Do as the Americans Do: Cultural Dialogue and Being American

The story of the immigrant is one that you can still hear today, but the story of changing identity can be a little harder to pin down. When does someone consider him or herself an American vs. when is one seen as an American? Is it when they are officially a citizen? When they participate in American holidays such as the 4th of July? Or is it when they lose their accent? Alan M. Kraut explores this in Doing as Americans Do: The Post-migration Negotiation of Identity in the United States. Kraut digs into what society says it is to be American and how this idea has excluded people from society, jobs, and experiences. Historically, in an attempt to blend in and more easily assimilate into American some immigrants sought surgery to change facial features to be more western European. This created its own tension as people within the immigrant community accused the person of “selling out” their heritage, yet having the surgery didn’t automatically make the person be viewed as American.[1] It could leave an individual in cultural limbo.

In Minneapolis the Somali population is welcomed, watched, but welcomed. There are services available to them, English lessons, English and Somali speaking teachers in the schools, programs to help them find jobs, financial support until they find work, and help finding affordable housing. In the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis is the heart of the Somali population in Minnesota.[2]

The Somali population in Minnesota isn’t a coincidence. It’s calculated. The people arriving in the state each day are doing so because they have heard, through word of mouth, that Minnesota will take them. Some of the people arriving have come alone, on a refugee visa, others are families who are reuniting after spending months or years apart. Minnesota has become a safe haven for many of them.

The Somali community is facing many of the same issues that immigrants in the early 20th century faced. The issues have not changed, just the laws surrounding them. Then new population of Somali immigrants still struggle to find jobs, in part because of the language barrier, in the U.S. speaking another language is only seen as an asset if you also speak English fluently. For many of these new arrivals English isn’t something they have learned in advance. Another challenge many of them face is the fact that some children have had barely if any school. In Somalia many of the schools have been closed due to the wars between the clans, meaning that many children coming to the U.S. have had little or no experience in a school system.[3] This makes the transition hard for children who are trying to learn a new routine of being in a classroom.

Even though Minnesota is welcoming, and many immigrants find a place in the Twin Cities there is still culture clash. Mohja Kahf beautifully and exquisitely expresses what it is like to live in the middle of this culture clash in her poem My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears. She tells of her Syrian grandmother’s rituals before prayer and the clash of cultures when she is seen washing her feet in Sear’s bathroom by white women. [4]

Cedar-Riverside experiences some of this same culture clash in a different setting. The local Starbucks is a meeting place for the men of the Somali community to come together every afternoon and talk. During this time it is not a place for women, but women from the community who are not Somali still stop there for coffee, unwelcomed by the men. It creates tension in the community, as it becomes a silent battleground for space. More than anything I find that the examples from these readings and my own experiences show that a lack of understanding between two cultures can cause more issues than needed. Programs already in place, such as ESL classes, have been adjusted to better fit the experiences of their students who may have not spent much time in the structured environment of the American school system. This is just one change but understanding that you can’t force someone to give up their heritage for them to be considered American is a big step in creating cultural dialogue.

Photo Credit: edkohler, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Cedar-Riverside,_Minneapolis#/media/File:Wadajir_Grocery.jpg

[1] Alan M. Kraut, “Doing as Americans Do: The Post-migration Negotiation of Identity in the United States,” Journal of American History 101, no. 3 (December 2014): 716.

[2]Minnesota Historical Society, “Becoming Minnesotan: Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees.”

[3]Beth Hawkins, “Innovative program in Minneapolis helps Somali children ease the transition to school,” MinnPost. October 11, 2013.

[4] Mohja Kahf, “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears,” from Emails from Scheherazad. 

15 thoughts on “Do as the Americans Do: Cultural Dialogue and Being American

  1. As a fellow Twin Cities dweller, I fully understand the culture clash between the Somali and American population you are describing. Working in downtown Minneapolis, the lack of understanding of different cultures is fully apparent; bank tellers aren’t patient with customers with a strong accent, security guards follow “suspicious” people. The way you describe the Somali population as being welcomed but watched is spot on.

  2. While growing up and then working at Stewart’s, I would often hear how customers remark “All Muslims are evil” and “every problem in the world can be traced back to Islam.” So many people interpret new groups of people as a threat. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the threat came from non- White Anglo-Saxon Protestant populations in Southern and Eastern Europe, while today the fear has shifted to Muslim, African, and Latino/Latina populations. You are right though, Anna; the fear does not change, maybe the groups and laws do, but the xenophobia does not.

    1. I wonder what can be done to help alleviate this fear? One thing I think would help is being able to meet, talk with, and hear the stories of people from different cultural groups. I think many people who fear cultural or religious groups do not actually know people who belong to that group. It is harder to fear (and hate) a group of people once you are able to associate them with a specific face and voice. This is something I think museums could involve themselves with as natural storytellers and community spaces.

      1. I agree with this completely. Hearing about immigrant experiences directly from people might make an impact or lasting impression on visitors. Museums could serve as intermediaries or dialogue centers/starters for cross cultural connections.

