Clueless White Woman

July 4, 2008

Melting pot problem

Filed under: cluelessness,confusion,white privilege — by clueless @ 1:29 am
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Yesterday I was reading Diversity Inc’s “Why Whites Can’t Get Over Color“, a response to a letter they received. It’s very educational; the letter writer gave the laundry list of what I hear from thinking-they-mean-well white people at work — and Visconti concisely and politely rebutted each point. I’ll shamelessly borrow from it whenever I next have to endure a conversation about how the special BET channel is so racist because if whites did it (yada yada yada)…

The portion I’m going to discuss in detail today, however, was a sentence that I initially passed over as not terribly central. The letter writer said:

I love the fact that America is a big melting pot, full of color and different cultures. Why not embrace that instead of constantly bickering over it.

And the response:

You close with an illuminating contradiction. You can’t celebrate “color and different cultures” and embrace the “melting pot” at the same time. The “melting pot” is about subjugating your culture and forcing a person to “melt” into the white culture.

Melting who you are into a pot is not what makes a person American. What makes a person an American is embracing our Constitution, which empowers and protects our individual ability to remain ourselves.

My husband, who was reading over my shoulder, snorted. “That’s not what the melting pot is supposed to mean. Why are people upset about the term ‘melting pot’?” So, we had a good discussion contrasting the two interpretations: (1) the “melting pot” has lots of ingredients put into it and is tastier as a result, versus (2) the “melting pot” dilutes its various components, thus tending to marginalize minority “ingredients”.

I don’t think the first interpretation is completely invalid. I like having diverse cultures around, especially when they open restaurants near me 🙂 However, “melting pot” is almost never used on its own; it’s used in sentences like “this country is a melting pot, why are you being different”. And that is a huge contradiction. You can’t pick and choose the things you like about different cultures (in my case, usually food) and then say the rest is “just being difficult” or something.

Part of me feels like there’s a labeling problem. The simple definition of “melting pot” (lots of cultures in one space) is rather like the simple definition of “racist” (somebody who hates other races) — it gives a vague idea, but completely misses out on a lot of subtleties. Exploring the problem of racism nowadays is often about subtleties, little things that add up to big problems. Getting into a healthy, productive discussion can be hard because people get defensive. In my husband’s case, it was more that he’d never really given the alternative interpretation any thought. Both defensiveness and cluelessness are barriers.

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