Tangled Web of Culture: The Assimilation Debate

The sun had set on the day as two of my brothers and one of my sisters from Congo sat with me at the kitchen table deep in discussion. While the original conversation had another point, we quickly found ourselves deep in dialogue around the cultural dynamics of our neighborhood. We shared stories of encounters amidst our streets, and they shared their exasperation at the interactions. “Why is it this way, Nicole?” 

Just a few hours prior, the most recent violence had rung out on our block, and the gun shots were still echoing in my memory alongside snapshots of the faces of children running for cover as mothers screamed. Fresh on my mind was the face of my Iraqi sister who endured the horrors of Bahgdad at war, who had said in the minutes afterwards, “Baghdad and here, same same.” 

As we had run for the cover of a nearby car, our Burmese neighbors froze in confusion. Waving them to come and hide, they tried to figure out what was going on. The chickens they hang from their window to dry, and other beckonings back to their former life are again matched with a far too familiar memory - the sound of bullets. 

Yes, my Congolese brothers and sisters, this is a good question, why is it this way? Why do the sounds and sights that drove you from your homeland invade your new life here?

Because this neighborhood is the place where I have fallen asleep and greeted morning for six years, and because the things I know have been learned and experienced in layers and phases, I often forget the unbelievable complexity of the streets where we live. I also tend to forget that most of my New American friends believe that these streets are reflective of majority American culture. What they see on Lilac Street is to them what America is like.

Of course, I am also reminded each time one of my suburban friends parks their BMW in front of my house, or makes a comment to me about my life, that there are a good many people in this county, let alone this country who do not see my neighborhood as a norm. And in fact, while it is the only context many have ever known, it is not the norm in America. Our city of Syracuse is the 23rd poorest city in the United States, with 1 out of 2 children living in poverty, and ranking as the highest poverty concentrated among blacks and hispanics. The census notes our neighborhood fitting the city’s shameful story. For those of us that live here, we are all too familiar with these statistics and realities.

In addition to the poverty that marks our neighborhood, we live in the most diverse zip code within the city. On my small block live men, women and children born in Burma/Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Democratic Republic of Congo, the continental U.S., Puerto Rico, and Iraq. A few blocks in each direction one will find others who were born in Somalia, Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Vietnam, Liberia, Afghanistan, Cuba, Senegal and other nations. The local school district has students speaking over 70 languages

Along with the noticeable cultural differences like clothing and language, there is a complex web of distinctions within people groups. Among the Bhutanese Nepali people, many have generationally practiced the caste system. Among Somalis, there are four major clans of ethnic Somalis, as well as several Somali Bantu tribes with completely different languages from one another. Among Congolese, there are those from various tribes which are currently battling one another back in their homeland. Among Iraqis, with over a decade of war comprised by a myriad of insurgents, militias and allegiances, there is a deep and powerful distrust of one another as the battles still wage in Baghdad and beyond. Among Burmese, there are many tribes with different languages, dances, clothing, ethnic foods and customs.

In a melted neighborhood, assimilation is, well, nearly impossible, for there is literally no majority culture. There are American laws that regulate the likes of small markets on street corners and raising livestock in one’s backyard to polygamy and beating children. There are services that set some lifestyle norms like the availability of food stamps, healthcare, housing standards and more. Yet the neighborhood itself is not anything in a true majority. It is not majority red, yellow, brown, black or white. While English is the shared language, it is not the first language of many, and it is spoken in multiple dialects (such as African American English or others influenced by socioeconomic elements, geographical upbringing and more). Along with these racial/ethnic, linguistic and country-of-origin differences come related and unrelated religious and familial cultures. When we break religions down into simple groupings, the majority may report to be Christian, but this group is actually made up of Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Episcopals and a myriad of other denominations with different religious cultures. In addition, there is a very strong presence of those practicing Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Atheism and other religious beliefs.

When a family moves into this incredibly diverse environment, one’s tendency towards self-segregation is strong if for no other reason than that we are all, at some level, wary of the unknown. In addition, neighborhoods of poverty are almost always filled with people who have seen the ugly realities of injustice either personally or up close, so there is a protectiveness of identity and what was recovered from the trauma(s) of injustice. Even when one wants to know others, the environment is harsh towards them because of this pervasive environment of wary self-protection and distrust.

Meanwhile, those who live in other environments where resources are more accessible and/or possessed share a far more homogeneous culture. One of the primary reasons for this is that in order to gain resources, one typically must figure out how to climb the ladder so to speak. This is typically done by assimilating to the culture of those in power, often times discarding one’s former culture. This sets the perception of cultural norm because it does indeed become the cultural norm in the communities where people with power live. People with power perpetuate the culture and expect everyone to play the same game. We tend to adhere to a bit of a survival of the fittest mentality that if one can try hard enough they will achieve. 

