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The Problem with Cultural Assimilation

By Joanne Lee on September 12th, 2018

In a previous blog, I shared that the first time I truly felt like a minority or an outsider in this country didn’t occur until I was an adult. My paternal and maternal grandparents immigrated to Hawai’i from Korea and Japan, respectively, and I grew up there during a time when groups from other countries were settling. Rather than having one or two dominant cultures, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Native Hawaiian, Portuguese, Samoan, Tongan, and other people co-existed, sometimes adopting norms and practices from one another. Since moving to North Carolina, and as my work and experiences with communities across the country have expanded and deepened, I’ve learned that the experiences of Asians in other parts of America (where there are distinct majority racial groups) are very different from my own. And I have been reflecting on how those differences relate to authentic community engagement as an Essential Practice for healthy communities.

A few weeks ago, I visited with a longstanding health coalition that looks strong on paper. It includes representation from the mayor, deputy mayor, government department heads, and health, education, nonprofit, and other sectors. Recently, their work has been impacted by new immigrants and people of color who have moved into the community. The coalition’s members  are experienced enough to realize that they need to engage the newer members in their community, and they talked about strategies such as going to “their” churches to ask for input about health initiatives and hosting a monthly cultural festival featuring food and dance from “their” cultures to make them feel welcome in “our” community. While there were no negative intentions behind the use of “us and them” language, it underscored the importance of first identifying the goal of authentic community engagement before focusing on how to do it.

Some believe that assimilation is the goal, and strive to help new members learn about and adjust to a community and its culture. This premise is an insider vs. outsider view rather than a collective one. Assimilation occurs when the new members adopt the norms of the majority or host culture, often losing (intentionally and unintentionally) aspects of their own culture in the process in order to co-exist. And when new members do not assimilate, they may be segregated or marginalized.

So what should the goal of authentic community engagement be, if not assimilation? To answer this question, I think back to my childhood in Hawai’i. Interacting with people of various cultures on a daily basis and navigating life in a multicultural society resulted in a collective openness to new ideas and perspectives, curiosity about differences, and skillful negotiation or problem solving without the presence of a dominant culture or group. It also led to the evolution of a distinct type of “local Hawai’i” foods which are a fusion of diverse traditional ethnic cuisines.

I experienced another example of this type of cultural exchange in the Northeastern part of our country in a community with members from a half-dozen countries. I took a tour with the community coalition of a large garden, which had not only become a source of fresh and healthy food, but also a comfortable cross-cultural gathering space. Seeing members of that community who didn’t speak the same language—but were able to communicate about the produce being grown from their native countries and how to prepare it—was a sign that this coalition was achieving its authentic community engagement goal.

I realize that there are unique differences between Hawai’i and many communities across the Continental U.S. While the type of multicultural society I grew up in may not be realistic everywhere else, perhaps we can still incorporate the essence of mutual adaptability into our goal of authentic community engagement. Doing this would extend beyond mere inclusion and change the dominant or majority culture as much as newer community members are changed. Authentic community engagement transforms the status quo, shifts norms, and requires that the entire community evolves into something new and different—to the benefit of all its members.

Joanne Lee

Senior Project Director

Adventurous strategist, cross-cultural explorer, and human and animal welfare champion.