The day that I arrived in the United States from India, I was informed proudly by a set of intellectual leaders that the United States is the most diverse country in the world, even more diverse than India. Having read about the proverbial melting pot all my life, I was prepared to believe them, despite my better judgment. It was pointed out that people of all races, colors, religions, and creeds come to America, and that somehow the greatness of the country turns them all into Americans, first … and last. Since I had come from a country that has been confronting serious challenges in managing its diversity—north versus south, Hindus versus Muslims, fair skinned versus dark, mainlanders versus northeastern tribals— I was excited at the prospect of learning about the melting pot.
When it comes to managing diversity, which approach is superior, the American Melting Pot or the Indian Cultural Mosaic? Before proceeding further, let me clarify what cultural mosaic means. Cultural Mosaic is a term that was first coined by John Murray Gibbon in Canadian Mosaic. Gibbons disapproved of the American concept of the melting pot because he felt it asked immigrants to cut-off ties with their roots and culture and adopt completely alien practices. In contrast, he felt that Canada should promote a mosaic approach in which each wave of immigrants could contribute something new to the society.
While the United States necessitates that we each adapt to dominant cultural norms, India, more than any other country in the world, emphasizes the adoption and promotion of the “cultural mosaic” approach. By celebrating differences and by according legitimacy to the values held by all communities, India makes it possible to negotiate and develop a synthesis.
As a young officer in the Indian Police Service (IPS), I managed counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh and witnessed the horrors of Hindu-Muslim riots in Karnataka first hand. As a result, I truly wanted to receive wisdom on this melting-pot-model of diversity.
Perhaps, I thought, we Indians could take some of these values back home and transplant ideas that seemed to be working so well halfway across the world.
Fortunately or unfortunately, my American-transplant dream did not survive very long. I received my first jolt within a week of landing in the U.S. to research public management systems in the developed world. During an academic meeting, I heard a great debate on Samuel Huntington’s ideas about how and why the growth of the Spanish speaking population posed a serious threat to American identity. The discussants proposed that the United States had to meet this challenge by resisting the adoption of Spanish as a second official language and promoting the exclusive use of English. Even those who challenged Huntington’s ideas did so by claiming that second generation Hispanics eventually acquire English and lose Spanish rapidly. I wondered why the nation’s largest ethnic minority needed to completely lose its cultural and linguistic identity in order to satisfy the irrational fears of a dominant majority. I asked them if India could survive with 18 official languages, why did they feel so threatened by the growth of Spanish as a second language? I never received an answer.
The fact is that Americans live under constant fear: fear of terrorism, fear of different skin colors, fear of foreign language, fear of different cultures and religions, fear of deviation from dominant norms, fear of difference of any kind. Whites are scared of going into black neighborhoods, blacks of going into white neighborhoods. Both are scared of Muslims and individuals wearing turbans. Hinduism and non-monotheistic worship make all of them nervous.
Funnily enough, the fear that victimizes so many Americans is largely a creation of their own. If you define and project your own values, norms, and color (or other features) as superior, then by definition you have created a world in which everyone else becomes inferior. And since you are powerful and rich, you feel vindicated both by your belief in your own superiority and the necessity to “educate” and “better” others.
This is not a real melting pot. A real melting pot would be open to including the values of all sections of society: all ethnic groups, females, sexual minorities, races, and language groups. But, at present, when we hear about “American” values, what we’re really hearing is about the values held and advocated by male WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), the dominant group in American society. That the American “values” largely exclude the values of African-American and Hispanic communities does not surprise me much because of the historical factors and negative prejudices still widely prevalent in this country; however, the fact that even the values of “successful” ethnic groups like Indians and Chinese, for whom there is a kind of positive prejudice (model minorities: Indians are “smart” and Chinese “entrepreneurial”), pose a threat does come up as a bit of surprise.
This is a melting pot that forces newcomers to adopt dominant norms or perish. This is a melting pot that breeds resentment on all sides. Three recent, glaring illustrations should bolster my point.
First, Americans firmly believe that they are doing “good works” by promoting democracy abroad and resent Iraqis for being ungrateful for their commitment and efforts. “Did we not get our sons killed for them? Why is the government wasting zillions of dollars on the ungrateful wretches?” Iraqis resent it because a countless number of lives have been lost and millions displaced for no reason, and the rest of the world resents the United States because they perceive the war to be “misguided amateurism” at best, or “American neo-colonialism” or “anti-Islamic conspiracy” depending on how they are affected.
Second, in 1999, the influential Southern Baptist Convention, which counts former President Clinton as its member, urged its members to pray for millions of Hindus who are “lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism.” Hindus felt bitter about this dark portrayal of their religion.
Meanwhile, the Christians involved never criticized or attacked anyone openly, but benevolently prayed for Hindus to “realize the true path.”
Finally, what about the protests over Rajan Zed, a Hindu priest from Nevada offering prayer in the U.S. Senate? It definitely marked a first in American history, and, given the insecurity that differences manage to ingrain into the American psyche, it wasn’t really surprising to observe the nervous flutters among Christian groups.
When it comes to managing diversity, the United States comes a distant second to India. This is not to overstate the worth of India, which faces its own challenges, very serious challenges, indeed. Yes, caste-based inequalities still persist; and yes, there are periodic outbursts of violence. Yes, there are also challenges to State authority and demands for secession. Yes, religion and ethnicity also figure into the prejudices of the Indian people. And yes, despite the fact that we are brown in color, Indians still value “white” and deprecate “black.”
Despite all these imperfections, the Indian approach of managing diversity as a cultural mosaic still makes India better equipped to deal with challenges. Differences are treated as a natural and values of all communities as legitimate. By according legitimacy to all communities, India makes it possible to develop a synthesis of cultures and ideas that is not based on the values of any one group alone.
History has shown that societies decline when they become insular and closed to ideas from the outside world. This happened to India in the Middle Ages when it fell from being the richest country in the world to being among the poorest, and it is happening now to Europe. By being opening up to change, India has already made rapid strides towards its own transition.
The United States may have a lot to teach the world about promoting entrepreneurial culture, infrastructural development, economic growth and like, but when it comes to managing its ever growing diversity (the ratio of non-Hispanic whites is slated to fall from 75% to 50% in next 40 years) it would do well to learn from India.
Punit Arora is a freelance writer who works on issues of management and public policy.