Culture Clash: Small-Town American vs. Somalian Immigrant Culture

This is a paper I wrote for my 100 level Anthropology class.  It deals primarily with an incident that occurred in Lewiston, Maine, between the residents and a massive influx of Muslim Somali immigrant refugees, and the reactions of both sides.  The paper was written along specific guidelines, as well as from an anthropological and cultural perspective.  The purpose of the paper is not to debate whether or not it was ‘right’ for the Somalis to be in the town, or to have been admitted to the country.  It was, instead, to discuss how culture affects relations between people from different areas, what cultural concepts are being demonstrated, and possible accommodations or solutions that could be offered.

The specific guidelines for the essay are as follows:

1. Review the video on migration above. [Migration: A Profile of the US]

2. Read article “Mixed Welcome…” … and

3. Answer the following questions in your paper:

  • Explain how aspects like migration, religion, food, dress, language, & religious holidays are cultural.
  • How are these cultural elements different in Somali culture than they are in small-town American culture?
  • What is important to know about these cultural elements, as they apply to Somali culture?
  • What do the Somali immigrants and the local Lewiston residents probably have in common?
  • What could local American government institutions, schools, and residents do to make accommodations for—and be sensitive toward—the cross-cultural differences?
  • How does this experience of cross-cultural contact illustrate what we’ve learned about cultural knowledge, individual behavior, and the process of cultural change?

Additionally, the paper was to be written in APA style (which I hope I got right) with at least 5 different references for material covered in the course to date.  I’ve included the references at the end of the post, so that the in-text citations make sense, and so a potential reader can find more information or verify the information I’ve presented in case they’re doing their own research for a paper.  I’ve also added some images to make this long stretch of text a bit more visually appealing.

Please keep in mind that this paper was written based only on the information given, rather than on any more recent events in Lewiston.

If you have any questions about the paper, please feel free to contact me or leave a comment.


Culture Clash: Small-Town American vs. Somalian Immigrant Culture

America is a great melting pot of cultures, but sometimes, cultures don’t want to be melted. To be more specific, there are sometimes groups of people who immigrate to the United States, but don’t want to assimilate into American culture. They bring their culture with them and then create isolated pockets of their own cultures within the greater American society. This isn’t an issue that only comes from immigrants. There are groups in the United States who have been here for generations that we all accept, like the Amish, who do not embrace modern American culture. Perhaps the reason we don’t mind having these insular groups in the United States is because they are, in fact, insular. They don’t try to impose their beliefs on the established order. In the case of the Amish, many of the beliefs and practices are still similar enough to our own that we can, if not accept them, understand them.

Problems arise when two very different cultures attempt to interact with each without trying to understand or make accommodation for each other first. Each group makes demands of the other group, oftentimes without being willing to compromise in any way. This paper will be discussing the ways in which culture and the misunderstanding of it have led to culture clashes between Somali immigrants in Lewiston, Maine and the local, small-town American population already living there (Belluck, 2002).

What is Culture?

Before trying to understand how cultural differences have led to misunderstandings between immigrant populations and the local, receiving populations, it will be helpful to understand just what culture is. The popular idea of culture is that it’s a desirable trait you can somehow acquire by attending a certain number of plays, visiting art galleries, or by going to classy concerts (Ember, Ember, & Peregrine, 2010). The reality is that culture is a difficult concept to nail down (Townsend, 2011) and an exact definition has been debated by anthropologists, with entire books being dedicated to the subject (White J. J., May/June 1998). The earliest definition of culture stated that it is “[t]hat complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (White E. B., 1871). This is a very inclusive definition, which leads you to believe that almost every aspect of daily life is cultural, and it is. Waking up in the morning and having a cup of coffee is cultural. Using an alarm clock to get out of bed at a set time is cultural. Driving your car to work every day is cultural. Going to church on Sunday is also cultural. Culture is everything we’ve been trained to do by the external sources that surround us (parents, television, education, radio, etc.), that allow us to function as well-integrated members of our societies.

