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The Melting pot? by Lucy Wan

Image above: Immigrants waving American flags, by Joseph Prezioso of Getty Images

Question

Is the concept of the melting pot as ideal, in other words without negative effects, as depicted in "The Melting Pot" by Isreal Zangwill?

Abstract

To many foreigners, America is often thought of as a dreamland where liberty prevails, where everyone is treated equally, and where all privileges result from hard work rather than inheritance. In the play, The Melting Pot by Israel Zangwill, we see that the main character, David Quixano, is fully immersed with these ideals. He is specifically in awe of the promise he sees in America to allow him to leave behind his traumas and assimilate into a new culture of liberty and economic freedoms. Though The Melting Pot had a happy ending, one in which David and his fiancé were granted a new start in America, the cost of assimilation is equally flawed, producing a more subtle kind of violence in the new world. American assimilation not only has a theory that contradicts practice, but also has oppressive undertones since it implies that American culture is superior to that of any other. For example, during World War II, Japanese-Americans, even those with proper citizenship, were held in internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This incident shows how even though some of these Japanese-Americans had been in the country for generations, they still were not accepted, disproving a core concept of the melting pot theory that immigrants are able to take part in their new culture after they have “melted”. The play was written in the early 20th century during the Americanization movement which sought to “Americanize” all individuals living in the U.S., which may explain why The Melting Pot embodies many of the Americanization ideals. Though some believe that the difficulties immigrants face should be blamed on the immigrants rather than the process, their arguments are often racist and unsupported. In the end, America should change for the better by accepting people of all cultures for who they are.

First row left: Mendel and Davenport, First row right: David and Vera, Second row left: Mendel, Vera, and Davenport, Second row middle: Discussion in the Quixano household, Second row right: Vera and Katherine, Last row left: the group in shock, Last row right: Mendel thinking, all images in the grid are by Christopher Tribble

Photo Above: David discussing his symphony by Christopher Tribble

ESSAY

“... the Crucible, I tell you—he will be the fusion of all races, perhaps the coming superman” is a key quote by David Quixano from Israel Zangwill’s play, The Melting Pot. David is an immigrant musician who seeks to build a new life in the U.S. after a traumatic past in his home country in which his entire family was murdered. He buys into the idealistic views of American assimilation due to his belief that the beauty behind American assimilation is that it makes it possible for anyone to be American. We define assimilation as the integration process into a new culture. The melting pot theory is one of the main theories of American assimilation which states that new cultures assimilate by adopting the traditions of the culture they are trying to assimilate with while contributing parts of their own culture. In the play, David’s process of assimilation is not easy. When he first meets his soon-to-be-fiance, she is anti-semetic, making her initially repulsed by David. However, after she comes to terms with his ethnicity, David soon discovers that his fiance’s father is partially responsible for the murder of David’s family. In the end, they both have to negotiate their past traumas in order to become fully assimilated. The play ends with a kiss, signaling a stereotypical “happily ever after” ending. However, despite the happy ending of The Melting Pot, the process of American assimilation is very flawed, unlike the way it is portrayed in the play, due to historical implications and its oppressive undertones.

According to Boothe, a Washington Post author, the melting pot is “the idea, so central to national identity, that this country can transform people of every color and background into ‘one America’”. After this melting process, immigrants are said to become truly “American”. The melting process involves forgetting one’s own culture in order to adopt American culture. This includes, especially in the early 20th century America when the play was written, becoming literate in english, learning to dress like a Westerner, applying makeup to make one look paler, or not speaking one’s native language (Smitehrs). Sometimes, it goes as far as to changing one’s name to an American name or bleaching one’s skin. For example, during World War II, many German-Americans changed their names to American ones and made an effort to hide all parts of their German ancestry in order to assimilate. In addition, Michael Jackson bleached his skin white in the peak of his fame in order to fit in with the standards of American pop culture.

