If you have been listening to the news, by now you may know that in the last couple of days two controversies surrounding assimilation have surfaced. In the first one, Tom Brokaw, a journalist with a brilliant and respected career, said in “Meet the Press” that:
“Hispanics should work harder to assimilate”.
In the second, and, to me, the more concerning one (I’ll get to the why of that later), Megan Neely, a college professor from Duke University, e-mailed a group of Chinese students to ask them to:
“keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak Chinese in the building.”
To be more clear: they are two blatant examples of white people telling immigrants how to behave in the US if they want to succeed, and how they should basically “hide” their culture in order to “make it” here. Assimilate. Because that is what assimilation ends up being.
As an immigrant, a mother, and a college professor myself, I couldn’t be more appalled by both events, but particularly by the second one. Not only it hits home because I work in education, but it is especially concerning because it happened in an academic setting, and it was addressed at a particular group by a person who should have been a role model for them. Instead, they were discriminated against, misled and insulted. On e-mail.
The word University comes from the Latin “universus”, in English “universe”. It also meant “the whole”. Originally, universities were places where one could learn it “all”, and their purpose was to teach and open the minds of their students to the world. To some extent, they still fulfill that goal, although disciplines have now become so specialized that their learning is generally more focused than wholesome. But what all the universities I have attended as a student or worked at as an adjunct had in common, is how inclusive and respectful they were of their students, and how proud and much support they showed to their diverse student body. It only makes sense, as the more diverse the student population is, the more learning opportunities there are in both the social and cultural levels.
According to the Institute of International Education, 1,094.792 international students were enrolled in US universities in the academic year 2017-2018. That is more than a million students who have chosen to spend their money in an education that they deem valuable enough that it is worth leaving their families, their friends, and their countries behind. By the time they arrive in the US, they already know English, although I will recognize that their proficiency will vary. In order to address that, many universities offer classes of ESL, English as a second language.
While knowing English is certainly necessary to achieve an education in the United States, as typically classes are lead in English, the mere suggestion that students should stick to English 100% of the time, or that talking in their native language may hurt their academic prospects, is not only impractical, but also concerning and to some extent, insulting.
As a professor, my main job is to teach my students Spanish. But as a matter of fact, and as I am sure many of my colleagues also do, despite what my contract says, I also support my students in many other ways. From teaching them how to do a proper google search (yes, you would be surprised at how much need the tech generation needs when it comes to basic, ahem, tech), explaining how to use public transportation in the first big city they have lived in, or lending a compassionate ear and helping them navigate a system in which they often feel lost and lonely, my job is much, much bigger than the subject I teach. And I wouldn’t enjoy it if it wasn’t.
To see a fellow educator address her students with such a lack of cultural sensitivity saddens me. Students should never receive such treatment from someone whose job is to teach and support them. Even if it was unintended, as I prefer to think was the case.
As an immigrant, I am appalled by both Tom Brokaw’s and Professor Neely’s remarks. As I type this, the Spanish TV (RTVE) is tuned in on the background. Last night we were listening with the kids to Spanish music, in a household where the only language spoken is, brace yourselves, Spanish. We eat Spanish food, read Spanish books, and travel back home as often as we can. For the last twelve years, I have attempted, successfully, to raise bilingual and bicultural children. It is not an easy feat, but it is doable, and we are very proud of their bicultural heritage. They are very conscious of it, and it is something that we talk about often, both about the linguistic aspects of it and the cultural ones. With languages, as it happens with food and friends, the more the merrier, as they say around here.
As an example, today I went from asking my seven year old to talk to me in English during a medical appointment in order to be polite, to striking a conversation with a guy in the bus stop who was elated to be able to practice his Spanish with us. This being Chicago, my son had Indian food packed in his lunchbox and had an Austrian snack between the visit to the doctor and school. Being exposed to all those things makes his live richer, not more limited.
There is nothing wrong with keeping the culture of one’s origin, and all wrong with suggesting that said culture should be hidden, forgotten, or despised in any way, as that would suggest that some cultures are superior to others, something we should never accept.
And although one needs to adapt to the place they live in, that can be achieved without forgetting who we are.
Is it too much to ask for everyone to focus on inclusion, instead of threatening exclusion? Just be proud of who you are, or who you want to be, whatever that is. And be respectful of others. I, for once, won’t be shamed into forgetting my roots by anyone, be it a journalist, a professor or the president himself.
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