Originally published in educational Horizons Spr 1993. 126 - 127.
Immigrants in the New America:
Is it time to heat up the melting pot?
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed.D.
...the United States is unique in the world: the world is here.
- Ishmael Reed (1)
Several years ago I obtained a position teaching ESOL in an "inner-city" middle school in which 80% of the students were African-American and the rest were from various parts of Asia, predominantly, from Cambodia. While the behavior of the students varied independently across ethnic group, the rowdiest, most defiant students were perceived by the Asians to be African-American.
Of course, it was this subset of the African-American students -- the majority were tolerably well-behaved -- on which the Cambodians fixated. The first words of Cambodian I ever remember hearing spoken was the phrase, k'MOW as KOO it.
If a Black student ran by in the hall, one of the Cambodians would shrug his shoulders and say, k'MOW as KOO it. If students came back with tales of fighting in the schoolyard I would hear it again, k'MOW as KOO it, k'MOW as KOO it. "What's this k'MOW as KOO it?" I asked one day. "It means Black people are crazy" I was told. "They are always fighting and talking back to teachers and hitting us. k'MOW as KOO it."
I could not convince these students that they were overgeneralizing. After all, according to their experience, they knew which people could be expected to be as KOO it. Even though the Cambodian students had African American teachers, they did not see them as k'MOW. I was perplexed.
It was not until I got some African and Haitian students -- and very well behaved and scholarly ones at that, --mixed into my ESOL classes that my Cambodian students began to see that being as KOO it was not necessarily a matter of being k'MOW .
If someone were to ask me what the biggest difference was that I found between the native-born and immigrant (or refugee) children I taught for almost twenty years, I would say it was the fact that the native-born kids could talk up a storm about tolerance and the "right" of people to be different. The immigrant children tended not to express such views. Not that anyone practiced them with any regularity.
Acceptance -- even tolerance -- of people different from one's own was not a characteristic of either the immigrants or those who received them. This was true even among their American teachers -- no matter their ethnicity --who would complain how the immigrants "smelled." Some did smell. It was often more a matter of diet than of cleanliness, although in the impoverished neighborhoods where I taught, dirt was a factor.
In mixed classes of Cambodians and Vietnamese, a Vietnamese teacher I knew would give tests and during the test tell the Vietnamese students the answers in Vietnamese. A Korean program coordinator took great pains to separate Korean students from Haitians. An African-American principal used every strategm at her disposal to keep Haitians from coming to her school for fear it would lower the aspirations of her native-born charges. Did the objects of their unfair practices complain? Not usually. It was something they expected, or at the very least, understood.
A graduate student I taught in an adjunct University course, a Korean woman, expressed to me her preference to speak English because its grammatical forms didn't require her to subordinate herself. At the same time she complained that she disliked the winter holidays, because as a Christian, she and her husband would travel back to Korea where she "had to act like a Korean woman" again.
That Americans profess both to celebrate their own ethnicity and tolerate others at the same time strikes many foreigners as schizophrenic, but uniquely American. "But then," one Greek visitor remarked to me, "you are all really Americans, even if you kid yourselves that you are different." He suggested that the truest celebration of ethnic difference was to be found among the Bosnians and the Serbs.
Recently at the University where I teach a "values seminar" in multiculturalism, my colleagues and I prepared our students, undergraduate seniors, to debate the proposition, "Resolved: tax monies should be spent to teach non-European values and religions in the public schools." The debate fell apart when a member of the CON team challenged the PRO's to write a list of specifically "European" values and next to it a second list of specifically "non-European" values so we all could understand what the proposition was about. The demand for clarity took the steam out of the rhetoric.
Clarify your thoughts with this: Anthropologist Fredrik Barth (2) specifies three conditions under which ethnic groups develop and define themselves:
(a) a dominant culture is present with the power to maintain conditions whereby other groups of peopleBarth argues that ethnic distinctions are born out of conflict. The above conditions are necessary for the maintenance of ethnic distinctions. Bluntly put, the maintenance of ethnic diversity requires domination by one group of the rest.
(b) are stereotyped
(c) are constrained to certain roles that function complementarily in the general culture.
Consider now that in US public schools it is considered desirable to "celebrate" and maintain ethnic diversity. But traditionally, the schools have sought the very conditions that undermine the maintenance of ethnic distinctions as understood by Barth. That is, the mission of the schools has been to promote
the non-exclusive distribution of power, i.e. democracy.
the reduction of stereotyping, i.e. destroying prejudice,
and equal opportunity for all persons to any role in society.
In other words, the pursuit in our schools of "multiculturalism" not only perplexes immigrants who have come here with the full intent of becoming "Americans", it conflicts with the traditional mission of the schools to promote a democratic society!
Crazy Horse, Minority Achiever
1. I. Reed, "America: the Multinational Society." in X.J. Kennedy, D.M. Kennedy and J.E. Aaron The Bedford Reader, 4th ed.(Boston: Bedford-St. Martins, 1991) p.654.TO TOP
2. Fredrik Barth, "Ethnic Groups and Boundaries" pp. 198-227 in Adam Kuper (ed.) Process and Form in social life; the selected essays of Fredrik Barth (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981)