Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

(& Resistance)

see also acculturation;
marked & unmarked

assimilation as "melting pot"
thanks to

Oxford English Dictionary. Assimilate. 2.a. To be or become like to, resemble. . . . 7.a. To convert into a substance of its own nature, as the bodily organs convert food into blood, and thence into animal tissue; to take in and appropriate as nourishment; to absorb into the system, incorporate. 8.a. To become of the same substance; to become absorbed or incorporated into the system.

Assimilation. 1.a. The action of making or becoming like; the state of being like; similarity, resemblance, likeness. . . . 4.a. Conversion into a similar substance

To assimilate means to become similar. For immigrants or minorities, assimilation is a process by which distinct ethnic groups become more like other Americans, especially in terms set by the USA's dominant culture. (As America diversifies, however, so do the terms of assimilation.)

As immigrants learn a new nation's common language, intermarry, participate in shared institutions like public schools and beliefs like opportunity or individualism, their unique ethnic or cultural differences tend to diminish or disappear. (Resistance to such disappearance is a strong interest of multiculturalism.)

But assimilation can work both ways: the USA's dominant culture sometimes absorbs or admires values, practices, and products of immigrants or other ethnic groups, particularly "model minorities":

hard work

extended or stable families ("America stresses the family.")

special foods

bilingual speech

some retention of homeland traditions (e.g., religion, foods) +- exclusivity re intermarriage.


Assimilation is suspect to many scholars and activists because it threatens multicultural difference, ethnic purity, or worthy traditions.

Acculturation is sometimes preferred, maybe because the word is more ambiguous and unfamiliar, but also because it can imply "selective assimilation."

Instructor's attitude is that "assimilation" is a more common and specific term, plus some forms of assimilation are always in process (or being resisted), so we may as well analyze and discuss.

Also be aware of "negative assimilation," when an immigrant or minority imitates or assimilates the unhealthy aspects of modern American culture, e.g. family breakdown, escapism, isolation from community, obesity, addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.


Processes of assimilation:

language acquisition

education (esp. public schools)

intermarriage with other races, ethnic groups, or dominant culture (which erases or moderate physical differences like skin color, eye shape, hair texture, etc.)

appearance, fashion (> plain style?)

cleanliness, disinfection? (i.e. "soap and water")


Institutions of assimilation:

public schools (b/c less segregated by race—at least officially—though increasingly segregated by class and location)

military (highest rate of racial intermarriage; plus inculcation of dominant-culture systematic discipline, chain-of-command, etc.)


popular culture (representation and consumption)


Institutions averse to assimilation:

private schools tend to isolate or segregate students by class, race, and / or gender; private schools also have more legal freedom to resist laws enforcing integration.

home schools (centered on family) are more or less automatically restricted in ethnic diversity and often reinforce traditional gender roles and family / tribal religion in contrast to secular-inclusive public schools.

religious schools of any creed; "bible academies" (sometimes called "segregation academies" because they rose in reaction to school integration in the 1970s), though conversion to Evangelical Christianity may gain entrance to dominant culture for ethnic outsiders)

private clubs (e.g. segregated golf courses, bars requiring membership invitations)

"Good Old Boy" or elite-school networks.

In post-Civil Rights America, segregation is no longer legal, but it survives and even grows with increasing inequality of wealth and income + white flight. In these senses, the USA's dominant culture resists assimilation.