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What Is Cultural Assimilation?

Assimilation means absorbing new things into a system. Assimilation is most often talked about in the context of “cultural assimilation,” which is when immigrant groups are encouraged to “adopt the culture, values, and social behaviors of their host nation.” This means shedding or hiding aspects of one’s culture – including certain foods, clothing, language, religious traditions, etc – that the host nation is unfamiliar with. Supporters of assimilation claim it creates a more cohesive cultural identity, reduces cultural conflict, and helps immigrants gain more social and economic opportunities. In this article, we’ll discuss the theoretical models of assimilation, as well as what assimilation can look like in practice. Are supporters of assimilation correct in their claims or does assimilation lead to discrimination and cultural destruction?

Cultural assimilation in theory

Cultural assimilation has existed for as long as people have moved from place to place. In a 2018 article on ThoughtCo, Dr. Nicki Lisa Cole describes how sociologists in the US first began developing theories on assimilation early in the 20th century. From their work, three theoretical models of assimilation were developed:

Classic and new

This first model embraces the idea of the US as a melting pot. It presents assimilation as a linear process where each generation becomes more and more similar to the dominant culture. While the children of immigrants may keep some of their parent’s traditions, their children (and the children after them) are more likely to lose elements of their grandparents’ culture. Eventually, everyone shares the same culture. This theory is not without criticism. It’s been called “Anglo-conformist.” It also only works if the mainstream, dominant culture is something that’s easily defined.

Racial/ethnic disadvantage

This theory frames assimilation as a process that varies based on factors like race, ethnicity, and religion. Depending on where a person is from, they may enjoy a fairly easy assimilation process, but for others (usually non-White immigrants), racism and xenophobia may make it much more challenging. Learning the language and adhering to the dominant cultural values will not help immigrants facing increased discrimination. There are major personal and societal consequences when some groups are privileged and others are disadvantaged.

Segmented assimilation

The segmented assimilation model claims that different immigrant groups assimilate into different parts of society. Factors like socioeconomic status determine what section an immigrant has access to when they arrive in a host country. There are a variety of pathways a person may take. Some follow a classic assimilation model while others end up assimilating into poorer parts of society, which leads to fewer opportunities. Sociologists also study a third pathway, which is when a person keeps many of their cultural values and traditions while successfully assimilating economically. Sociologists focusing on the segmented model tend to study second-generation immigrants.

Assimilation in practice

As the models show, assimilation is a complex topic. In practice, assimilation often happens naturally as people adjust to a new place and their children grow up surrounded by a different culture. However, assimilation also has an insidious history. In many places, indigenous people and immigrants have been subjected to forced assimilation. Assimilation is also often inseparable from ideas about race and “the other.” Here are two examples of assimilation’s dark side:

Canada: Residential schools and cultural genocide

When Europeans settled in Canada, they considered themselves superior in every way. To “save” and “civilize” the Indigenous people, the Europeans embarked on a centuries-long project that had catastrophic consequences. They looked to the United States as inspiration and established the residential school system in the 1880s. In 1920, it became mandatory for Indigenous children to attend residential schools; they had no other legal options. The stated belief was that unless forced to assimilate, the Indigenous people – and Canada as a whole – would never flourish. The schools forced assimilation by cutting children’s hair short, dressing them like Europeans, and only allowing English. They even kept siblings apart, serving the last ties to family and culture. Children were subjected to physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, as well as malnutrition and poor healthcare. Between 1883-1997, more than 150,000 children were torn from their homes.

The last residential school didn’t close until 1996, which means many survivors are still alive today. In 2015, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a 6-volume final report. It concluded that the residential school system had attempted “cultural genocide.” It can be easily argued the system was attempting literal genocide, as well. Mass graves have been found at many schools. In 2021, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation reported that ground-penetrating radar had identified about 200 potential burial sites at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Canada’s assimilation campaign was presented as beneficial to the Indigenous people, but all it did was destroy culture, inflict trauma, and kill children. Canada continues to face a reckoning regarding its violations of human rights.