So then, what is a society? And how do we define what cultural traits belongs to a society? A society is (Ember et al., 2010) “a group of people who occupy a particular territory and speak a common language not generally understood by neighboring peoples” (p. 224). These territories may or may not correspond to existing countries, which is the case with the Somali, who have populations in Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia (Shurgin, 2006). For a behavior to be considered a cultural trait of a particular society it must be a widely held belief or practice that is commonly found amongst the population (Ember et al., 2010). Using this information, it can readily be accepted that aspects of a society that are shared and practiced by the majority of a people are elements of that society’s distinct culture. This can include their choice of clothing, the types of food they eat, their language(s), holidays, and even beliefs. In regards to the Somali in Lewiston, even their migration can be seen as a result of culture. “Push and pull” (Migration: A Profile of the US, 2009) cultural factors in the country being emigrated from and the receiving country can act as powerful motivators to cause a migration. For example, the climate of war and conflict in Somalia, caused by the cultural tradition of clan loyalty is a strong push factor for emigration, whereas the relatively open, accepting, and peaceful society within the United States (caused by our culturally derived judicial and governmental systems) can be a strong pull factor, making it a desirable destination for immigrants.

So, culture is a powerful influence that affects almost every aspect of our lives. We grow up believing that the way we do things, our culture, is the normal way of doing things, and when we’re confronted with foreign cultures, especially those that are radically different from our own, it creates tension, and sometimes fear. However, it also challenges us to expand our view of the world and recognize how we’re different from other people, and how we’re the same. We have to allow for the fact that people are going to be different based on where they’re from, and because of these differences they may not see even the simplest aspects of life the same way we do. The tensions in Lewiston are caused by a failure to adequately understand other peoples’ cultures, both on the part of the Somali and the indigenous residents. One example is the mayor sending a letter to the Somali community, written in English, when most of the Somali don’t understand English. On the other hand, you could say that the Somali reaction to the letter was overly violent, because they immediately assumed it was an attack, instead of understanding the local economic situation and thinking of how their intrusion in the local culture has affected the original residents (Belluck, 2002).

These differences between cultures have become much more prominent in the media lately, specifically between what you could call Muslim culture and American culture, due to the United States’ military actions in the Middle East over the last decade. Because of these conflicts, Muslims in general are branded as the enemy. This idea of Muslims being the enemy has been well seated in the United States, and it is with this outlook that the Lewiston residents encountered and came into conflict with the obviously Muslim-influenced culture of the Somali immigrants.

Cultural Differences and Similarities:
Somali Immigrants vs. Lewiston Natives

Beginning to recognize differences between the culture of the Somali immigrants and the native culture of the Lewiston residents would help to shed light on the problem, and perhaps present solutions. The Somali come from a country on the Horn of Africa, which is predominantly Muslim. Many of the elements of their culture are borrowed from nearby Arab countries. Some of their practices may be seen as primitive or strange to Americans, but the culture of the Somali immigrants is simply a result of where they were born.

Somali immigrant workers.

(Image from: The Two Malcontents)

An important thing to understand about the Somali is that their culture and daily habits are heavily influenced by their religion, Islam, even to the point of their legal system being based on sharia (Islamic) law (Culture of Somalia, 2011). Despite President Obama’s recent announcement that the United States is not a Christian nation, the United States has been heavily influenced by the ideas and morals presented by the Bible. Many of our laws are based on Christian ideas and many of the great changes in our society, such as the end to slavery, were partially argued on the grounds that it violated the religious principles of Christianity (Gilson, 2009). It would be more accurate to say that the United States is a secular nation with Christian values. It’s easy to see how conflicts could arise between a Christian/secularist culture and a culture that is heavily influenced by Islam, especially since most Somalis hold their Muslim beliefs and practices in the highest regard.

The Somali’s adherence to Islam has had a profound effect on their culture. In terms of clothing, most Somali dress in adherence to Islamic principles. Men must wear clothing that covers them from neck to knee, and women must be covered from neck to ankle in non-form-fitting clothing. Married women may additionally wear a head scarf and/or a shawl (Culture of Somalia, 2011). The clothing they wear is sometimes based on region, sometimes adopted from neighboring Arab countries, but is almost always designed for a hot, arid climate and is in compliance with Islamic ideology. Most Somali speak the Somali language, but are illiterate. However, because of the influence of Islam, many Somali can speak and write Arabic, which is the language of the Qur’an. The Somali practice Muslim holidays, such as Ramadan, the month of fasting to celebrate the revelation of the Qur’an; Id al-Fitr; the First of Muharram, when an angel shakes the tree of life and death; Maulid an-Nabi (a celebration of Muhammad’s birth); and Id al-Adha, which commemorates the story of Abraham and his son Ishmael (Shurgin, 2006).


