Iris Yang, Morgan McConnell, and Emily Siegel
Assimilation: What it is, Why it helps us read texts differently, and How it affects multicultural people
Assimilation is a term used towards people of differing ethnicities and cultures as those people change themselves in order to conform to the societal norms of their place of residence. There are several definitions for the term assimilation. According to Merriam-Webster, assimilation is “the process in which individuals and groups of differing heritages acquire the basic habits, attitudes, and mode of life of an embracing culture” (“Assimilation”). To Dictionary.com, assimilation refers to “the process of adapting or adjusting to the culture of a group or nation, or the state of being so adapted”. Also from Dictionary.com, assimilation into culture refers to “a process by which a person or persons acquire the social and psychological characteristics of a group” (“Assimilation”). A word that branches off the term assimilation is the noun and adjective assimilationist; this is a person who advocates or participates in racial or cultural integration (“Assimilationist”). Both of these definitions of assimilation from Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com essentially mean the same thing but in different terms. Underneath the definition, they both use the example of immigrants assimilating into American life and culture. This can be tied into the literary works of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.
According to Etymonline.com, in the 1620s, the term assimilation was understood as the “process of becoming alike or identical, conversion into a similar substance” (“Assimilation (n.).”). It later developed to have more figurative and psychological connotations. Today’s definition is less literal and is more about a group of people fitting into a culture. It is no longer characterized by a complete change to become an exact copy of something else. However, it can often feel this way for those who are trying to assimilate into a society. Discrimination can make minority groups feel that they need to exactly imitate mainstream culture to receive equality and justice.
Assimilation provides a lens through which we can analyze literary texts. Thinking about assimilation while reading allows one to consider the difficulties that certain individuals or groups may face while integrating into a society. It can help readers focus on the text and relate it to real-life issues. As a result of high volumes of immigration to the United States, many literary works are designed to convey the struggles certain groups face while assimilating. Reading through a lens of assimilation allows readers to recognize these widespread difficulties in literary works. Several of the texts we read this semester critique the pressure of assimilation and therefore express the message that characters should be able to preserve their own culture and heritage. For example, considering assimilation while reading Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun can help readers understand the struggles that the African-American Younger family faces in a country of segregation. Instead of simply reading the text, thinking about assimilation can highlight specific moments, such as when white community members want to prevent the Younger family from moving into their neighborhood. A lens of assimilation can also be applied to the text Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. This can help readers better understand the narrator’s adversities as she tries to find a balance between her Chinese heritage and new American culture.
Throughout the play, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, the term assimilation is used frequently in different ways. For example, Beneatha expresses her feelings to her brother Walter by calling him an “….assimilationist Negroe” (Hansberry 81). It is important to understand that Beneatha then tells Ruth, Walter’s wife, that this means, “…someone who is willing to give up his own culture and submerge himself completely in the dominant, and in this case oppressive culture!” (Hansberry 81). Another example of this term is when Beneatha and her friend, Asagai, are having a conversation and Asagai says, “But what does it matter? Assimilationism is so popular in your country.” (Hansberry 65); to that Beneatha responds, “I am not an assimilationist!” (Hansberry 65). Due to the fact that Asagai grew up in Nigeria and Beneatha grew up in Chicago, they each have cultural differences that separate them and their views on assimilation. Asagai uses the term assimilation in a discussion with Beneatha and explains how he believes assimilationism is popular in the United States. Beneatha took offense to that because she believes that she is not assimilating to “white culture”. This discusses how people try to fit-in and attempt to integrate into American culture, that even an outsider to the United States can see how apparent it is. Hansberry’s work prompts the reader to think about assimilation by allowing one to follow the life of an African American family and how differently they are treated. Hansberry’s point of view about assimilation is similar to the character Beneatha’s view. They both believe that people should not assimilate in order to conform to societal norms.
In the book, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, the narrator is seen to be an assimilationist specifically in the first section of the book called, “No Name Woman”. The narrator moved from China to America when she was a young girl, and was told a story by her mother about her Aunt who killed herself and her child by jumping down the family well. This story was told by her mother to help try and impact her future life decisions as she was growing up. The narrator is portrayed as an assimilationist because her family follows strict Chinese tradition and never speaks of her Aunt; this is because the family believes she does not have the right to be spoken about. The narrator thinks of other ways as to why her Aunt may have done this, not necessarily following her family shunning her because of getting pregnant from someone besides her husband which is frowned upon in Chinese culture.
Assimilation can help readers understand literary works by challenging them to think about diversity and blending into mainstream culture. Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Kingston’s The Woman Warrior can both be read through a lens of assimilation. They provide examples of characters who want to preserve their own culture and heritage, but feel pressured to assimilate.
“Assimilation.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/assimilation.
“Assimilation.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, 10 Nov. 2018, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/assimilation.
“Assimilation (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary , Online Etymology Dictionary , www.etymonline.com/word/assimilation#etymonline_v_26620.
“Assimilationist.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/assimilationist.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun; Robert Nemiroff, New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior; Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Vintage International Edition, 1989.