Beyond the “Melting Pot”: Why We Need to Support the Multicultural Identities of All America’s Children

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By Kalina Brabeck, PhD (Associate Professor of Counseling, Rhode Island College)

At a recent community meeting I co-facilitated, a Guatemalan immigrant mother shared that, in response to the election of Donald Trump, her eight-year-old daughter posed the following question: “I was born here in the US. But I’m Latina, because you are from Guatemala. Does that mean even though I was born here [in the US], I don’t belong here?”

Embedded in this girl’s question was the assumption of a binary: She could be American, or she could be Latina/Guatemalan, but she could not be both. By eight years of age, this child has the cognitive skills to reason and think more abstractly, and to understand that identity is constant and multifaceted. Indeed, it is during this stage of development that personal identity becomes more complex (kids can understand, for example, “I’m a girl/ daughter/ Christian/ soccer player/ Latina/ American”). But after the US elected a president who ran on a platform which pitted (White) Americans against (Latino, Muslim) immigrants and posited families like hers as a threat to the United States, it is understandable why this child, despite her cognitive capacities, questions her ability to be both Latina and American.

Unfortunately, when we create an environment that leads children to feel ashamed of their ethnic identity, or to think that they cannot be both ethically identified and American, we are robbing them of a crucial protective factor that enhances their development. Numerous research studies have found that strong ties to cultures of origin, multilingualism, and multicultural identities provide cognitive, academic, social, and emotional advantages. Speaking multiple languages is linked to greater cognitive flexibility- like the ability to quickly go from playing outside to doing homework. It has also been linked to the ability to follow directions and stop/think before acting.

Kids who are adept at navigating different cultural contexts are better at taking the perspective of others and developing empathy. Embracing one’s culture of origin connects children to a community of people, a set of values, and a sense of history, all of which help offset the negative effects of racism, discrimination, and poverty. Children with greater ties to their cultural identities are more likely to value and be motivated to succeed in school. Moreover, when immigrant children are allowed- and encouraged- to bring their languages and cultures into US classrooms, White and English-speaking students benefit from learning from them. It’s important preparation for living in an increasingly global and diverse world.

The old idea of the “melting pot,” in which ethnically diverse individuals “assimilate” into a monolithic American culture and identity, while losing roots to the culture of origin, has long been debunked in the social science literature. Rather, we encourage integration– that is, adaptation to the dominant cultural and continued identification with the culture of origin. Multicultural identities, in which individuals are able speak multiple languages, navigate different cultural expectations and norms, and effectively interact with diverse communities, are linked to better health, academic, and social outcomes for all our children. Their ability to succeed in a global and multicultural world also benefits our country. Let’s not disadvantage our children, or our country, by forcing them to make a false choice.

 

Biography:

 

Kalina Brabeck, PhD, is a psychologist who specializes in discrimination, immigration and trauma at Lifespan Physician Group and Rhode Island Hospital. She speaks English and Spanish and works as part of the Latino Mental Health Program team, where she provides psychotherapy to Spanish-speaking patients. Dr. Brabeck is an associate professor of mental health counseling at Rhode Island College. Dr. Brabeck’s research focuses on the effects that poverty, discrimination and legal status have on Latino immigrant families. Her work has been published in many peer-reviewed journals, books and encyclopedias. She is a member of the American Psychological Association. She is also a member of the APA’s Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.

4 Comments

  1. You need to have ties to your roots, but you also have to learn how to alter these roots to fit with the society around you. For example, you can’t NOT learn English if you want to survive long term in the US or Canada. You also need to at least be aware about “mainstream culture” (even if you don’t end up practicing) such as what Halloween is and why some mothers-to-be are given baby showers. And if your kids end up integrating more, it shouldn’t be something to criticize or even shame. Countries made up primarily of immigrants or descendants of immigrants are what I like to call “buffet societies” and we should be allowed to keep and integrate however we choose. Isolating oneself can’t be too good from a mental health perspective either. Nor should we SHAME people who integrate – especially if said individual is NOT from your own culture (this happens to me ALL THE TIME!).

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    1. Interesting opinion. Multicultural identity encompasses various cultures and does not negate a dominant culture at a geographical location. Asking people to assimilate a culture while negating their roots may be unrealistic and inappropriate, It could end on unnecessary crisis of identity and even, the negation of oneself with the negative consequences that may derive from it.

      Integration is a right wording as it is inclusive and does not create any competition or confrontation between cultures. On the contrary, it creates enrichment. This is not about Halloween or baby showers, those happened all over the world since now we all are global. I have been to these celebrations with people from all latitudes, and genders. It is more about shared principles and values that have been pride of families for centuries. Those evolve but don’t change overnight without being artificial and unnatural. Children develop their own cultures based on family and friends and are affected by the generational trends in which they grow. That evolution, well nurtured, generates confident individuals who are proud of themselves and their background and who know the advantage they have by being competent in various cultures. What an asset to have! Needless to say, culture is not stagnant it changes every day.

      Multiculturalism includes multilingualism, effective cultural responsive interaction, and effective ability to negotiate with others who are not like you. There’s nothing wrong about racing children who embrace the social and cultural values that contemporary global industries are now seeking on their applicants. We are more in a mixing bowl than a melting pot.

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      1. Baby showers may happen all over the world now, but immigrants often keep the culture they were exposed to when they left the old country, not realizing things have changed – despite media (asocial or traditional). So yes, children of immigrants are often shamed by their parents. Movies like My Big Fay a Greek Wedding are NOT unrealistic to many of us and very relatable. Unfortunately, mainstream media only seem to see the comedic side and don’t realize that it can be horrible to a first generation’s mental well-being.

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  2. I see your point of view. You are suggesting immigrant parents to resign to their own cultures to become someone who they are not, in order to be a good example of confidence and self assurance for their children. You are also suggesting that parents must become monolingual, reject their roots and family, change food habits, and copy behaviors of local role models to support a better mental well-being for their children.

    I respectfully disagree. I am educating first generation children who enjoy who they are, who are proud of the advantages of being multiracial, multilingual and multicultural. Young individuals who are exposed to other cultures trough art, literature, food, travel and active participation in social events of inclusive communities. Children who understand that multicultural communication is based on what makes us similar to other people instead of focusing on what makes us different. Children who see that real leaders and successful individuals around the world come in all shapes, colors, genders and have diverse backgrounds, and may speak various languages.

    Confident parents have better odds to educate confident children. Proud parents are a better role model than ashamed parents. Research has shown evidence that proud children who are confident and love who they are stand bullying and peer pressure better than children who crave acceptance and approval from their peers.

    My recommendation for parents of multicultural children is, be proud of who you are and transfer this to your children with love. Understand that your children’s culture is a combination of the culture at home, school, neighborhood and the environment. Be ready to talk about your child’s culture with no judgement and embrace all the good values building up your children’s personality.

    I firmly believe that this article has solid information, it is backed with scientific research, and is written in accessible language. It is not based on mere opinions or anecdotes. Our opinions or personal feelings do not alter the great information shared by Dr. Brabeck for parents who are in the process of supporting their children living in multicultural households.

    Thank you Dr. Brabeck for a great piece of work that has promoted good debate.

    JC

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