Deconstructing the Myth of the Melting Pot
Reimagining the histories that we've been taught
I often find myself wondering what it was like to move through the world before there were border controls that delineated who was “legal” and who was not.
Was it a free-for-all of open borders that allowed people to invent and reinvent themselves, unshackled by documentation, legalities and bureaucracy? Did it make it safer to move through the world without the clandestine, dangerous journeys that even in our modern world imperil people as they flee war zones and economic instability? Or were there other systems of power and control instead?
I recently reached out to Dr. Akram Khater to help me think through some of these questions, particularly when it comes to the earlier Syrian ( aka modern-day Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian) migrations to the United States. As the head of the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies at North Carolina State University, Dr. Khater has studied several generations of our migrations around the world, including the ones at the turn of the twentieth century that many fourth generation Arab-Americans trace their roots back to today.
Like so many who grew up in the United States, I grew up romanticizing this generation of immigrants—something that we might be as conditioned to do as we are conditioned to pledge allegiance to the flag. We learn about steamships and Ellis Island, tenements on the Lower East Side and the foundations of the Great American “melting pot” that makes the rest of the world raise an eyebrow as we sincerely tell them that we are not American, but rather 1/4 Irish, or 1/8 Japanese.
Dr. Khater quickly made sure that I knew that many of these early immigrants had a difficult time as well—often swindled and taken advantage of along the journey, then only seen as valuable for the back-breaking labor that they were expected to perform when they arrived.
“No one talks about the psychological impact, the physical toll on their bodies,” he said, sharing that, similar to today, there is evidence that there were increased rates of heart disease, diabetes and other diseases associated with stress in immigrant communities.
While the psychological impact is almost always more difficult to quantify, homesickness and the demands of adhering to the system of a new country almost certainly took its toll.
“We hear stories of people who would travel more than one hundred miles just to hear a mass in Arabic and smell incense,” said Dr. Khater, speaking to the great lengths that new immigrants would go to create a fleeting feeling of home.
“It was not easy—they had to speak a different language, dress differently, behave differently. That is what this word means, to assimilate,” he continued, pointing out that this definition, or perhaps, expectation, completely ignores the possibilities that can happen when two cultures encounter one another and can make something new.
“It is asking you to go out of your body and be someone different, so that the people around you are comfortable—you have to make them comfortable,” he elaborated, pointing out that history often whitewashes the violence and sorrow of the pressure to assimilate.
“It doesn’t acknowledge that people then—as now—had to fight to maintain a sense of who they are as they tried to belong.”
Perhaps there were not (yet) the violently discriminatory border controls that there are today, but their racist foundation was clearly in place, obvious in the ways that it had being wielded to push Indigenous people off of their land, and enslave Black people to build a new world for White (Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) people, and demand that anyone not born into the dominant class conform to fit its culture and values. It has always been easier for some to “pass” than others, and for the immigrants of yesteryear it was no different. Those who could—particularly those from the distant countries of the Levant—did their best to be categorized as white, simply because the new world had established itself as a white man’s world.
As long as we’re on the subject of deconstructing the idealized notions of the “Great American Melting Pot,” I just started reading Harsha Walia’s Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, and couldn’t recommend it more. She criticizes liberal platitudes such as “we’re all from somewhere” and “America is a melting pot” as ignoring Indigenous and Black Americans’ experiences, and instead demands that borders are understood as an extension of this kind of institutionalized white supremacy in a way that can only be described as mind-blowing and perfectly argued.
Meanwhile in today’s world, Vice President Kamala Harris—you know, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants—recently visited Guatemala, only to tell anyone so much as thinking of coming to the United States not to come. It was a moment that shows the limits of (superficially) representative politicians, and the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party when deciding who should and shouldn’t have the right to cross our borders—a trait that should not be at all surprising, given that the Obama administration is still to blame for deporting the highest number of people of any presidential administration.
It is almost as if white supremacy and xenophobia go deeper than who is or isn’t in office, and it is on us to be critical of how borders enforce these ideas and impact human beings no matter what.
PS: If you enjoyed the snippets of my conversation with Dr. Khater, and would listen to these kinds of interviews as little podcasts, drop me an e-mail and I’ll work on making that happen.