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Analyzing the 'Bumpy Road' to Assimilation

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
October 17, 2011

Jessica VasquezJessica Vasquez, a sociologist at University of Kansas, studies the roles that race/ethnicity and family play in assimilation/incorporation processes. Currently a Visiting Scholar at RSF, Vasquez published an article entitled "The Bumpy Road of Assimilation: Gender, Phenotype, and Historical Era" in the latest issue of Sociological Spectrum.

Q: Your article critiques assimilation theory for not taking into account inter-generational divisions. First, can you describe the main tenets of assimilation theory, and second, the difference between straight-line assimilation and the ‘bumpy road’? 

A: Actually, my article is more concerned with intra-generational divisions, that is, how there are differences within generations (for men and women, light-skinned individuals and dark-skinned individuals, etc.) in terms of how integration works. Assimilation theory does a good job of explaining how change happens across generations (inter-generationally) but has overlooked some of the ways in which people within the same generation (intra-generational) have different experiences that shape their integration into the American mainstream.

Assimilation theory, begun at the turn of the twentieth century and aimed to explain the influx of European immigrants, has developed voluminously since then. While there are notable variations to assimilation theory nowadays, the classic or “straight-line” formulation predicted a step-wise process that began with acculturation (cultural assimilation) and eventually reached the (desirable) destination of racial/ethnic intermarriage and changes in racial/ethnic identification (losing ethnic descriptors in favor of “American” ones). The title of my article, “bumpy road,” is meant to refer to “bumpy-line” assimilation, which allows for adaptations to changing circumstances and leaves the “end point” open rather than predetermined. The article theorizes what “bumpy” means in real terms; namely, social features such as one’s gender, phenotype, and participation in particular historical social movements has significant bearing on how ethnic minorities perceive of themselves, their relationship to their ethnic heritage, and their relationship to the U.S.

Q: You examine the different incorporation pathways immigrant families take over three generations. What is the state of research on third-generation immigrant families? What are the difficulties in studying this group of people?

A: First of all, third generation ethnic minorities are difficult to locate. Surveys tend to ask about nation of birth and, at best, parents’ nation of birth, allowing access to information about the first and second generations. Add to this the complexity of locating three generations within the same family. I, and others studying similar groups of people, dedicate time and energy to recruiting individuals or families that fit this particular population. In part due to difficulties of access, the bulk of immigration research typically concentrates on the first generation (the immigrants themselves) or the first and second generations (immigrants and their children). Of course, this is a fascinating group in and of itself, but I have found it very rewarding, as well as a great scholastic contribution, to be able to extend to the third generation. As much as immigration is a hot topic these days, the next question is naturally, “who do these immigrants become after decades—or even generations—in the U.S.?” Research on later-generations can speak to this question, shedding light on “down the road” questions of race relations and integration. This is currently a less crowded area of research but the questions that can be asked and answered are numerous and fascinating.

Q: You focus on three factors that may cause ‘bumps’ in the road – gender, skin color, and the historical moment. Let’s talk about gender and the case of Tamara Montes-Rosenberg. What did her interview tell you about the role of gender in assimilation? What roles do women generally play in the guarding of culture?

A: Gender is a highly significant and still underappreciated aspect of immigration and integration studies. Gender—not just a personal characteristic but individuals’ own gender ideologies and opinions about how others’ gender ideologies will affect them—can direct action such as ethnic out-marriage or in-marriage. Tamara felt that gender freedom would come in the form of intermarriage with a non-Hispanic white man, whereas other Mexican American women choose ethnic in-marriage out of a desire to “preserve” their culture. In my second book that I am writing here at Russell Sage this year, I am using a new set of interviews with Latino intermarried couples (with whites, blacks, Asians, and Native Americans) as well as Latino-Latino intramarried couples. Inspired by how central gender was in my earlier research I am pursuing how gender identity, ideologies, and gendered experiences influence how people choose their long-term romantic partners and how this intersects with race/ethnicity.

Q: What does your research on skin color tell you about the concept of ‘racialized assimilation’?

A: Skin color, as shown in my and my others’ research, can be very influential in terms of access to resources (schools/school tracking, jobs, etc.) as well as interpersonal treatment. Lighter skin tone is still favored, people either treating light skinned people overtly better or, at minimum, not attaching stereotypes to them. The opposite is true, in general, for people with darker skin tone, as they are often saddled with negative assumptions and treated worse. Racialized assimilation argues that Latinos can be racialized as non-Hispanic white, black, even brown (as well as, less frequently, Asian or Native American). For Latinos to be racialized as non-Hispanic white means they have reached an “honorary whiteness” status wherein they are more comfortable to claim the term “American.” For those Latinos who are racialized as black or brown, however, there is far more resistance to taking on the term of “American” because their experience is not one of wholehearted acceptance and they reflect this with their resistance to a term that they have been told, one way or another, that does not pertain to them. Racialized assimilation—and the emphasis I add about skin color—is a good example of bifurcations within generations that we discussed earlier in question 1.

Q: You discuss some historical moments that influenced your respondents. What role, for example, did the Vietnam War play in how immigrant families felt towards the United States and their own culture?

A: The Vietnam War, especially for those male interviewees who were in the U.S. military at the time, helped consolidate their ethnic identity and politics of protest. As has been argued relative to both African Americans and Japanese Americans, once stateside after serving in the U.S. military during international conflicts, racial/ethnic injustice perpetuated at home was intolerable. Experiences during Vietnam and the Civil Rights era solidified for many male second generation respondents their political orientations and racial/ethnic consciousness, which tend to be generational and in reaction to political climates. The Civil Rights movement was particularly useful in supporting a “pro-brown” ethos in that it provided a language for inequality and a vehicle for protest.