As I listened to a commentator on mainstream news this morning, they joined a rather vocal choir proclaiming the need for assimilation, most especially for resettling refugees. The commonly noted argument is as follows: “They don’t have to live here, but if they choose too, they need to become American.” Yet I sit in the dark hours of the night with my Congolese brothers and sister who are here only because their life depended on it, that choice seems quite different. And to them, this American culture that their eyes see hasn’t convinced them that it is somehow better. They tell of their children across the ocean who value obedience to their parents, respect for property and caring for others. They are grievous for America because they are quite sure America doesn’t believe in such things. 

I will not paint a rosy picture of the hostility and say I am not afraid. I will not deny that every time I see lice leaping from a child’s hair or see the painful itching of bed bug bites that I don’t get a little concerned about my hair and my bed. I cannot truthfully say that I will deny myself of the privilege it is to take a vacation. The tone of my skin, the dialect of English I was raised to speak, the wealth of my ancestors, the neighborhoods my parents selected, the financial decisions they made to raise me in a home we owned and have nice clothes, the education I was able to receive… they all gave me power.

I was chatting with my neighbor this morning about how ready I am every year at this juncture to get out of town for a break. I am ready to breathe air that is not saturated with frustration, boredom and festering anger that lends far too easily to violence. She reminded me, “Not everyone can take that vacation.” As I reflected on how hard that must be, she noted, “It changes you.” I know she speaks truth. Being unable to leave an oppressive situation is an incredibly overwhelming symptom of powerlessness. Poverty and powerlessness go hand in hand. And powerlessness is the greatest enemy of hope. 

As a person of faith, this immediately declares a response: To him whom much has been given, much will be expected. It warns me that it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (where the poor in spirit are blessed and redemption is embodied) than it is for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle. It reframes my understanding of power, for when I am weak, then I am strong. My own perpetuation of the superiority of the culture of power in my own beliefs, postures and actions is brought to a place of confession and repentance. In my confession I am reminded that I am a contributor to injustice, and true repentance compels us towards the pursuit of justice and participation in redemption. 

So as the gun shots ring, as the Iraqi mother’s eyes glaze over with the horror of traumas compounded, as the children run into hiding, as the Congolese brothers and sisters question, as the Burmese man freezes in his tracks and I hide behind a car… I fall to the ground humbled for who am I on these streets? What do I have to bring to a street that wrote the rules of urban engagement and violence long ago? What do I offer to a broken world as a broken person?

I hide behind the bumper of a car as the shots keep ringing completely helpless to grab the four year old that was on the yard across the street when the first pop sounded. I listen intently for the screams of watching mothers as signs of harm. And I realize that I am utterly weak. 

My friends, what if we stopped grasping for or clinging to power and a culture of power, and instead truly adopted this oft-repeated phrase of “we the people?” What if we intentionally shared power’s access and microphone? What if our dominant culture wasn’t set by power but by principle and we all realized how much “assimilation” we all have to do towards it?

WE THE PEOPLE, all the people, ESTABLISH JUSTICE, not just for our friends and families, but paying heed to those who suffer injustice and are often rendered voiceless. We EXPECT DOMESTIC TRANQUILITY & COMMON DEFENSE, irregardless of neighborhood, race or family. We PROMOTE GENERAL WELFARE in all neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. We COMMIT TO THE SECURING OF THE BLESSINGS OF LIBERTY for every person enslaved in sex trafficking, every child growing up in a gang war zone, every parent working hard to make ends meet, every student pursuing education and every single person who walks the land we are accountable for. We commit to FOSTER AN ENVIRONMENT OF THRIVING, encouraging the pursuit of happiness in a personal, invested, attentive way for those in our extended community. We seek to LEARN FROM ONE ANOTHER, to INTEGRATE OUR DIVERSITY to be a richer nation of human beings (Imago Dei) portraying more fully the beauty of humanity (reflecting its Maker). {Portions copied from the Constitution of the United States}

As one who is entangled in the web of peacekeeping and hope building in a richly and complexly diverse neighborhood, I am keenly aware of the unbelievable challenges presented in this proposition. I am far less hopeful of its possibility than I would have been in my previous world sheltered from many of our nation’s and world’s realities. Melted pots melt. Diversity means difference, and difference lends towards division. Our cultural values are not superficial, they are different, they are embedded, and they sometimes clash.

Yet I stand with hope.

My Congolese brothers and sister can glimpse it. As we ended our discussion, they had this certain glimmer in their eyes as they started to see this different picture. I walked back across the street, crossing the spot where my heart had begun pounding as the shots rang out hours before, and paused to look down the block. 

I am tangled up in a web that has grown roots. This is my home, and these are my people. For better or worse. I choose to believe love, redemption and justice will come the final victor. I chose to believe that we can be the people together.