However, the concept behind American assimilation, that immigrants will be accepted after they have become “americanized”, is largely contradicted by personal experiences, the political scene, and historical events. Part of the belief behind American assimilation is that “if we simply assimilate, we will be accepted” (Torre). However, this is clearly false. In Melting Pot or Ring of Fire: Assimilation and the Mexican-American Experience, Johnson recalls that “Mexican-Americans like my mother who made every possible effort to assimilate-Anglicizing her name, claiming she was Spanish and denying her Mexican ancestry, and marrying Anglos. These efforts failed with tragic consequences.” In addition, through present day political occurrences, we can especially see how much of a negative light immigrants are viewed within the political scene. In the Washington Post article Trump’s most insulting — and violent — language is often reserved for immigrants by Eugene Scott, Scott shows how President Trump has acted extremely rude towards immigrants, with his rudest quote, in my opinion, being “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”. However this is not a recent occurrence, but something that has been repeated throughout history. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882 was a ban on Chinese immigration (Higgins). During World War II, Japanese-Americans were forced into concentration camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor since “Japanese persons had failed to assimilate” (Johnsont). Throughout many other instances in history, the U.S. set immigrant quotas on certain racial groups that it deemed unworthy (Higgins). These waves of racism show how disgusted America is by other races leaving no room for acceptance.

A Japanese family heading to an internment camp by GettyImages
Photo of Donald Trump, who has made many racist comments, by Nicholas Kamm

Such examples of “Americanized” immigrants being rejected by American society were even seen in the courts. The courts in the late 19th and 20th century attempted to construct the terms of being ‘American’ by ruling that people of color cannot be naturalized (Herbes-Sommers et al). This includes the Ozawa and Singh Thind cases where the courts ruled that people of Japanese and Indian ancestry cannot be naturalized (Herbes-Sommers et al). The paradox of the cases in legal terms are that in the Ozawa case, the courts backed their ruling by citing scientific reasons while citing more philosophical reasons in the Singh Thind case. In the Ozawa case, the courts ruled that Japanese cannot be naturalized since they are part of the Mongolian not the Caucasian race even though Ozawa was as “American” as anyone could be (Herbes-Sommers et al). In the Singh Thind case, since Singh Thind argues that Indians are scientifically part of the Caucasian race, the courts ruled that science didn’t matter, but that “White is not something that can be scientifically determined, but white is something that is subjectively understood by who they [the courts] called the common person” (Herbes-Sommers et al). Before this, the courts used Jim Crow laws to enforce being ‘American’. These laws and court cases show that the assimilation of immigrants is achievable and that the only true way to be assimilated is to be “white”.

The most negative trait of American assimilation is its oppressiveness. In the 1800s:

The government and the public encouraged newly minted American citizens to absorb a new culture almost immediately upon arrival, a process dubbed “Americanization.” In an oft-quoted passage, President Teddy Roosevelt called for assimilation, exclaiming, “We have room for but one language here [in America], and that is the English language.” Citizenship programs were established across the country, and free English lessons were available in most major cities and towns. (Higgins)

An image of Theodore Roosevelt, who let the Americanization movement, by Getty Museum

In the 1800s, the ideal white person was someone who had “good breeding”, a term coined by Locke in Some Thoughts Concerning Education that is almost synonymous with whiteness (Smithers). Good breeding “required the continual cultivation of civility, manhood, self-sufficiency, and physical self-restraint” (Smitehrs). Americanization forced immigrants into the 1800s interpretation of good-breeding, which included white rituals such as attending church and displaying Western etiquette. Americanization was very oppressive because it portrays American culture as dominant and fails to appreciate the richness of other cultures. It implies that American culture is above all other cultures, and is therefore only used as a way for the privileged Americans to stay in power. Americanization especially applies to The Melting Pot since:

