Since the melting pot metaphor was first embraced by a stew of American politicians in 1908, the dialogue around immigrant enculturation has remained heated. For ethnic minority American parents, particularly within the context of a power shift toward nationalist isolationism, this mandates a balancing act. Though the desire to have children “blend in” to pursue opportunities and the desire to maintain a strong ethnic identity are not in opposition, having one’s kекс or pastel or dàngāo and eating cake as well is a complicated proposition. In a fraught political climate, parents might be forgiven for taking the path of least resistance and aggressively enculturating their children, but the truth is that ethnic pride has its place.
“There are over 40 years of high-quality research that demonstrates being proud of your ethnic background is linked to higher self-esteem and better outcomes for young people of color,” explains Dr. Andrea Romero director of the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth and Families and Associate Editor of the Journal of Latina/o Psychology. When a kid has high self-esteem, their life is impacted in significant ways, from academic performance to increased happiness and improvement in their career path. Still, instilling pride is a bit more complicated than it sounds. To become a psychological asset, ethnic pride must be built on an understanding of history and traditions that allow for active and depthful affiliation.
“Those are the really key components of how we measure and define ethnic identity in psychology,” she says. “And unfortunately that’s often overlooked in our public school system.”
What does she mean by that? Mostly that the history of ethnic groups is generally taught from a remove, which means that daily traditions can feel divorced from the longer arc of a community’s story. Children typically get that sort of exposure by spending time with family members who are grounded in ethnic traditions who can expose them to oral history. A lot of the time that means “old people.” As the American nuclear family splinters and parents move away to find work, this may create a dearth of opportunities to feel a kinship with those born abroad or into a vastly different circumstance or discriminated against in explicit ways.
“As parents, we want to have our children treated like everyone else,” says Romero. “But what our data shows is that young people do better if they’re prepared to deal with discrimination. Having a historical context to understand what’s happened to people of their same background helps prepare them in a way they can deal with prejudice in a positive manner.”
But what about the inverse? Is too much pride possible? Romero would say no because racism is alive and well in mainstream American culture. America’s historical views of racial inferiority and discrimination have managed to foster a sense of acceptance among some communities. A strong education in ethnic pride can also inoculate a kid from internalizing any racist garbage that continues to linger in America.
“Young people who aren’t aware of or have not thought much about their background or their race, are linked to worse outcomes,” explains Romero. “Sometimes they internalize some of the negative messages about their race. That leads to lower self-esteem.”
Her research suggests that when communities of color teach about their ethnic and racial background, it also fosters a deep respect for others. That’s because so many communities of color have similarly troubled histories. ”It’s about being inclusive of all other ethnic groups,” says Romero. “It’s never about being better than other people or groups.”
And that is where ethnic pride can become a hazard for white children, even those born into historically subjugated ethnic groups. Because learning about history involves a prolonged exposure to ideas about their racial superiority, the ethnic pride that can be fostered in white children generally–and there are certainly exceptions–doesn’t prepare them for hardship. Instead, it breeds expectations that may or may not be realistic. For many white Americans, it is also difficult to find a specific ethnic group to affiliate with because populations have become so mixed. “Being white” just isn’t specific enough to engender the sort of ties Romero is interested in seeing children form.
None of that is to say that white children don’t benefit from ethnic pride. They absolutely do when it isn’t theirs. Exposure to traditions outside their own fosters a broader understanding of the world, sometimes creativity, and an expanded sense of the possible. The curiosity that exposure engenders makes for happier, smarter, kinder kids.
“For white families in the United States, often they’re the ones who are not as exposed to cultural differences,” says Romero. “So sometimes those families have to be a little more intentional to seek out those opportunities.”
In light of that research, it’s clear that the melting pot metaphor breaks down when it is applied to children or even larger immigrant communities. Americans are no longer naive enough to believe that a single set of values will be shared across race and creed within the border of the former colonies. To the contrary, Americans know that differences are constant. The metaphor doesn’t work because it doesn’t factor in the agency of citizens, who actively consume culture rather than passively flavoring it.