The United States: Asian Americans and the “model minority” paradox

The story of Asians in America reveals the paradoxical nature of assimilation in the United States. While often viewed as a “model minority,” Asian Americans are also seen as “unassimilable.” In the 19th century, most anti-Asian discrimination targeted Chinese immigrants, who arrived in the US in the 1850s. Seen as cheap labor, they got jobs as gardeners, laundry workers, and railroad workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad. Hostility against Chinese American workers boiled over in 1882 when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1943, the Magnuson Act ended exclusions, though it only permitted 105 Chinese immigrants every year. In a 2012 lecture “Asians in America: The Paradox of ‘The Model Minority’ and ‘The Perpetual Foreigner,’” Dr. Min Zhou describes how before WWII, Americans saw Asian immigrants in a harshly negative light, casting them as “sneaky” foreigners with strange foods and culture. Asian men were seen as feminine or even childlike because of their hairstyles, clothing, and jobs in historically “feminine” fields like laundry and restaurant work. Discrimination against Japanese Americans reached its peak during WWII with internment. Dr. Zhou points to this time as the origin of the “model minority” as Chinese Americans worked to prove their loyalty to the US and distance themselves from Japanese Americans.

During the civil rights movement, the model minority myth became fully formed. Asian Americans suddenly became examples of “successful assimilation.” Congratulated as hardworking, docile, and loyal, they were contrasted with Black Americans. Sociologist William Petersen praised Japanese Americans in particular, while he called Black Americans “problem minorities.” The model minority myth not only divides minority groups but lumps together all Asian and Pacific Islanders. It erases both history and current prejudices. A 2021 paper published in Sociology Compass concluded that while the status of Asian Americans has “improved dramatically,” the COVID-19 pandemic’s wave of anti-Asian racism and “othering” exposed how thin the line between “model minority” and “foreigner” is. Because of racialization, it doesn’t matter how well Asian Americans meet the current standards of assimilation. They still face discrimination and violence by those who see them as inherently “other.” When convenient, their successful assimilation is weaponized against other groups. Is this the best we can expect from assimilation as a societal concept? Or is it time to do away with assimilation?

Biculturalism: an alternative to assimilation

Full assimilation is only necessary if the dominant culture demands conformity to be successful and if becoming more like the dominant culture is beneficial. As we see from the examples of Canada’s residential schools and Asian Americans, demanding conformity is closely tied to forced assimilation while successful assimilation connects to ideas about race. On the other hand, not assimilating at all can lead to social isolation, lost economic opportunities, and other issues. Is there another way?

According to Psychology Today, biculturalism is “the personal blend of one’s cultural heritage and lived experiences.” Rather than a combination of two cultures or feeling culturally split, biculturalism can be framed as a “reconciliation” of cultures. Seth Schwartz, a professor of public health sciences, finds that biculturalism leads to higher self-esteem, less anxiety, less depression, and better family relationships. Fully assimilated people experience worse outcomes. This is known as the “the immigrant paradox.” Rather than fully assimilating, it’s possible to integrate elements of multiple cultures and create something unique that’s satisfying for each individual.

Final thoughts

If you asked people planning to move to a new culture, most would probably prefer biculturalism if they knew they would be welcomed. However, many places do not want immigrants to retain their own cultural identity or – at the very least – the host country has specific guidelines on what’s acceptable and what’s not. A country may welcome the new types of food an immigrant group brings, but draw the line at the group’s religious practices. The more lines there are, the less welcome a person feels and the less likely they are to want to keep any of their cultural identity. It may seem easier to shed the past and fully assimilate despite the cost. For biculturalism to be possible, countries need to embrace it. This must be intentional. Racism, xenophobia, and other types of discrimination must be addressed. Different cultures must be celebrated and supported. Systems must be set up so cultural differences aren’t barriers to success. This leads to happy, healthier people and more unique, expansive cultures.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.