Zangwill’s play debuted just as the Americanization movement took off, receiving mixed reviews from both the public and critics. In his article, ‘How The Melting Pot Stirred America,’ author Joe Kraus notes that fans of the play saw it as a ‘powerful articulation of the promise of America.’ Those who disliked the production, however, saw it as a representation of the mounting cultural hierarchy in America. ‘The Melting Pot, which celebrated America’s capacity to accommodate difference,’ writes Kraus, ‘appeared on the scene at a moment when the American theater world ceased to accept heterogeneity in its productions and, more subtly, ceased to accommodate difference in its audience.’ Thus, The Melting Pot, for all of its insistence that America was a joyful marriage of diverse cultures, actually symbolized the end of cultural acceptance in the United States. (Higgins)

This quote shows how The Melting Pot was really just propaganda for the Americanization movement. In reality, however, though many immigrants probably thought similarly to David Quixano, forcing American culture onto immigrants to make them change their identity is an inhumane process. This process is vital to the concept behind the American assimilation theory of the melting pot, making it inhumane.

Photo on the right is of immigrant children in the 1800s by Ted Brackemyre.

However, many still believe in the beauty of American assimilation. Though one can argue that America treats immigrants better than many other countries since America is a first-world country, that does not amount to the level of damage that American assimilation has caused to its immigrants. Even the argument of America treating its immigrants better is itself questionable. Though not technically immigrants, Native Americans were under genocide during the period of the American exploration. One may also argue that America is very accepting of different cultures and that as long as one tries to assimilate they will be accepted. This not only contradicts history, but also the personal experiences of many immigrants. According to Johnsont, “some Latinos have some choice in deciding to assimilate and adopt a White identity. The degree of choice varies in part depending on physical appearance and other characteristics. This choice, which in turn varies because of Latino diversity, should not be ignored for it greatly affects the assimilation experiences of Latinos.” As a result, immigrants who do not fit the standard are shunned no matter how hard they try to assimilate. Another common argument is that immigrants “can but refuse to assimilate” (Johnsont). This view is completely racist because it implies an oppressive view that immigrants are less intelligent than the privileged population.

Even though America was seen as an immigrant haven in the 1800s, it’s process of assimilation has had many negative effects. Unlike the moral to The Melting Pot, the concept of American assimilation is not only a lie but also oppressive and forceful. As someone of Asian ancestry, I find the way that America has treated minorities to be extremely disturbing. Instead, I believe that America should be more inclusive and accept people of different cultures as the way they are instead of forcing them to “melt”. Americans should be less worried about forcing their identity onto immigrants or being scared of them and instead be more focused on being inclusive. America was founded by immigrants and it should therefore be more accepting of them.

Bibliography

Booth, William. “One Nation, Indivisible: Is It History?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 22 Feb. 1998, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/meltingpot/melt0222.htm.

De La Torre, Miguel. “The Problem with the Melting Pot.” ETHICSDAILY.COM, 9 Feb. 2009, https://ethicsdaily.com/the-problem-with-the-melting-pot-cms-13647/.

Higgins, Julia. “THE RISE AND FALL OF THE AMERICAN ‘MELTING POT.’” Wilsonquarterly.com, 5 Dec. 2015, https://www.wilsonquarterly.com/stories/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-american-melting-pot/.

Kevin R. Johnson, Melting Pot or Ring of Fire: Assimilation and the Mexican-American Experience, 10 Berkeley La Raza L.J. 173 (2015).

Race - The Power of an Illusion. Dir. Christine Herbes-Sommers, Jean Cheng, Larry Adelman, Llewellyn Smith, Tracy Strain. California Newsreel, 2003. Kanopy. Web. 10 Dec. 2019.

Scott, Eugene. “Analysis | Trump's Most Insulting - and Violent - Language Is Often Reserved for Immigrants.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 2 Oct. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/10/02/trumps-most-insulting-violent-language-is-often-reserved-immigrants/.

Smithers, Gregory D. Science, Sexuality, and Race in the United States and Australia, 1780–1940, Revised Edition. REV - Revised ed., University of Nebraska Press, 2017. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1q8jhzf.

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