The Melting Pot vs. The Salad Bowl

The Melting Pot is a theory of American culture that grade schools have been teaching for numerous years. Metaphors usually don’t translate as well as they should, but I’ll try my best to work through the ideas. I propose that America is a cultural “Melting Pot.” I do not, however, think that it is a melting pot in a positive sense and it is certainly not one of cultural acceptance and inclusion. The Melting Pot was a welcoming place for those of European descent. They were the broth (or the base) that constituted what everyone else had to conform to. It would be easy for one to distinguish between a broth and a non-broth item. If you wanted to fit in and be a full member of American culture, you hoped to become the broth. This can be seen within the Irish. The Irish were initially big pieces, out of place in this melting pot. As time went on, however, the Irish were faced with an enticing offer. If they chose to align with the Democratic party and assimilate, they would be allowed to melt into the pot fully and be treated as equals and “white.” Their assimilation into this pot would end their oppression in America and allow them to claim a sense of belonging in the society. The blacks, on the other hand, were chunks that could not be melted into this pot at all. They were bones perhaps, something that one did not want in the pot to begin with. They were not meant to fit into society, just to be used as slaves and considered to be property. 

Gulliver from Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is one example of a character whose travels take him to societies that also conform to the melting pot model. Like the Irish, he chooses to assimilate with the people that he comes across in his travels (or at least attempts to as much as possible.) This can be seen in the adoption of the customs of the foreign land he sets foot on and the rejection of his English identity in the process. In Zion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, however, Zoe refuses to assimilate into the melting pot of the society. Zoe is a peculiar character in the context of the melting pot—she could pass as part of the broth because of her white ancestry, but she feels as though her one-eighth black heritage completely isolates and separates her from them. Zoe refuses to leave behind her black heritage and bloodline, even when offered the opportunity to assimilate into society through marriage. Despite the other character’s insistence that she could assimilate or the idea that she could “pass” as white, Zoe seems to subscribe to the “one-drop rule.” This is an ideology that even a small percentage of black heritage makes one’s identity black, or non-white. Zoe breaks societal norms by adopting this rule, rather than the usual situation of whites using it as a tool for oppression and justification for the separation of the other. In the Melting Pot, Zoe appears as though she could be broth (white), but she sees herself as the bone (black) that does not belong. This complicates the audience’s understanding of the melting pot and race in the play, calling into question the structure of both and their legitimacy.  

When I was in middle school, they also introduced the theory of a cultural “Salad Bowl”, suggesting that it might be a more inclusive and accurate representation of how America’s culture developed. Unlike the Melting Pot, which is homogenous, the Salad Bowl is a heterogeneous mixture. This heterogeneous mixture was something that we were taught to promote diversity, as it allows one to recognize the individual identities that contributed to the whole of American culture. This concept, however, was more optimistic or idealistic than they realized. Perhaps the Melting Pot theory is historically accurate because of how its problematic nature reflects the problematic way in which American culture developed. Upon its analysis, it more accurately and frankly addresses the injustices of the time, instead of sugar coating it in the way that the Salad Bowl attempts.

2 Replies to “The Melting Pot vs. The Salad Bowl”

  1. I believe that the idea of the Melting Pot, while clearly problematic, can be modified to highlight some of the points that Gilroy makes. Gilroy claims that race does not actually exist and that every individual’s identity is the result of some cultural mixing. The Salad Bowl idea, while more accepting of different races, admits to the idea of racial identity being a distinguishing characteristic of people in American society. Had more people believed in Gilroy’s theory of a trans-Atlantic culture, the argument could be made that the Melting Pot is a mixture in which every individual’s cultural experiences affect and add to others’ cultural identities. However, this idea only applies to an idealized world in which society does not believe in the existence of race. Unfortunately we do not live in a post-racial world, so we must view the Melting Pot as a ploy to encourage assimilation to American social and racial norms rather than a system in which every individual has the power to influence or modify those norms.

  2. The Melting Pot myth is a really interesting facet of our historical ideologies. It is part of what we champion as Americans and what we credit with the vibrant aspects of American culture. As Alexis had so aptly pointed out, however, it is a hugely problematic idea. Though touted as positive, it reflects the much murkier reality of the expectations of American society — the loss of visible markers of heritage and cultural pride in favor of conformity to the norm. To throw it back to middle or elementary school again, it’s like color mixing in art class. When too many colors are mixed together all you get is a muddy brown and all of the beauty of the original hues is lost. I’ve never heard of the Salad Bowl before, and while it doesn’t reflect the reality of American society, it can maybe be an ideal to work towards — a reality where each culture or people is celebrated for what they bring “to the table,” part of a mosaic rather than a palette in need of a wash.

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