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Asian Americans: When the Melting Pot Serves Up a Toxic Brew

Asian Americans: When the Melting Pot Serves Up a Toxic Brew

  • Latest racist attacks highlight the need for a new American model of social integration.

As our nation grapples with the public health and economic devastation wrought by COVID-19, we are also faced with another enemy — one that threatens the very fabric of this nation — racism against Asian Americans. For political expediency, powerful political figures refer to COVID-19 as “the Chinese Disease” and as a consequence Asian Americans have become targets of verbal and physical attacks. Americans, who have known no other home and owe no allegiance to any country but this one, are being spat on and viciously attacked if they are assumed to be from China and thus somehow responsible for the spread of the virus. Overnight, Asian Americans are being stripped of a sense of belonging even as they do vital work as physicians, pharmacists, nurses and other essential workers.

The All-American identity has long been the privilege of Caucasian Americans. Everyone else is a hyphenated American. Americans of color and children of immigrants are often asked “Where are you really from?” This othering of Americans can be devastating to those who’ve only ever known one home — America. Repeatedly, in the face of foreign threats, real or imagined, certain racial and ethnic groups are held accountable, accused of split loyalties, and told to “go back where you came from.”

Immigration to America has happened in waves starting in the colonial era. With some exceptions, such as the Africans brought here as slaves, and Chinese railroad laborers, the first four waves of immigrants arrived here largely from Europe with one way tickets — fleeing war, famine, religious persecution or poverty. They were largely White and Judeo-Christian. While many suffered in ghettos on arrival, over a generation these immigrants were able to “assimilate” into the Great American melting pot — giving up some cultural practices in return for becoming American and enjoying the freedoms and bounty this land has to offer. After the Immigration and Naturalization Act was passed in 1965, a majority of immigrants have come from Asia and Latin America and are racially, culturally, religiously diverse. Thanks to advances in communication and lower costs of travel, they are able to retain strong cultural ties with their native lands. But even if they willingly gave up their cultural practices to “become American,” they will not be able to escape the “Where are you really from?” question. It is no surprise that these newer groups are only able to feel a sense of belonging by sticking with their cultural communities.

In economically expansive areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, large demographic shifts that used to play out over centuries, now happen in a few decades. Because these shifts have been rapid, we have not had time to develop the cultural competency that would allow us to celebrate our diversity and draw strength from it. Throughout the Bay Area, this has resulted in cultural silos: people living in immiscible enclaves as hyphenated Americans with nuanced understanding of their own kind, but often a simplistic and stereotypical understanding of others. In times of relative peace, with plenty of “real” issues like housing and transportation to be addressed, these cultural trends may be dismissed as unimportant. In the big picture, however, a nation made up of fractured communities cannot thrive.

We must embrace the notion that what makes people real Americans beyond cultural heritage is common love for our country and the values she stands for.

The COVID-19 crisis, much like 9/11, exposes our cultural fault lines. It is time for us to move beyond band-aid fixes and to address the essence of the problem: America needs an alternate model of integration, one that stands the test of accelerating diversity and that does not require giving up one’s unique cultural identity to become American. We need a plan to deliberately embrace and promote the cultures that makes America the vibrant creative nation that, at our best, we are.

America is no longer a melting pot — it is a mosaic. Much like tesserae, our cultures are all unique and beautiful on their own. But if we can come together, as we are, in all our diversity, bound by shared values, we can create a glorious Mosaic that is uniquely American. We must begin the hard work of increasing our cultural competency — not merely “tolerate” people who dress, eat, pray and express differently, but develop an open-minded curiosity about them. We must embrace the notion that what makes people real Americans beyond cultural heritage is common love for our country and the values she stands for.

Alas, cultural competency is not something that can be taught in classrooms. It cannot be gained by sitting through sensitivity training or unconscious-bias seminars. It has to develop in communities organically, through repeated agenda-free interactions between diverse people in joyful settings. At Mosaic Silicon Valley (an initiative of Sangam Arts), we believe that culturally-rooted arts offer an ideal platform to discover, create, and nurture meaningful connections between diverse groups. Since 2016, we’ve brought together hundreds of American artists from over 40 forms of artistic expression to collaborate and co-create intercultural works designed to draw diverse audiences that might not otherwise share the same space. We’ve reached over 15,000 Bay Area residents through free Mosaic performances in community settings like libraries, parks and museums. In response to COVID-19, we continue to bring our unique programming through our virtual platform Mosaic Connect.

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The heartening news is that our approach works. Our audience members have experienced countless “Aha!” moments as they watch artists showcase the dazzling diversity of cultural arts while also highlighting the common threads that bind us all. Like when they realize the roots of Spanish Flamenco lie in Indian Classical Kathak; or that Scottish Highland dance shared a common original purpose with some folk dances of Mexico and India — to keep soldiers fighting fit during peace!

The Bay Area is at the cutting edge of demographic changes that will soon be experienced all over America to varying degrees. As we develop our Mosaic movement here, we hope to gain valuable insights, adjust our programming, learn best practices, and prepare to launch Mosaic chapters all over America. We welcome you to join us in our mission to help redefine what it means to be an American.

For more on Sangam Arts’ Mosaic initiative, visit us at, on Facebook and Instagram @mosaicsiliconvalley or email us

Usha Srinivasan is President of Sangam Arts, a non-profit that provides an innovative platform for artists from diverse backgrounds to come together to collaborate and co-create world-class multicultural music and dance performances.

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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