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129 Chapter Six Negotiating Identity: Beyond Assimilation Models “A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American.” —Woodrow Wilson (1915, quoted in Gordon 1964, 101) “The old folk knew then they would not come to belong, not through their own experience nor though their offspring. The only adjustment they had been able to make to life in the United States had been one that involved the separateness of their group, one that increased their awareness of the differences between themselves and the rest of the society. In that adjustment they had always suffered from the consciousness they were strangers.” —Oscar Handlin (1951, 285) THE DEBATE THAT surrounds assimilation has nearly a hundred years of U.S. history to support its assertions. Woodrow Wilson states the creed of the melting pot, contending that all should give up their particular origins to become a part of the homogenized American identity. Oscar Handlin, by contrast, speaks from the view of the immigrant who is either not prepared or not able to erase the distinctions that separate foreign-born from native. Attempting to encompass these positions, from the perspective of the social sciences, is the broadly conceived model of assimilation. First associated with Robert Park and the Chicago school of sociology in the early part of the twentieth century, assimilation theory has had remarkable longevity as the guiding framework for studying immigration in the United States. Indeed, as Charles Hirschman declares, “assimilation has historically been one of the foundational and far-reaching concepts in American social science” (1999, 129). Yet in the same analysis he notes that “there are few words in 130 To Be an Immigrant contemporary academic social science that arouse more negative valence than assimilation” (1999, 128, emphasis in original). The debates surrounding assimilation are one part of the story that I want to tell in this chapter. Assimilation theory makes a set of assumptions about the process of immigration, a process in which one moves steadily or not so steadily from identification with one’s country of origin to assimilation as a member of the new country, which is, in most of the work with this theory, the United States. Assimilation theory says much less, however , about the experience of immigration from the perspective of the immigrants themselves. The conditions that define these insider experiences are the site of needed theorizing by psychologists. Equally important to consider, from the perspective of a social psychologist , are the variations in this experience that make one immigrant story different from another. Consider the story of Bharati Mukherjee, who immigrated to the United States from India with her sister—“two Calcutta-born women from identical backgrounds with the same Cambridge-tested accent, the same convent education, who have been in the United States for over thirty-five years” (Mukherjee 1999, 76). Yet while her sister lives in Detroit, where she met and married an Indian student, where she wears saris, cooks traditional Indian food, and plans to retire to India in a few years, Mukherjee married an American of Canadian parentage, has lived in both the United States and Canada, eats and dresses in what she terms “an amalgam of the places I’ve lived” and can “not imagine returning to India for other than family visits and relaxed vacations” (1999, 76). Mukherjee asks “which one of us is the freak?” Put less judgmentally, we might ask whose experience of immigration is more typical and why do these two sisters differ so much? As I mentioned in chapter 5, I believe we must consider issues of ethnic identity and assimilation in a dynamic context, as a confluence between the individual and the circumstances that are worked out and negotiated in an ongoing process. This chapter is about those processes that affect and ultimately define the immigrant experience. In developing a preliminary framework for understanding that experience, I ask three simple questions. What does the immigrant bring to the process? What does the immigrant confront? What does the immigrant do? To answer these questions and to suggest a basis for future theoretical work, I reintroduce some of the concepts discussed earlier, including stereotypes, ethnic identity, and social hierarchy. Here those concepts will, in a sense, be put in motion, drawn together in a more dynamic and interwoven account. Before embarking on this analysis, however, some review of classical assimilation theory is needed in order to understand what assumptions have...


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