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The Irony of American Assimilation
What we've got here is a failure to (understand what it means to) assimilate.
I saw a video going viral on Twitter a few days ago. In it, a panel is discussing the question of whether or not immigrants should assimilate to American culture. The clip in question is the answer from an Asian American man discussing what it means to assimilate. He rattles off a list of things that he claims Asian Americans are doing to assimilate: having stable families, not having kids out of wedlock, attaining education, not committing crime, etc.
Then he says, “Well, if that’s so-called assimilation: having a nuclear family, buying a house, going to school, whatever it is, then yeah, okay, call me pro-assimilation then.”
Watch the video and observe the reactions of the other Asian Americans. As he is talking, the people around him react in shock and horror. They know that what he is saying is considered a conservative talking point, and the other Asians are all liberal. He is in fact a conservative: Vince Dao is his name, and he bills himself online as a conservative commentator.
And here is where things get turned upside-down.
In American discourse, the idea is that cultural assimilation is something conservatives claim to favor, while liberals claim to favor multiculturalism and a celebration of cultural differences.
But what if it was the opposite way around?
Consider this scenario. Let’s say you meet a Latino person that identifies themselves as “Latinx”. Would you assume that this person is unassimilated or assimilated?
The answer is, of course, that this Latinx person is far more likely to be assimilated into mainstream American culture than Latinos that refuse to use the term. I live in a heavily-Latino neighborhood myself. Most people here are immigrants. It’s a working-class neighborhood. Some people here are undocumented. Some can only speak very basic English. Every Latino I’ve talked to here has recoiled at the use of the term Latinx. They view it as a colonization of the language. I guarantee that you won’t find a single person here that would ever utter Latinx.
So where can you find Latinx? Looks like there’s a book called Finding Latinx.
The author is Paola Ramos. I knew way before I looked at her Wikipedia page that she must have gone to America’s most exclusive colleges. And sure enough: Ramos graduated from Barnard College with a BA in Political Science and Government and earned her Master in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
She describes how she feels about Latinx in her book:
It was a word I couldn’t recognize but one that seemed to know exactly who I was. That addendum, the “x,” set free the parts of myself that had deviated from the norms and traditions of the Latino culture I grew up in in a way that, interestingly, made me closer to, not further from, my own community. A word that wasn’t familiar but one that seemed to tout the uniqueness and diversity that had defined the sixty million Latinos living in the United States. One that felt it aimed to awaken not just a few of us, or half of us, or 90 percent of us—but every single one of us. Even those who had never been seen as “Latino” to begin with. And I wasn’t alone in feeling this.
She wasn’t alone in feeling this way? I suppose that’s true. After all, 3% of U.S. Hispanics use the term, while most of the rest hate it with a burning passion. If my calculations are correct, 3% is slightly more than 0%.
Her book wants to “redefine Latino identity” via “finding Latinx”. In other words, she wants to take a language and culture that has traditionally used gendered nouns and turn it into a language that bends the knee to the cosmopolitan elite that want to erase cultural differences in language. In short, Latinx is used only by the people educated at America’s most elite schools. (I wrote a whole essay about how colleges manufacture and promote awkward neologisms as a way of creating a new elite language, take a look)
And that’s the consistent pattern of those who use Latinx: they are overwhemingly the product of America’s most elite colleges and social milieus. These are the spaces that many immigrant parents have worked hard to achieve for their children. And it worked, as now their children are assimilated. They’ve literally ditched Latino identity in favor of one that marks them as an official member of the educated, affluent, and urban professional-managerial class that controls our media and our academies of higher education.
Let’s go back to what Vince Dao was saying about how educational attainment was a sign of assimilation. He’s right, but not in the way he thinks he is right. The Asians that act shocked are assimilated Asians. One can even argue that they are even more assimilated. The man in the video that wears the green shirt is Ziad Ahmed. He is the son of a wealthy banker, and he made the news a few years ago when he got into Stanford by writing #BlackLivesMatter a hundred times in lieu of a college essay.
This isn’t a surprise. Having grown up wealthy, Ahmed knew how to speak the language of the coastal elite. While working-class immigrant Asian parents are forcing their kids to take test prep and piano lessons thinking that it’ll help their kids get into a better college (it won’t, those kids will just look like bland copy-and-pastes to the admissions officers), the wealthy Asian elite have already cracked the code. People like Ahmed know that signaling that one has the “correct” beliefs is what is needed to gain entry to America’s most prestigious colleges. They are the assimilated ones.
