Defining ‘American’ How do we manage the new melting pot? The browning of America
It is ironic how the issue of cultural identity has been bastardized in the mainstream press in the name of multiculturalism. Sadly, generations of Americans have grown up in the heartland or other ethnically diverse regions of the country without ever coming to terms with their own culture or roots. Yet the question that dominates is: “In a world of racial diversity, what is ‘white’?” (The Chronicle, Dec 8).
The press would have you believe not so much in the threat of the rudderless hordes of people of color, but in the increasing isolation of the white race. Never mind the more appropriate question: In the face of the Balkanization of America, is any one ethnicity or culture going to retain the primacy of its identity? Perhaps it is just the white culture — however defined — that will always keep its position of relevance regardless of its shrinking population.
Could it be possible that the promotion of multiculturalism serves to accelerate the “browning of America” and creates a nation of discordant people? Or has the question ever been: What is multiculturalism? As if multiculturalism is a preordained coming-together of many ethnicities or races, a third-world harmony conspiring to discord the very melody of the American symphony. Nothing is further from the truth. In a cross-cultural society, assimilation is a cross street, and it means the dilution of all the cultures that intersect each other.
Thus, contrary to the argument that the concept of a melting pot in America no longer holds, it has been at work, surreptitiously perhaps, but influential and effective nonetheless. For instance, there are whole generations of Vietnamese for whom English is the only language. Even Vietnamese gangs listen to rap music and swear at each other in English, loud and clear. Not to mention their Southeast Asian counterparts, whose wholesale adoption of the American culture (which some may consider counterculture) has created “lost generations” who have no real place to call home. For many young and not so young Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese, English is the preferred language because they have yet to learn their mother tongues. Many never will. For these people, their precarious lot allows them an incomplete acculturation process. It is the dumbing down of their rainbow culture that has laid waste to many young lives.
Surely, the delicate phenomenon of the “white” minority vis-a-vis the rest of the so-called encroaching racial diversity in places such as California is understandable but totally misplaced. No matter if racial plurality is going to be the reality in many regions of the United States, American popular culture is predominantly white, thank you. Caucasians may be in the minority, but they still control the airwaves, television programming, films, the press and the government, while the other ethnicities are becoming endeared to this accepted de facto pop culture.
The issue of demographic shift aside, not being able to see and explore the real identity crisis of these hyphenated Americans is indicative of the press’ lack of cultural understanding of American racial dynamics. There is no such thing as an Asian-American culture except for the faceless, undifferentiated mass of those who share differing viewpoints and varying degree of skin tones. Having been the product of at least three cultures — Vietnamese, French and American — and as many scholastic systems, my belief is to foster a full education both in the learner’s culture and his host’s.
Only when a person is fully fluent in his own identity can she or he begin to appreciate and learn with confidence the host’s culture. A hyphenated American is just that, a half person until he or she can fully acquire both sides of her/his cultural identity to become a full person. Likewise, Caucasians who feel encroached upon would be well advised to learn first the standard curriculum before becoming too hip with ethnic studies. “A little learning is a dangerous thing” was my first English lesson, courtesy of Alexander Pope.
Thai Nguyen-Khoa teaches social studies in the San Francisco Unified School District.