Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami
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"Assimilation" Summary and Analysis

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Once, on a plane flying over California, a fellow passenger remarked to Lalami that the “problem” with Koreans is their refusal to assimilate into American culture, given that they continue to speak Korean and to send their children to “their own” schools on Sunday so they can learn Korean. Lalami notes that a contradiction lies at the basis of American society, which is richly heterogeneous but also pervaded by an expectation that people will relinquish ties to their ancestral cultures. 

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Though America has been based on immigration, the founders didn’t view it as a “multicultural haven,” Lalami says. She quotes the passage in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia in which he expresses doubts that immigrants from the European monarchies will be able to fit into the new country because they will bring with them ideas based on the absolutist governments of their former states. Historically, the United States has been suspicious of immigrants from China, assuming—as an 1890 New York Times article asserts— that such people cannot integrate into American society because they will refuse to “surrender” their language, religion, and way of dress. Irish immigrants were similarly demeaned several generations earlier and were caricatured in the press for their supposedly “uncivilized” behavior, including their alleged drunkenness. 

In the United States, various legal measures have been taken over the decades to restrict immigration. There is a constant swing back and forth between the idea that the richness of diverse cultures is the lifeblood of America and the contrary nativist thinking that multiculturalism is a threat to the nation. In the early 1990s, when President George H. W. Bush signed a bill that would favor large immigration, many in his own party reacted against it and claimed—as the pundit Patrick Buchanan did in 1992—that this would endanger the “Judeo-Christian values” of the United States.

Lalami contrasts the American debate on this issue with the situation in her native Morocco. Because Morocco had been a French colony, there were many ethnic French people living there, such as Lalami’s teacher. This was the case even after Morocco was granted independence. None of these European people were asked to assimilate into Moroccan society by changing their style of dress, their language, or other elements of their behavior. No one in the Moroccan government objected to the French eating pork, which is contrary to strict Muslim dietary laws. Yet in France during the same period, Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris, objected to the presence of North African immigrants in the capital and spoke of them in demeaning terms, even though Chirac himself regularly went on holiday to Morocco. 

In America, the early European settlers did not assimilate into the indigenous cultures; rather, they forced the opposite to occur. Indigenous cultures were forcibly erased in many cases, with children forbidden from speaking their own languages or keeping their birth names. The same was true, regarding the expunging of their native culture, of the enslaved people brought to America from Africa. The difference between their treatment and that of the indigenous Americans is that the authorities wanted the latter to be assimilated into American society, whereas they wished those of African descent to be kept segregated from the rest of the population. 

Common terminology, Lalami says, reflects different views on ethnic groups, with those coming into the United States or Europe called “migrants” but those leaving them called “expats.” “Expats,” such as British people in mainland Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East who have adopted the local customs of the new country, are said to have “gone native,” while non-Britons emigrating to the...

(The entire section contains 1352 words.)

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