Immigrant or American?
Although epidemiological research into the establishment of nation-states demonstrates that America was built by immigrants, particularly the British immigrants, those who have been to the ‘land of opportunity’ would readily attest to the fact that it is one thing to become a U.S. citizen, and it is a totally different thing to achieve the ‘American’ status. It has always been thought that the United States, by virtue of its pluralistic nature, would readily ‘Americanize’ thousands of immigrants, who each year goes through the formal immigration processes to become U.S. citizens. Interestingly, this is not usually the case, suggesting that there is more for an immigrant of any descent to become an American than what meets the eye.
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Various conceptions have been advanced from several quarters in a spirited attempt to explain the above disparity. The conceptions notwithstanding, it is clear that the process of cultural assimilation plays an important role in not only Americanizing the immigrants, but also ensuring that the larger society accepts them as truly American. This implies that it is not enough for the immigrants to fill out some forms declaring that they’ve become U.S. citizens; on the contrary, they must begin a process of getting to be entirely assimilated into the American culture and the American way of life. Consequently, scholars have over time underlined the need for immigrants to shed off their individual and collective perceptions and instead replace them with the perceptions and orientations of the mainstream American society if they actually expect to be identified as truly American. Such a process, it is believed, may take years to complete.
It therefore follows that immigrants must, in broad yet decisive way, be ready to peel off their localized cultures and open up their ‘cultural vaults’ so as to be assimilated into the values, beliefs, mores, and expectations of the American society. It is only by doing so that this group of people will cease to be identified as immigrants and instead be identified as Americans.
Tolerating Alien Practices
Being a pluralistic society, the U.S. is a melting pot for tens – perhaps hundreds – of cultural orientations, some of which are totally alien to the dominant American society. Aware of this fact, the framers of the U.S. Constitution put extra emphasis on the Bill of Rights, through which both the freedom of religion and respect for individual rights are enshrined. This implies that even though some of the practices may seem bizarre to the mainstream American society, the Constitution is clear that individual rights, the freedom of association, and the freedom of religion must be respected.
To tolerate such alien practices as wearing the Islamic burqa, therefore, it is imperative for the American society to understand that theirs is a society of cultural plurality, also referred to as cultural diversity, and, as such, the only possible solution is for them to accommodate divergent cultural views and practices provided such views do not necessarily or unnecessarily cause harm to others, or to the already existing systems and institutions. In this respect, the concept of cultural relativism – a notion that underlines the importance of embracing cultural diversity – should be applied to the extent that these ‘alien’ cultural practices do not interfere with various individual and collective freedoms and rights as enshrined in the American Constitution. Female circumcision, for example, is an alien cultural practice that should not be condoned, even under the moderating effects of cultural relativism, by virtue of the fact that it interferes with individual rights as enshrined in the Constitution.