The Melting Pot Versus The Salad Bowl

I was in Canada last week and had an interesting talk with my cab driver on the way back to the airport about immigration and integration of different cultures. His key misconception was over the idea that America is all about the “melting pot,” where all cultures are mixed together into one.

I got the impression this might be a common one for Canadians. Indeed, I started my keynote at the conference I was at with a pretty funny commercial that used to air in Canada, poking fun in part at American stereotypes of them. You can check it out here (and some background on it here), but this is the key part that goes with my post:

I believe in…diversity, not assimilation,

Now I’m an American, not a Canadian. But you know what? I believe in diversity as well. In fact, that’s what I was taught in school — ordinary public school in Southern California.

In particular, we learned that the melting pot (yep, there’s even a Wikipedia entry on the origins of it) was an outdated metaphor for what Americans were supposed to be. In a melting pot, everyone was mixed together to become one single thing, all Americans — and perhaps without retaining your origins.

Heck, there was even the Schoolhouse Rock video I watched as a kid, where all these various Americans of different origins jumped into a big pot to be mixed together as Americans. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but onto the “salad bowl.”

We were taught that the salad bowl was the better metaphor for us to learn about American and immigrants. In a salad bowl, different ingredients are all mixed together to make one thing, yet each ingredient also retains its own characteristics. They aren’t blended into some bland goo.

While these are two different concepts, I’d also argue that they are also synonyms for many Americans. People I know, if they talk about a melting pot, it’s understood that different cultures, races and ethnicities aren’t supposed to be giving up their identities while also becoming part of a unified America. In other words, people may often say melting pot but mean the salad bowl concept.

You can even see this in that old Schoolhouse Rock video. When the people jumped in, they didn’t get all blended into sameness. The song even ends:

Go on and ask your grandma,
Hear what she has to tell
How great to be American
And something else as well.

Not everyone believes that, of course. There are plenty of Americans who feel immigrants should learn English, become “normal” Americans (whatever that’s supposed to be) and so on. For them, the melting pot is that blending.

For me — melting pot/salad bowl — whatever you want to call it, it’s about a country of immigrants becoming stronger by both embracing the diversity of its cultures but also all feeling they do belong to one nation as well.