I am no longer a teacher, but I often speak and write about biblical justice and immigration. In this context I often hear people say that immigrants do not assimilate.
As a good advocate, I am supposed to say, “Yes, they do!” and prove to them that this is a myth. I am supposed to help mostly white Christians forget that most first-generation immigrants struggle with American culture and the English language and do not assimilate. I am supposed to reassure them instead that immigrants do assimilate, learn English and lose their own culture and language within a couple of generations.
In essence, I am supposed to convince them that immigrants will become white and will not change the North American cultural and religious landscape.
“What many of those people want is reassurance that the white-dominant culture will remain undisturbed and will continue to be the norm.”
Naturally, most immigrants to North America today will not literally become white; they originate in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. But many North Americans, including those in the church, want reassurance that the mythical melting pot is alive and well — that immigrants will quickly assimilate to the dominant culture, even if they are brown or Black or Asian. What many of those people want is reassurance that the white-dominant culture will remain undisturbed and will continue to be the norm. They want the comfort of knowing that white supremacy will not be toppled, although they never would use those words explicitly.
The message of assimilation makes me uncomfortable because it requires me to celebrate the loss of other people’s culture, traditions and languages in order to alleviate the fears that white people, including Christians, might have about a diverse society where their position as power brokers may be threatened. It is akin to saying, “White Christians, please do not fear immigrants because they, too, will submit to white supremacy and blend into it as best as they can, even with their non-white skin and features.”
I refuse to communicate that message because it is not my job to appease privileged white Christians at the expense of the dignity of immigrants. Nor is it my job to absolve anyone of their Christian responsibility to welcome and love immigrants because they are nostalgic for a bygone era of Leave It to Beaver, before the Civil Rights movement and second-wave feminism.
“It is not my job to appease privileged white Christians at the expense of the dignity of immigrants.”
And I do not want to communicate this message because I know what it is like to live with the self-hatred brought on by internalized racism and beliefs about the cultural superiority of white America, and I recognize the damage that did to my sense of self and the people around me.
Assimilation is rooted in white supremacy because it assumes that our white host culture is superior and that we must shake off our inferior cultures to belong. But it does not have to be this way. Centering immigrants in our Christian response to immigration means we make room for their integration but do not pressure them to assimilate. We recognize that people are allowed to bring their full selves into every space even as they are adapting to a new country. The act of speaking another language, eating the food of one’s homeland, listening to music from our cultures is not a threat to the host country’s way of life, because immigrants value integration just as much as the native citizens do.
In truth, I am still recovering from the harm inflicted on me by the pressure to assimilate. I often remember those middle-school students at my first teaching job and wish I had followed their example — they were truly integrating into American culture and life while being true to their whole selves. I wish I could go back and seek their forgiveness for not standing up for them and instead distancing myself from them. My journey toward a healthier sense of self started with them and, sadly, not in the church.
“It was acceptable to be brown as long as I talked and behaved like the majority-white congregation and knew my place.”
I was told the church valued diversity; later I discovered this actually meant they valued seeing Black and brown faces in the congregation but that they did not welcome Black and brown people as teachers, leaders and decision-makers. In essence, the church also wanted my assimilation into their way of being. It was acceptable to be brown as long as I talked and behaved like the majority-white congregation and knew my place.
Among Christians of color who actively resist white supremacy and embrace the Jesus who loves and accepts people as they are, I have begun to love my true self. It is those friends and that Jesus who are continually teaching me to affirm that I am not just a child of God but also a Latina immigrant child of God, a Guatemalan American child of God.
Jesus does not ask me or anyone to assimilate but asks us to be fully ourselves.
Karen González is a writer, speaker and immigrant advocate who emigrated from Guatemala as a child and now lives in Baltimore. She attended Fuller Theological Seminary, where she studied theology and missiology, and she has worked in the nonprofit sector for 13 years. Her first book was The God Who Sees: Immigrants, The Bible, and the Journey to Belong. This column is extracted from her new book, Beyond Welcome and is used here with permission, of Brazos Press, ©2022.
Life lessons from speaking with a foreign accent | Opinion by Grace Ji-Sun Kim
The beginnings of modern Christian Zionism | Analysis by Mitri Raheb