Assimilation is most commonly defined as “the process of adapting or adjusting to the culture of a group or nation”. In We Refugees, Hannah Arendt persistently employs words such as “adjust”, “change” and “fit” – all alluding to the notion of assimilation – a highly pertinent, yet many times misused term. Arendt rebuffs the definition of assimilation as “the necessary adjustment to the country where we happened to be born and to the people whose language we happened to speak,” propounding an alternative philosophy that, “We [refugees] adjust in principle to everything and everybody.”
Written from the perspective of a refugee, Arendt voices the struggles Jewish immigrants or newcomers experienced in their countries of refuge, wherein they were made to feel “undesirable”, told they don’t “belong”, and were denied their basic right to be treated as dignified human beings. Arendt goes on to elaborate how persecuted Jews were compelled to be “damnably careful in every moment of [their] daily lives to avoid anybody guessing who [they] were, what kind of passport [they] have…” In the face of such deeply embedded hostility, wherein Jewish immigrants’ very identity was put into question, assimilation meant abandoning their sense of self “to put up a front, to hide the facts, and to play roles.” From “enemy aliens” to “boches” to “prospective citizens”, the Jews were labelled and appropriated even in countries and communities of their apparent refuge, driving them to breed the “insane desire to be changed, not to be Jews.” In this way, assimilation came to mean negation of their identity and the forced adoption of different identities.
I found Arendt’s interpretation of assimilation deeply thought-provoking and relevant to our exploration of “How Movements Make Meaning” as it compelled me to reconsider two things. Firstly, as an aspiring artivist who hopes to shed light on the plight of refugees through art, I feel challenged to not just highlight the one-dimensional, but rather two-fold injustice refugees face – they not only experience hostility from the country they flee/are expelled from, but many times from the countries they hope to find freedom in. And thus, assimilation becomes as important an issue to talk about as refugeehood itself. Secondly, in a more literal sense, as dancers who are learning and immersing ourselves in new dance forms (Kathak & Contemporary), I believe we will most definitely experience assimilation in dance itself, as we too will have to “adjust”, “change” and “fit”. In our case, however, we have the privilege, rather right, to retain and express our identity as part of this process. Given this, I am curious to discover how the macro-crisis of immigrant assimilation can be translated and reflected through the micro-scale assimilation we will undergo through dance, and thus truly understand the relationship between activism and art.
Dictionary.com Unabridged "Assimilation." Accessed 6 Jan 2018. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/assimilation. Arendt, Hannah. "We Refugees" Altogether Elsewhere: Writers o Exile. ed. Marc Robinson. 110-116. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994.