Within the politics of fear and anger, the United States is at a critical juncture in our history with millions of people—and children—experiencing pain, dread and even death. A Jewish school in my community of Ann Arbor received a bomb threat in the last week of February. These threats and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries have increased. 100 Headstones Toppled in Jewish Cemetery is an article in the New York Times on February 26, 2017 about what happened in Philadelphia. Immigrants hide in their homes, fearing they will be picked up and deported. Immigrants Hide Fearing Capture on ‘Any Corner” is also from the Times on February 22. 2017.
Bullying in schools increased since the election. Bullying in Schools is Out of Control, Mother Jones, November 11, 2107. One Indian man was shot and killed, and two more were wounded in St. Louis. The shooter thought they were Iranian. Suspect Apparently Thought Victims Were Iranian, LATimes, February 27, 2017.
In the backlash against immigrants, I’ve heard several people say this: “Well, they can come here, but they have to be Americans. They can’t be bringing their culture in.” This is not a new idea. Immigrants who’ve arrived on American shores for two hundred and more have heard the same thing. “You have to leave all that old stuff behind and become Americans.” Officials on Ellis Island in the New York harbor echoed this warning, and so did new neighbors and employers. Somehow, the melting pot was supposed to swirl around and make some kind of blended mush that defined them as new and part of a whole. This idea ignores how we are a “borrowing country,” taking in the cultural food, music, celebrations, traditions, dance, music—even language from places all around the world—and we always have. We borrow and blend it all in, creating a rich tapestry of differences. This vibrant diversity is what makes America the unique place that it is.
It’s impossible to recall what it was like to grow up in Rogers City, a northern Michigan town, without remembering its international flavors. Polish, German and Irish immigrants, among others through the years, settled along Lake Huron and fished, farmed the rocky soil, taught school, opened businesses and worked in its limestone quarry. Older generations hung on to their language, sometimes not learning much English at all, like elder immigrants everywhere.
We knew some Polish grandparents in the neighborhood and called the woman “Babcia”, bab-cha, the Polish word for grandmother. We said “dziekuje,” pronouced jen-koo-yeh, Polish for thank-you. My mother make galumkies, cabbage rolls, often and neighborhood butchers made delicious keilbasa sausage. We danced the polka at weddings, parties and school dances.
Like most American kids, we all went to Kindergarten, a German idea started in the late 18th Century for parents working outside the home. We cut down and put up Christmas trees, a custom begun in medieval Germany. Family members made German Christmas cookies and we sang Silent Night in German. My family history goes back primarily to Germany and Ireland, so we heard stories from the “Old Country” from grandparents. We sang songs in school, and we heard lullabies from Australia, England, Ireland and Germany, among others. Chef Boyardee brought “pizza pie” in a box, a totally new thing, and we loved it. We ate spaghetti and chop suey. Welsh pasties were a treat when we visited the Straits of Mackinac. Determination and hard work, civic pride and a caring community, values inherited from immigrant ancestors, still define Rogers City.
Fear is a potent political tool. Trump’s first statements about deporting immigrants feed people’s fears about terrorism and immigrants taking jobs. However, the worries are bigger than that. The fear also stems from the idea that somehow new people with different cultures will dilute or erase our own, and our whiteness will disappear. We have so many different and distinct cultures in the United States, defined by land, climate and history, along with the background of the people. Cultures are not static, but constantly changing, even if no new people come at all. I used to tell my students that there were no cultural police in the hall. No one can take away what we value, but we need to keep working on and defining who we are and what we care about.
I gave assignments to my students to learn about their own cultural heritage, and we discovered together what an important and positive part of our identity it became. Students in one class asked me to share mine, so I told them about my great-grandfather and how he had come to Michigan as a young man, because his older brother inherited the farm. I told them that I chose to claim the Irish in my background and how I love Ireland, its people, its poetry, its music and the land itself. Such an interesting mix of backgrounds in my classes gave us all a chance to share—and take in what we loved from other cultures.
If someone wanted proof that diversity is our greatest strength, my prison classroom would prove it. I had students from all over the world and from many cultural groups in this country. Men were eager to share. For example: a man from his reservation in South Dakota demonstrated the process of shooting a buffalo and the honor it was given. Students from Jamaica explained cricket and reggae music. An Iranian student gave a speech about how much he honored women. A student from Mexico talked about the importance of his family and their annual celebrations. A Mariachi band came in and sang for us. African-American men shared people and events in their history, and they shared their love for jazz and rap music. We listened to and loved black spirituals. Native American men came in to do a drum circle in honor of our graduates. We could not have asked for more cultural richness.
As I watched my students research and celebrate their cultural backgrounds, I figured out that the deeper people go into their own heritage, the more open they are to other cultures. White people are at a disadvantage if they want any kind of pure culture, especially as more time goes by and there are fewer immigrants to pass along cultural riches to their descendants. I noticed that the only exception in my classes was the Italian men, who were far more comfortable with being Italian.
One of my white students complained, “I feel like I’m from the Burger King culture.” I encouraged my students to find out what they could from the older people in their families, which was tricky from prison, but one white man was thrilled with letters back from his grandparents, eager to share what they knew of their family background. Through the years in my classroom, my students shared who they were and what they were learning all the time, and they took in other cultures with respect and celebration.
Is there a danger of a melting pot turning into a Burger King culture? Canada, which admittedly has a much smaller population than the United States, works hard to be a mosaic, a country in which all cultures stay distinct and are honored. French Canadians work hard to keep their language and customs. Because so many people in Canada speak French, cultural distinction is easier, but in places like the prairie provinces, Ukrainians keep what cultural connections they have. I was moved by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who chose people for his first cabinet from as many cultural groups as he could, including several from Canada’s First Nations. Half of his cabinet members are women. He wanted his cabinet to look as much like Canada as possible.
The question of whether the United States is a melting pot or a mosaic presses other questions during this dangerous time for so many people. How can we keep people safe? How can people who are afraid of losing their identities be reassured? What are the ways to not worry about being swallowed up by another, more unfamiliar cultures? How can we creatively honor our own identities without stepping on any others? How can we live more peaceably together, feeling fun and community with people who are different—instead of fearing them?