When I was growing up, the term “melting pot” was used a lot to describe America. As I’ve been wrapping up my book on South Asian American experiences in schools in America, I’ve been thinking more and more about that larger context — America — and whether or not it’s still fair to think of it as a melting pot at all.
The term “melting pot” was popularized in the early 1900s by the writer Israel Zangwill, and it had quite a different implication from the melding together of cultures and ethnicities that happens today (or even when I was growing up).
For one thing, the influx of immigration in the late 18th century was primarily from European countries, and while they had distinct cultures, languages, and denominations of religions, they were, for the most part, European White people with common language origins, and arrived in this country for similar reasons (escaping religious persecution, leaving behind famines, searching for new opportunities). In that time, the “melting pot” was a term used, essentially, to describe something that was considered desirable: complete assimilation.
The Melting Pot as Code for Assimilation
In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, the idea of the melting pot was certainly a helpful and appealing visual metaphor for a more united society, and therefore, a stronger national identity. This is to say, the melting pot was simply code for assimilation: for the ingredients in a pot to really melt together, the contributing elements would have to shed their individual characteristics, thus communicating that assimilation — eventual homogeneity, in fact — become necessary.
This leaves no room for those who would dare not assimilate. Consider President Theodore Roosevelt’s (1915) “hyphenated Americans” speech:
“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all…
This is just as true of the man who puts ‘native’ before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance.
But if he is heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as any one else.
The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English- Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian- Americans, or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality than with the other citizens of the American Republic.
The men who do not become Americans and nothing else are hyphenated Americans; and there ought to be no room for them in this country. The man who calls himself an American citizen and who yet shows by his actions that he is primarily the citizen of a foreign land, plays a thoroughly mischievous part in the life of our body politic. He has no place here; and the sooner he returns to the land to which he feels his real heart-allegiance, the better it will be for every good American.”
In fact, by 1889, the term “hyphenated American” was used to point to immigrants’ loyalty to their countries of origin. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson* were both opponents of so-called hyphenated Americans, and by the early 1900s, the term was used as an epithet. Then, the melting pot metaphor was used prescriptively to suggest newly arrived immigrants quickly, and completely, assimilate into American society, leaving behind cultural values or beliefs that might clash too greatly with standard American values.
(President Wilson made a comment reflecting President Roosevelt’s anti-hyphenated-American stance years later, comparing “hyphenated Americans” to armed traitors.)
If the melting pot worked correctly, in theory, all elements of the melting pot would blend and merge together to create a new and ever-evolving culture comprised of the values and beliefs of all its members. Indeed, the individual members of society would each have to assimilate to American culture, thus sacrificing their unique identities, but in exchange, American culture, in turn, would absorb each of these members’ new values and beliefs, thus altering itself. But this is not how it worked in the 1900s, or today. Even today, people call American a melting pot, and still, the implication is that newcomers must leave behind their own cultures, and adapt to a so-called American culture that does not always absorb — and certainly does not always honor — elements of the cultures of those who join the society.
Of course, the melding together of these White European American cultures, which occurred slowly over decades, did not incorporate the other cultures of American society at the time: those of the Native Americans unceremoniously or forcefully removed from their lands a century or two earlier, or the African slaves, also brought unceremoniously and forcefully, into the country. For the first few centuries of American history, these cultures were excluded entirely from the American melting pot.
All things considered, the term melting pot isn’t as much of a positive thing as I, for some reason, thought it was when I was growing up. And to be certain, it seems like today, America is not a melting pot.
A Taste of Multiculturalism (A Salad Bowl?)
Standing in sharp relief against the image of the mythical melting pot is the idea of a salad bowl, in which each contributing element remains distinct (or patchwork quilt, or mosaic, in which each square is distinct and separate). This salad bowl idea (which not everyone likes or agrees with) suggests a version of multicultural society in which individual people and groups maintain their own original cultures, and that the larger “American” society’s culture is, in fact, a collection of each of these unique cultures. In this metaphor, distinct cultural groups do not assimilate, but the larger American culture, too, does not change itself to reflect the values of its elements.
On the individual level, too, there’s a lot of variation in the degree to which people identify as being American, or bicultural, or hyphenated, or whatever. (See here.)
Society goes back and forth between its preference for which version of global fusion is preferable in America. Sadly, there are groups in the US today that seem to favor neither, but if given a choice, would likely prefer those who are most foreign to shed their foreignness and assimilate as quickly and completely as possible… (though this isn’t even an option for many who are often othered solely for not fitting the image of what an American ought to be).
PS — The art used in the featured image for this post is based on an original art piece called “Crowded,” by artist Mari Orr (@meandering_mari), available on Society6. You can click here to purchase the art as a small print — it would also make a great notebook or bag (affiliate link).