The Myth of the Melting Pot: Multiculturalism and the USA

The United States often sells itself as a unique multicultural nation, where waves of immigration have given us the benefits and richness of many cultures, languages and histories. When talking about our culture we often suggest our nation is a metaphorical melting pot where all the world’s cultures meet, get distilled down, and mix together forming a complex culture unique to the U.S.

This is something we would like to believe about our society, but in reality it is simply  not true. The U.S. has consistently pursued the dominance of one culture, namely “whiteness.” Foreign cultures are generally treated in one of three ways that have nothing to do with seeking their unique contributions our fabled unique culture. Overall this entire self-deception serves to hide the fact that U.S. culture is rather empty and avoid the problems that that emptiness brings.

The Culture of Whiteness in the U.S.

The USA has one dominant culture and that culture is “whiteness.” I have written about whiteness at length elsewhere but in short whiteness is an allegiance to ideals, values, beliefs, traditions and systems that have come primarily from Western Europe. While originally this culture was directly to skin color, it has evolved over time and today anyone who adopts these values and is loyal to these institutions and systems, including people of color, can be counted as part of the larger culture of whiteness even if they do not benefit from some of the perks that are still tied to having white skin.

It is whiteness, not some unique eclectic mix of cultures, that shapes our political, economic, education and legal traditions and systems. It is also whiteness that everyone, especially foreign immigrants, are encouraged and expected assimilate to.

If the U.S. acts like a melting pot, it is only to “boil down” the culture of new immigrants and dispose of any aspects of their foreign culture which might conflict with whiteness. Whiteness is the mold every immigrant is poured into and expected to conform to after arriving here and being melted down.

The Treatment of Foreign Cultures in the U.S.

The foreign cultures that immigrants bring with them to the U.S. tend to be treated in one of three different ways that have nothing to do with true multiculturalism. 

Foreign Cultures as a Threat

First, these foreign cultures can be seen and treated as a threat. Foreign cultures arriving and being preserved in the United States have always been a cause for fear. Benjamin Franklin complained about the Germans before we were even a nation and Nativists in the 1800’s complained about the Irish in the same way many today talk about Latin American immigration.

The fear behind these complaints is always that the preservation of foreign cultures in the U.S. will weaken our nation by undermining the cultural dominance of whiteness. The villain is always foreign immigrants who are not assimilating fast enough or even actively  resisting assimilation.

When critics decry the lack of assimilation among new wave immigrants it is important to note that it is assimilation to whiteness that they are talking about. Sometimes this language is hidden behind talk of “American values” or the “American way” but if one explores what people mean by this, one will find behind this language the values, traditions, loyalties and ideology the are whiteness.

Foreign Culture as a Token Proof of Multiculturalism

Second, some use aspects of foreign culture that do persist in the U.S. as proof that multiculturalism exists in the U.S.

Now it is true that some aspects of foreign culture are allowed to continue in the U.S. These are aspects of foreign culture that do not conflict with or threaten whiteness. These are aspects of culture that can be safely relegated to what we could call the private sphere of life. However, I do not believe these remnants of foreign culture prove that we live in a multicultural society.

To claim that we are a multicultural nation because vestigial remnants of these cultures are allowed to exist and even enjoy positive reception within our nation is to ignore how these cultures remain on the margins of our society as a whole.

What I mean by this is that while minor aspects of foreign cultures might be tolerated, displayed or even celebrated in the U.S., this does nothing to actually challenge whiteness’ continued dominance as the shaper and gatekeeper of every significant aspect of our society.

For example, we may enjoy a display of Native American dance, but we do not want a Native American understanding of land to displace our concept of private land ownership. We may rejoice in the spectacle of a parade that celebrates a specific Latin American culture, but that does not mean Spanish language is going to allowed to replace the use of English language anywhere in any significant way.

Foreign Cultures as a Novelty or Commodity

Finally, the third way foreign cultures often end up being treated on our shores is as a novelty or commodity. Various aspects of foreign cultures end up being treated as a buffet of quaint novelties to provide entertainment or commodities and resources that can be consumed or sold by those from the dominant culture of whiteness.  Cultural appropriation or commodification of foreign cultures by those who only knows whiteness serves to satisfy cultural and existential needs not met by whiteness. Examples of cultural appropriation and commodification exist in many aspects of our society but perhaps the entertainment industry offers up the most glaring example on a regular basis.

What is the myth of multiculturalism hiding?

If we are not truly a multicultural nation, then why do we often think of ourselves in this manner?  I would suggest the myth of multiculturalism , and uses of the remnants of foreign cultures as token proof of multiculturalism, novelties and commodities, all serve to hide the fact that the culture of whiteness is empty. But I will leave exploring this claim further in a later post.

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About Kevin

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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