  3. Outside of the services that are currently being offered, are there any cultural institutions in Minneapolis engaging in dialogue concerning these issues? I think this is a perfect opportunity to really introduce two cultures together in a safe environment, like a museum. Simply bringing people together and providing an opportunity for discussion, could be a great way to make Somalis feel more welcomed in their community.

  4. Anna, you raise some interesting points in your post. I’m curious about the systems in place that ease transitions for Somali immigrants to the Twin City area. Are the programs successful, expanding, changing to meet the growing need? It sounds like the community has implemented some resources like ESL classes but I wonder if a different, less formal kind of dialog between communities would be beneficial? Perhaps, a museum program to facilitate conversation!

  5. Growing up in Texas provided an interesting experience of clashing worlds. Despite the fact that White demographics have technically become a minority due to the increasing size of the Hispanic population, the racism and xenophobia typical of Texas has not changed. Whether the target group was Hispanics, Muslims, Syrian refugees, or any other minority group, the response was always the same: anger and fear. Most of my life has been proof that just because laws or politics may decree certain freedoms does not mean society as a whole has to change and it is disheartening to see discriminatory tactics aimed at minorities at the polls today as ugly remnants of the past.

  6. To continue along with some personal experiences, I have experienced the phenomenon of “being watched” when out in public with my adopted siblings. There is an obvious difference in appearance between us, and on select occasions, I have observed what I can only describe as disdainful looks from some people. As in they are aware of this difference, not sure my siblings are with me, but don’t like what they see. I suppose it triggers some sort of discomfort or fear of multiculturalism, borne of, as has been demonstrated, a lack of understanding. And the tension that creates is always difficult to navigate.

  7. Great point about the English tutoring. For a lot of people taking charity can be unpleasant, especially if they came to this country in hopes of being self-sufficient and making a better life for themselves. That sort of tutoring really gives them more agency. It helps them develop a skill that they can use however they like, rather than trying to funnel them down one path like in Arrogant Beggar.

  8. I am thinking of all of the children that my mother serves as a pre-school teacher and a special education services coordinator. She has children in her classes from families that don’t speak English and may not be documented. She makes home visits to children with special needs, many of whom live in deplorable conditions because their parents can’t catch up due to the lengths they must go to become documented or even to overcome that stigma, whether or not they are in America legally. Illegal immigration is certainly a very tense political issue which may never have an ethical solution, but it makes me happy that school and social services are available to children who are disadvantaged due to their or their parents immigration status. It makes me happy that Minnesota offers services for it’s Somali population in much the same way.

  9. I really liked the connection here to Minnesota’s Somali population as a reminder that issues with immigration and identity are ongoing and touch every part of the country. I had the chance to work some with the Somali community in Lewiston, Maine, and had the chance to get a sense of how complex these questions are. For example, there were two distinct groups who came to Lewiston: ethnic Somali and Somali Bantu. These groups had different social positions in Somalia, but when they came to America they were lumped into the same group. Some wanted these groups to remain distinct, some wanted a fresh start in a new country. It was a powerful example of the complications involved in questions of identity.

  10. It is a really difficult question to answer. Who is American and who is accepted as an American. Being accepted in a community and living in a community are two vastly different things and that presents conflict. It is a problem museums face as well. Even now security guards watch other patrons more than others based off their skin tone or language. In a sense, people today are paranoid about everything and leads to misunderstandings with leads to conflict. Meanwhile, those that are trying to join the community are struggling to assimilate to their new community while maintaining their former identity that is being scrutinized with every move. What the public and museum need to is break down these misconceptions and tell the stories in order to promote understanding and a open community.

  11. In many of the science classes at CGP we talk about Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Slow and Fast. The book discusses the dichotomy between two types of thinking. The first is instinctive and emotional, the second is slower and more deliberative and logical. Change of any kind usually triggers the first kind of reaction, and I think we often see this with issues of immigration. Perhaps not surprisingly, it takes more time to think slower, i.e. more logically. Hopefully for the Somali population discussed in this post, as well as for immigrant communities across the country, time will bring less fear and more understanding. As many of the responses have pointed out, communication can help bridge this gap more quickly. Museums are one resource that could be used to help develop a dialogue between different ethnic groups living in the same community.

  12. Like others have said, it is great to hear of an example where immigration is happening today and in a mostly positive way. It’s wonderful that Minnesota has become a safe haven for the Somalian population, despite the inevitable cultural differences. I really like that you bring up the idea that in many cases “in the U.S. speaking another language is only seen as an asset if you also speak English fluently”. It’s very important that the American population slowly shifts these views in order to fully embrace immigrant populations. For some reason, even though most people realize learning a new language is extremely challenging, many people still treat people horribly if they speak English poorly. Perhaps it would be beneficial to have translators present in the community to encourages more of a connection and conversation between Minnesota residents.

  13. All of the comments so far are as thought provoking as the article. Anna I think you did a really good job of raising questions and awareness of the immigrant issues you saw in Minneapolis. The only way to alleviate this fear would be to start a dialogue either through programming or community events. People fear what they do not know and creating a line of communication would eliminate the uncertainty the established community has of the refugees whether it is the Somalis in Minneapolis, the Arab Americans in New York City, or Bosnians in St. Louis.

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