Multiculturalism, Assimilation, Integration, Acculturation… another model?

Although this week’s articles look at immigration issues in a European context, I found myself constantly making connections to the related issues faced by the settler societies I am most familiar with. Growing up in the Canadian school system, I remember the issue of multiculturalism in Canada being taught in grade school using the metaphor of the ‘cultural mosaic’ (similar to what Favell calls the British model), to describe a society that uses respect for and acknowledgement of individual difference to create a single, integrated and harmonious image of ‘Canadianness’. This model was taught as a contrasting vision to that of the ‘American melting pot’ (similar to what Favell describes as the French model), in which individual cultural differences are subsumed and blended together to create one homogenous ‘colour blind’ American identity. Not really surprisingly I guess, ‘our’ Canadian model was held up as the superior, more progressive vision of true multiculturalism.

As I came to think more on these issues on my own over the years, it became obvious that not only was this an overly rosy picture of Canadian hospitality and respect for difference, but that one group’s experience was left out of the picture altogether: the country’s original Indigenous inhabitants. As Simon notes, “what is required of ‘immigrants’, and more generally of all those who were required to ‘integrate,’ is defined by the majority group as the characteristics of an ideal citizen.” In the case of settler colonial societies like Canada, this has meant that the dominant (European immigrant) group have required First Nations peoples to integrate, often through violent coercive means, to become their picture of the ideal Westernized citizen. In current debates around ‘illegal immigration’, integration, assimilation and multiculturalism in North America, this historical context is usually left out entirely.

 packing up

When talking with other North Americans about these issues surrounding race and difference, I see many connections to Simon’s observations that a “conception of ‘colourblindness’ actually prevents the perception of unfair treatment.” In practice, despite any rhetoric about the difference between ‘cultural mosaics’ or ‘melting pots’, in my experience both Canadians and Americans are uncomfortable talking about race and structural inequalities, and operate mostly in accordance with Simon’s observation in that their main “strategy against racism [is] to delegitimize the idea of race itself.” This is combined with a commitment to an individualistic ideology that frames racism solely “as individual acts of meanness, not invisible systems conferring dominance” (Peggy McIntosh). Simon’s observation that an anti-racism stance that understands discrimination as “mainly related to individual behaviour prevents any strategy to cope with structural discriminations” is echoed Peggy McIntosh. As she elaborates:

 “My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow “them” to be more like “us.” (White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack).

In this context, a population without some grounding both in it’s own colonial history and a critical understanding of structural oppression becomes all the more easily manipulated by those who would use immigration “as a focus for wider grievances”, and frame it “as a cause of other problems, rather than being viewed as a symptom.”

yeah, this is long…

tldr; just watch this video (with cats!):


4 thoughts on “Multiculturalism, Assimilation, Integration, Acculturation… another model?

  1. Amanda, thanks for bringing into the discussion a reminder of the only non-immigrants in North America. Apart from the specifics of the North American case, I think the cats’ discussion of how the media deals with immigration can certainly be used to think about how European media and politicians do something similar: scare tactics and blame the victim. As Simon points out in his discussion of reactions to the 2005 riots, politicians and the mainstream media wanted to see it as a sign of the ethnic fragmentation of society, when in fact, the young people were showing their reactions to injustice in a society they felt they belonged to.

  2. Your post made me think about the issue in a deeper sense. Thank you. I agree what you have brought. Also I think that this illegal immigration debate could be understood much more negatively because of the history that the world has been through. The consent is very important in my point of view and because the debate has been already turned out to be a racial debate, who are the natives or late comers, I do not even want to listen what people are claiming, whereas if people talks about the negative effects of illegal immigration on the economy or the other race neutral policies it would be worth to debate.

  3. I really appreciate the criticism you make regarding the North American ‘cultural mosaic’ / color-blind ‘melting pot’ experiences. Now that I look back at the education I was given in the Turkish National Education system, I see the same attitude (well, more of the French or American attitudes) when it came to instilling an idea in us that we, as “Turkish” students were living and would live “morally neutral, normative, average, and ideal.” I would constantly hear my ethnically-Turkish upper-middle class friends make uninformed and mind numbingly nationalistic remarks when they found out that one of our friends was Kurdish. Thanks to the propaganda of the mainstream media, they did not hold back from attributing all inferior features to him. “That’s why he smells.” (Not even kidding). “So does that mean he supports terrorism?”
    Now with the recent migration coming from Syria into Turkey, the attitude is very similar; the politicians and the media wish to scapegoat them and create a ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effect when statistical research shows that there is no tangible correlation between the density of migration flow and loss of jobs, decline in social order etc.
    Sorry for such a long comment, but the post was very interesting. Thanks 🙂

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