Melting Pot, No. Mosaic, Yes.

2013.01.02 Melting Pot No, Mosaic Yes

The term “Melting Pot” does not agree with me, or is it the other way around? The United States has long been called the melting pot of the world as immigrants from many walks of life descend upon the nation from all four corners of the globe. The idea is that as these persons of various cultures meet up in the US, identities are fused together into a new identity, a US identity, which emerges hot and ready to be molded from this melting pot. Unfortunately, that concept ends up marginalizing many real persons and holds up exclusivity as an ideal.

Essentially, calling the US a melting pot is to tell immigrants to abandon their cultural heritage for the dominant culture and, in the US of A, that means white culture. The lesser parts melt away and the best endures and that is what is to be poured out amongst the people and cast in their lives. Whether those who coined the term or those who continue to use it today understand these implications is not for me to say. In fact, I’d wager this was / is never their intention. As for me, I’ve used the term and now that I’m aware of how it can does marginalize persons who aren’t like me and commands them to be like me, I know I don’t want it as part of my vocabulary. I really don’t want to be part of a machine that calls for assimilation as if multiculturalism does not or should not exist. Luckily, there are other terms out there, including mosaic.

As an art form, mosaic takes several pieces which on their own don’t do very much but together add up to quite a picture. It’s a purposeful picking up of the broken pieces and placing them in a reformed world. In a way, the world is like a mosaic, too, in that we are made up of several billion pieces and together we add up to quite a picture. I’d rather think of the world with this image than the melting pot. In the mosaic, the whole cannot exist without the pieces. The big picture requires every single little picture. In the mosaic, there is no room for marginalization.

This is nothing new. “Mosaic” is thought to have originated in a 1938 book on welcoming immigrants’ cultural diversity to Canada. And I found this article from writer Punit Aror of India Currents to have an interesting perspective. Over the summer, I heard someone speaking of the salad metaphor, too, and if I find that video source I will edit this post and put it here, too, because they summarized the nation as salad very well (every ingredient maintains its integrity and flavor while adding to the overall flavor of the dish).

What does it take to embrace others as just as necessary as oneself? Not just the persons we are closest to but all others? The stranger, the old friend of a bygone era, the constant enemy, the murderer? What does it take to see them as part of the mosaic? How does one see all persons as pieces of God’s mosaic of creation? Perhaps one of the most challenging pieces of understanding the world as a mosaic is that in mosaic art, the artist intentionally chooses to work in mosaic. But the world had its mosaic make up thrust upon it, no real choice in the matter. This isn’t a bad thing, just something which can make such large questions lack simple answers.

I think Tobin (Jody) Miller Shearer writes of the hope these other terms brings well:

Images of salad, stew, mosaic, and stained-glass window provide much more healthy metaphors for describing the delicious and beautiful creations that spring from cross-cultural celebration. In these images, each culture maintains its own identity and integrity but adds to the overall flavor and beauty of the whole.1

It’s a beautiful reminder that everyone’s story matters.


1. Shearer, Tobin (Jody) Miller. Enter the River: Healing Steps from White Privilege Toward Racial Reconciliation. Herald Press. Scotsdale, Pennsylvania. 1994. 120-121.  1

4 thoughts on “Melting Pot, No. Mosaic, Yes.”

  1. Nate, I agree that melting pot is not a helpful definition; however, I have heard many people explain that living in America really does cause people to lose their traditions/heritage. I have heard many people talk about how their Swedish Grandmother used to do this certain tradition from the “old country” and she was the last one to continue it. Since the baby boom generation people have been giving up their traditions, but haven’t really replaced them with new ones.

    I had an interesting discussion with a 40ish year old person this Christmas and how they were saying that they grew up with certain traditions in their house as a child, but that they now do not have any traditions their own. They came to this realization by talking to other families who also do not carry on the traditions of old or start new ones. Maybe this is the effects of capitalism or some other American “ism” that causes us to give up the old without buying into the new.

    But, at the same time, this is exactly why I like mosaic. Maybe we are a bunch of broken pieces, and I applaud you for picking up the pieces and trying to make sense of them.

    • I know exactly what you mean. I recall one Christmas when I was a teenager and looked around the table of extended family all reminiscing about Christmases gone by and I blurted out, “Aren’t we going to create any new memories?!” It took new baby cousins for new stories / memories to unfold. These days, I’m doing my best to find a healthy balance between favorite family of origin traditions and new traditions for the family my wife and I are building together and it is not always easy. As for whether persons in the US lose their heritage, I think that’s definitely been happening for a while and may be worth exploring in writing. The difference for me is that scenario is an unfortunate, unintentional melting pot that the US could, in many ways, avert if it tried. Whereas to call the US a melting pot before (or now) on purpose can marginalize many persons, both consciously and unconsciously.


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