The show of surprise from Ahmed is mandatory, of course.
Ahmed and the purple-haired woman on the panel know that in order to assimilate into the American elite, they need to say all the right things. They need to abandon ethnic identity and culture in favor of a monoculture that seeks to gain total power over American society. Sure, they’ll pay lip service to being “Asian” via shallow declarations of loving bubble tea and Everything Everywhere All At Once, but their cultural milieu is entirely informed by the beliefs of the managerial elite.
Young Asian Americans show signs of this more than others, After all, their own parents pushed them to excel academically. Their own parents told them that Harvard and Yale were the best. And once they get into Harvard and Yale, they assimilate. They come back home to their parents and suddenly call their parents backwards. Their parents may have left impoverished countries to give their children a better life. For some Chinese and Vietnamese (and for Latinos, Cuban and Venezuelan) immigrants, their parents may have fled an authoritarian communist regime. But then their kids go to college to learn that the United States is a fundamentally imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal system that perpetuates structural, systemic, institutional, and hegemonic violence against marginalized BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ bodies. To be an elite college grad is to affirm these beliefs. To be assimilated, one must “do the work” of “unpacking” “intersecting identities”.
So if getting an education at an elite college is a sign of assimilation, then it isn’t conservatives that support assimilation. It’s liberals.
And that is the irony of assimilation. Conservatives (more so of the David French flavor and not the Sohrab Ahmari types) support the freedom to practice and preserve many different cultures. Liberals want to turn all cultures into one homogenous blob chanting whatever the media (which is controlled by fellow members of their class) tells them is the newest trend to support.
And yet conservatives claim to be pro-assimilation and liberals claim to be pro-multiculturalism.
Dao claims that values commonly attributed to Asians are assimilationist values. I disagree. Asians score higher on standardized tests than everyone else for reasons that have nothing to do with “assimilation”. If Asians were truly trying to assimilate, we’d get lower test scores. Same with having fewer out-of-wedlock births and lower incarceration rates. If the goal is assimilation, Asians should have more kids out of wedlock and go to prison more.
And what of affirmative action, a policy that essentially legalizes anti-Asian discrimination? Let’s see:
Our new research shows that the divide among Asians is generational. Based on the 2016 National Asian American Survey, we found that Asian immigrants are least likely to support affirmative action. By contrast, Asians born in the US with parents who were also born here – the so-called later generation – are most likely to do so. In fact, later-generation Asians are more likely to support affirmative action than Asian immigrants by a factor of three.
The assimilated Asian supports affirmative action because that’s what their fellow liberal elites support. The immigrant Asian that lives in an enclave doesn’t support affirmative action because they don’t care about virtue signaling. They just want their children to not be discriminated against.
And that’s the irony of American assimilation. Assimilation isn’t conservative-coded. It’s liberal-coded.1
We see this pattern play out politically. Asian immigrants are voting Republican at higher and higher rates. But their children, the ones that went to the fancy colleges their parents worked hard for them to get into, are mostly voting Democrat. Same with Latinos. Legacy news publications everywhere are increasingly noticing the Latino and Asian shift away from Democrats over the past few years, mostly among the working classes.
Democrats were once the big-tent party. But the liberal elites in charge have enforced ideological purity. One cannot support one issue without supporting them all. As a popular slogan goes, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”. Many would-be supporters of one issue are turned off when they realize they have to support them all.
Times are changing here in American politics. The realignment is happening. Democrats have increasingly become the party of the cosmopolitan elite that seeks to enforce its orthodoxy on everyone else. Republicans have increasingly become the big-tent party, where evangelical Christians work with Orthodox Jews and Muslims to preserve religious freedom. Where Asian, Latino, and African immigrants can keep their cultures and values without assimilating into the homogenous Borg perfectly captured by this sign:
If an immigrant puts that sign up on their lawn, that’s how you know they’ve assimilated.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this essay series where I explore what it means to assimilate in America. Like and subscribe.
By the way, the use of “coded” as a hyphenated suffix is liberal-coded.