put into internment camps. Others who weren’t interned, and other Asians (i.e. Chinese, Koreans, etc.) worked at assimilating more into dominant American culture so they wouldn’t be mistaken for Japanese. For children growing up at this time they were taught their culture was ‘wrong,’ they were less American, survival was tied to a standard not of their choosing. To use another Prince quote “Dearly departed we gather here today 2 get through this thing called life…” and now we watch as the “doves cry,” and mourn for a language and culture gone.

Assimilation practices don’t benefit communities. While many who think or are even so bold as to post comments saying: ‘they should learn English,’ ‘they need to become more American,’ ‘my grandparents came from Eastern Europe and learned how to read and write,’ need to ask themselves how much of who they are is also wrapped up in one’s ability to communicate, to feel a part of a community, and to feel seen- not marginalized. How much does a person change when we give up or lose parts of our culture and language? Is asking a person to change benefit themselves or are we forcing assimilation out of fear of non-conformity?

Prince: “Compassion is an action word with no boundaries,” in Fakequity terms “Equity without action is Fakequity.”
So much of our everyday dealings caters to the dominate culture and requires people to conform to norms. Instead of asking people to assimilate let’s adjust our actions to create ways where people can be valued, seen, and heard for who they are. When we create systems that default to these thing we help people become more whole, and as a result communities become stronger which is the goal.
Some suggestions of ways to open up and fight assimilative practices:

  • Hiring: Qualifications vs. Desired Qualifications. Why do we value technical skills over relational and racial equity skills? Technical skills are easier to quantify but is a person who can type, code, or with a lot of education better able to do the work than someone who understands the cultural nuances of a community? As an example instead of paying consulting firms for translation services we can invest that money in recruiting, hiring, and providing professional development for a bi/multi-lingual person which provides a family wage (hopefully) job.
  • Philanthropy: Written applications vs. Getting to Know a Community. Grantmaking isn’t a science there is a lot of discretion in who is awarded funding or support. The current system of using written applications shows a bias to organizations who ‘assimilated’ to the dominate culture of who understand grantmaking and has relationships with funders — in other words competing for grants can be like the Hunger Games (from the books of the same title) where contestants are forced to fight for scare resources and prohibited from working together. Getting to know a community and seeing who people turn to for information is a better signal of who is doing work and where support can be targeted.
  • Language Access: Mostly everything we do, including this blog, is in English only (sheepish). High quality translation and interpretation helps to make things accessible to a broader audience. Extend yourself and your services and ask immigrant and refugee communities if interpretation and translation will help to increase participation and understand. And we need to break the expectation and assumption everything is provided in English. A few months ago, I went to a  Somali event where English speakers were handed interpretation headsets. They ran out of headsets and the headsets malfunctioned which meant many of us English speakers experienced what it was like where we weren’t catered to and had to experience the stress of not understanding what was happening — that was a better lesson than the actual content of the event. Find an event where you aren’t in the majority and try to follow along, let alone participate, let us know what you learn.

Finally, in the words of Prince: “I don’t really care so much what people say about me because it usually is a reflection of who they are. For example, if people wish I would sound like I used to sound, then it says more about them than it does me.”

Posted by Erin Okuno and Heidi Schillinger (Written by Erin – all of the ‘I’ statements are from me. Heidi contributed heavily to this post and is the brains behind a lot of it.)