Beyond the “Melting Pot”: Why We Need to Support the Multicultural Identities of All America’s Children

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By Kalina Brabeck, PhD (Associate Professor of Counseling, Rhode Island College)

At a recent community meeting I co-facilitated, a Guatemalan immigrant mother shared that, in response to the election of Donald Trump, her eight-year-old daughter posed the following question: “I was born here in the US. But I’m Latina, because you are from Guatemala. Does that mean even though I was born here [in the US], I don’t belong here?”

Embedded in this girl’s question was the assumption of a binary: She could be American, or she could be Latina/Guatemalan, but she could not be both. By eight years of age, this child has the cognitive skills to reason and think more abstractly, and to understand that identity is constant and multifaceted. Indeed, it is during this stage of development that personal identity becomes more complex (kids can understand, for example, “I’m a girl/ daughter/ Christian/ soccer player/ Latina/ American”). But after the US elected a president who ran on a platform which pitted (White) Americans against (Latino, Muslim) immigrants and posited families like hers as a threat to the United States, it is understandable why this child, despite her cognitive capacities, questions her ability to be both Latina and American.

Unfortunately, when we create an environment that leads children to feel ashamed of their ethnic identity, or to think that they cannot be both ethically identified and American, we are robbing them of a crucial protective factor that enhances their development. Numerous research studies have found that strong ties to cultures of origin, multilingualism, and multicultural identities provide cognitive, academic, social, and emotional advantages. Speaking multiple languages is linked to greater cognitive flexibility- like the ability to quickly go from playing outside to doing homework. It has also been linked to the ability to follow directions and stop/think before acting.

Kids who are adept at navigating different cultural contexts are better at taking the perspective of others and developing empathy. Embracing one’s culture of origin connects children to a community of people, a set of values, and a sense of history, all of which help offset the negative effects of racism, discrimination, and poverty. Children with greater ties to their cultural identities are more likely to value and be motivated to succeed in school. Moreover, when immigrant children are allowed- and encouraged- to bring their languages and cultures into US classrooms, White and English-speaking students benefit from learning from them. It’s important preparation for living in an increasingly global and diverse world.

The old idea of the “melting pot,” in which ethnically diverse individuals “assimilate” into a monolithic American culture and identity, while losing roots to the culture of origin, has long been debunked in the social science literature. Rather, we encourage integration– that is, adaptation to the dominant cultural and continued identification with the culture of origin. Multicultural identities, in which individuals are able speak multiple languages, navigate different cultural expectations and norms, and effectively interact with diverse communities, are linked to better health, academic, and social outcomes for all our children. Their ability to succeed in a global and multicultural world also benefits our country. Let’s not disadvantage our children, or our country, by forcing them to make a false choice.

 

Biography:

 

Kalina Brabeck, PhD, is a psychologist who specializes in discrimination, immigration and trauma at Lifespan Physician Group and Rhode Island Hospital. She speaks English and Spanish and works as part of the Latino Mental Health Program team, where she provides psychotherapy to Spanish-speaking patients. Dr. Brabeck is an associate professor of mental health counseling at Rhode Island College. Dr. Brabeck’s research focuses on the effects that poverty, discrimination and legal status have on Latino immigrant families. Her work has been published in many peer-reviewed journals, books and encyclopedias. She is a member of the American Psychological Association. She is also a member of the APA’s Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.


Filed under: Children and Youth, Culture, Ethnicity and Race Tagged: academic achievement, bicultural, bilingualism, children's mental health, cultural identity, ethnic identity, immigrant children, immigrant families, multicultural, multilingualism