Stop Saying “Melting Pot”!

The United States is not a melting pot.  Although the expression got its official voice a century ago, it ignores an uglier side to our national history which we must acknowledge. We’ll come back to the actual expression in a moment.

First, what is true: over centuries of immigration, scores of ethnicities have moved to the U.S.  However, in the earliest years, colonizers predominantly came from northern and western Europe. That prevailing ethnic Whiteness set the tone for the nation’s future. Laws–the visible symbol of power–were constructed around race and ethnicity.

The following is a partial list of rules, made up by White (European-American) men:

1531 – Indian Reductions: appropriation of land, forced religious conversion of Native Americans

1619 – The first African slaves brought by Dutch ships to Virginia as “indentured servants”

1652 – Interracial relationships banned

1692 – Interracial marriage banned

1781 – 3/5 Rule: Slaves count partially for state representation, not equal to full personhood

1790 – Naturalization Act: Only free whites can become citizens, vote, own property

1802 – Jefferson signs Georgia Compact, extinguishing Cherokee land treaties

1830 – Indian Removal Act: forcible emigration of five native nations to the West

1838 – Trail of Tears: forced relocation kills 4,000 of 15,000 affected Cherokee

1854 – Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that no African could be a U.S. citizen

1877 – Jim Crow laws mandating systematic segregation, inferior housing, education, etc.

1882 – Chinese Exclusion Act: 10-year moratorium on Chinese immigration

1896 – Plessy v. Ferguson: Supreme Court upholds separate-but-equal segregation

1917 – Immigration Act bans criminals, epileptics, alcoholics, anarchists, and Asians

1922 – Ozawa v. United States: Supreme Court denies citizenship to Japanese immigrant

1923 – Thind v. United States: Supreme Court denies citizenship to Indian Sikh immigrant

2010 – Arizona state legislature enacts SB-1070, so-called Show Me Your Papers Law

In short, membership in the “club” known as the USA was decided by males who looked like this: 

                    1776: founding fathers in Philadelphia                                              1923: U.S. Supreme Court

                    1776: founding fathers in Philadelphia                                              1923: U.S. Supreme Court

It has only been slowly and grudgingly that lawmakers of this land have given legal status to non-whites (and non-men, for that matter).  When Israel Zangwill wrote his now-famous 1909 play, The Melting Pot, the British writer used these words:

"America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming... Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians – into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American."

Do you notice anyone missing? Native Americans maybe? Perhaps the Chinese? Or Arabs? What about Latinos? Or Africans?  Zangwill reflected the racism of his time by saying that various European groups of immigrants could enter the United States and “blend” into a harmonious White race.  But the generosity of welcome ended there. 

                         1916 playbill                                                author Israel Zangwill

                         1916 playbill                                                author Israel Zangwill

Apart from the inherent racism of the melting pot metaphor lies the vanilla tragedy of sameness. What happens when we melt down our collection of beautiful rings and bracelets and necklaces? It becomes one indistinguishable molten slurry. Must immigrants from anywhere give up who they are to live in a new land?

On the other hand, what happens when we combine our many and diverse strengths while still maintaining our unique properties?  We become a tasty salad, where our individual assets stand out.  We work together to make a healthy meal, yet there you experience the crispy carrots, the juicy tomatoes, or the tender lettuce.  With a more artistic metaphor, we become an attractive mosaic, where our diversity works together to produce a striking thing of beauty.

In parallel fashion, we need to ditch the concept of assimilation, an overused word that represents an unquestioned blending into a system without acknowledging our innate human diversity.  Instead of assimilating (at its root, to make similar), let us take up the mantle of acculturation, where newcomers learn to work together, to lend our distinctive talents and viewpoints, as we contribute to the whole of this wonderful experiment in democracy called the United States of America.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.