The Case for Stew

By Amanda Bertsch


It’s a familiar enough metaphor: America is either the melting pot of unity or the salad bowl of multiculturalism. Last Wednesday’s opinion piece dissected one view of the issue. Others strongly disagree. Yet there seems to be no good choice here.

In the melting pot, Americans have a strong sense of national identity. A shared cultural background unifies the wide country despite other (often political) differences. However, minorities may find themselves forced to assimilate, losing rich cultural histories in favor of a primarily white Christian narrative.

In the salad bowl, these different identities coexist peacefully. The juxtaposition between cultures enriches society. However, some may find themselves struggling to communicate with distinct and disparate areas of culture, so the country feels splintered.

Ironically, this debate about how to achieve national unity has become uniquely polarizing. Republicans tend to align with the melting pot model, while Democrats advocate the salad bowl. Many people in the middle offer some half-remembered explanation from eighth grade civics. Yet the truly impressive fact of this debate is society’s willingness to accept that narrative.

The melting pot vs. salad bowl debate is a false dichotomy.

There is absolutely a middle ground between assimilation and isolation. Think of a bowl of stew. Many ingredients (cultural group) are separate, but they all exist within a shared matrix. Some ingredients aren’t apparent individually, but their presence still enhances the mixture.

It is this shared matrix that represents American ideals: equality, hard work, the values that the Declaration of Independence and countless documents since have ascribed to American culture. These values can seep into other traditions without destroying them. Meanwhile, the existence of differing viewpoints and traditions in society strengthens the country. A uniform, unanimous culture isn’t a culture at all; it’s blind conformity. Americans should grow up acknowledging their cultural backgrounds and being able to see other cultures as well. Ignorance helps no one.

Somewhere between those founding ideals of equality and today’s border conflicts, Americans have lost the confidence that cultures can coexist. Forced to choose between homogeny and fractionalization, society wallows in an uncertain double standard while politicians on both sides of the political divide argue out the fate of traditions they do not understand and do not trust.

Maybe the melting pot and the salad bowl are both wrong. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the middle ground. And maybe, if everyone looks closer, we’re not so different from each other after all.