America has always been described as a "melting pot" — as in this classic Schoolhouse Rock clip — in which immigrants from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds slowly simmer away their differences to become a big, homogenous, all-American stew.
But is that the way it really works, or how it should work? Is total assimilation the only way to be an American? And is it even healthy for individuals to abandon their cultural heritage in order to fully adopt the customs of their new home?
We spoke with Seth Schwartz, a professor of public health sciences at the University of Miami, who believes it's time to shelve the melting pot metaphor. Schwartz studies acculturation, the process by which a person's "cultural sense of self" changes after moving to a new country or being raised in an immigrant home, and the effects of acculturation on physical and mental health.
It turns out that assimilation is only one type of acculturation, and that fully assimilated Americans have some of the worst health outcomes. Contrary to the melting pot myth, immigrant families are most likely to thrive in America if they embrace aspects of both their native culture and their adoptive land. Public health researchers like Schwartz call it the "immigrant paradox."
"There's a whole literature that suggests that foreign-born Americans are doing better than U.S.-born individuals on many different health indicators: heart health, weight and obesity, diet, depression, anxiety, substance use, you name it," says Schwartz.
Melt or Else? Alternatives to Assimilation
There's an old joke that's popular in Europe: What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks only one language? American.
"In the United States, unlike a lot of countries in the world, we actively discourage people from having multiple cultural identities — we just want people to be American," says Schwartz. "Even the fact that we equate acculturation and assimilation says a lot about our culture and how we think people should behave."
Traditionally, there was an assumption that the acculturation process in the United States ran in a straight line. At one end of the spectrum stood the recently arrived immigrant still carrying around the language, traditions and customs of the "old country." But as the immigrant moved down the line over time, she slowly discarded her foreignness as she gradually acquired the language and customs of America.
But starting in the 1980s, researchers began to question the straight-line assimilation assumption. Psychologist John Berry came up with a pioneering new model that showed four different responses or strategies (including assimilation) that immigrants used to navigate life in their new home:
- Assimilation: You're willing to discard your culture of origin and fully identify with the new culture.
- Separation: You who hold on to your original culture at all cost and don't want to adopt the new culture.
- Marginalization: You don't identify with either your heritage culture or the new one, a rare situation.
- Integration (biculturalism): You want to maintain a strong connection with your heritage culture while interacting with and acquiring traits from the new culture.
The Benefits of Biculturalism
According to Schwartz, there's strong evidence that the assimilation strategy is bad for your health. The worst psychological effects of assimilation are felt by second-generation Americans — children of immigrants who were either born in America or raised here from a young age. Second-generation kids are often so eager to "fit in" that they turn their backs on their parents' customs and traditions entirely.
"They basically reject their family's culture and that tends to produce pretty negative results," says Schwartz. "Higher rates of anxiety and depression, substance abuse and worse family relationships."
The best psychological and health outcomes, on the other hand, are achieved by individuals who embrace biculturalism, a balanced integration of their heritage and received cultures. Schwartz says that people who are able to comfortably blend their native and acquired cultures have "much better outcomes in terms of higher self-esteem, lower depression, lower anxiety and better family relationships."
Explaining the Immigrant Paradox
Immigrants who learn to successfully inhabit two cultural worlds are the same people that drive the "immigrant paradox," in which Americans born outside the U.S. achieve significantly better physical and mental health outcomes compared to their native-born or assimilated neighbors. But why?
Diet is one simple explanation, says Schwartz, since immigrant families are more likely to prepare home-cooked meals than the typical American family, which tends to eat out a lot and consume more processed foods. But there are also significant psychological factors at play. The most important has to do with the values of American culture versus just about everybody else.
"The U.S. consistently ranks as the most individualistic country in the world," says Schwartz. "We are more self-reliant and less reliant on other people than basically any other country on the planet. So, most people who come here from other places are more collectivist than we are."
What does collectivism look like as a cultural value? It stresses the importance of family above all else; it places an emphasis on the "greater good" and doing what's best for the community, not just yourself; and it's a far less competitive way to look at the world. Schwartz says that cultural values that promote close-knit families and selfless service can protect against a lot of the mental health issues that plague many Americans.
"There's a reason why we have so much anxiety, because we're so highly individualistic and competitive," says Schwartz. "We have to compete against other people for everything. And if you can't keep up, there's less of a support system ready and waiting to help you. In this country, when we talk about helping other people, some people want to shout 'socialism.' I think that's one of the issues that we have."