Does teaching English and hygiene to immigrants make them "better Americans," or is this assumption racist?

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It is not necessarily true that teaching immigrants English and better hygiene habits (as was done in some settlement houses during the Progressive Era) would actually make them into better Americans.  It is true, however, that the middle class women who ran the settlement houses thought that it would.  In general, they thought that these things would make the immigrants more like middle-class, “native,” Americans.  The Progressives tended to be from this class and they believed that it would be better if the immigrants were more like them.

It is fairly easy to argue that teaching people English would make them better Americans.  While English is not our official language, it is by far the dominant language in our society today just as it was in the Progressive Era.  It is hard to truly fit in to a country if you cannot speak the language that is spoken by the vast majority of its citizens.  It is hard to get a good job.  It is hard to communicate with teachers, with police, and with other people whom you might meet.  It is hard to feel that you truly belong when you do not speak the language.  Thus, teaching immigrants English could have made them into better Americans.

Better hygiene is much less clearly connected to better citizenship.  A person can be slovenly and still hold good American values and feel a strong connection to our country. The people who ran the settlement houses really just assumed that good Americans were like them.  Since they kept up certain standards of hygiene, they felt that that was what good Americans did.  Therefore, they wanted to teach the immigrants those habits so they could be good Americans too.

Clearly, a person could say that this attitude is racist (ethnocentric might be a better word), as many people argue that similar attitudes are racist today.  If you say that someone cannot be a good American speaking a different language, you are (arguably) somehow implying that their language, and people who speak their language, are not good enough.  You are denigrating them and their language, which can be seen as racist.  When you start to teach people hygiene, you are implying that they are uncivilized.  You are saying that they need to be taught basic things such as how to keep clean.  We would feel insulted if someone tried to teach us such a thing.  That is something that parents teach children, not that adults teach other adults who are their equals.  Thus, teaching people hygiene is akin to calling them uncivilized or child-like.  When you imply that immigrants are like this, it is possible to argue that you are being racist (or ethnocentric/nativist).

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