(Photograph by Kevin Fleming/CORBIS)

Other aspects of Somali culture are influenced by the region they come from. In addition to the clothing being adapted to hot, arid climates, the environment has affected their social structure and diet. Many Somali still live off the land as nomads and herders. Their diet consists mainly of cereals and grains, with few vegetables or meats. Due to adherence to Islam, alcohol and pork are not consumed. Milk, tea, coffee and water are the consumed drinks. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, a division of labor based on gender and age has been created, and people tend to live in multi-generational households. They also value interdependence and commonly have large families (Culture of Somalia, 2011).

By comparison, US society is very different. The most commonly recognized and observed holidays are secular or Christian. Individualism is highly valued in society, with children being shooed out the door as soon as possible. Families are typically small, with 2-3 children, rather than the 6+ in Somali families. Alcohol is consumed in great quantities, and a meal is not considered complete without meat, including pork at breakfast. The literacy rate in the US is high due to standardized education and people generally dress according to fashion, rather than a strict religious ideology. One of the greatest differences, though, is the separation of church and state. The Somali culture is incredibly Muslim, and as stated before, even their laws are drawn from their Islamic faith. Despite earlier Christian influences, our government is increasingly enforcing the separation of religion and government from public institutions. Private companies also try to enforce rules against actively promoting or practicing religion in the workplace. This active attempt to remove religion from daily life seems quite natural to Americans, because it’s a principle that the country was founded on. Religion has its place, and US society has determined that place to be outside of public areas. To a Somali Muslim, however, it may be seen as an attack on the Muslim faith, particularly since they require allowances for prayer times throughout the day, as well as facilities for performing ablutions before prayer (Mohammed, 2009). The denial of these facilities for those actions may be seen as a proper separation of church and state, but to a Muslim who is unaware of that cultural trend it may feel targeted.

Despite vast differences in culture, the Somali and the Lewiston residents both have things in common. Both groups have pride in their culture and are trying to do the best they can with the opportunities they’ve been given. Both groups hope for a better future for themselves and their families. Both groups likely value having a peaceful, happy town to live in, where they don’t have to be afraid of physical violence or racially motivated attacks. Both groups are likely hoping for a peaceful resolution that will allow for coexistence. At the time of the writing of Belluck’s article (2002), they also had one more thing in common. They failed to try to understand each other before reacting to the situation they found themselves in.

Accommodation and Cultural Change

Regardless of whether or not it is ‘right’ for the Somali immigrants to settle in Lewiston, or to have been admitted into the United States, it has already happened, and rather than create tension and possibly incite violence, this is an opportunity for these groups to learn about each other and possibly find a common ground to work from. For the residents of Lewiston, the only way for these two groups to come to grips with each other is through dialogue. This dialogue could be opened through town hall meetings. The local government could hold these meetings to address concerns in the town that everyone, including the immigrants, could voice their opinion on. The feeling of working together produced by these meetings would start building a sense of community. Additionally, qualified speakers could be brought in to talk about important cultural aspects of both Somali Muslim and American culture. Another possibility for Lewiston is that they could insert short, commercial-like infomercials into normal commercials that give a brief description of Somali Muslim cultural aspects, like why they wear burkas or why they pray five times a day. In the future, though, steps could be taken by the US government to prevent this type of situation from occurring in the first place.


Robert F. Bukaty / AP
Somali women and children in downtown Lewiston, Me.

When such large and foreign populations are introduced into American society, certain steps could be taken to ensure successful integration. The key to that success is education. It’s hard to predict where large groups of immigrants will attempt to settle, so the best solution for educating locals would be to introduce anthropological and cultural perspectives classes into secondary education as a mandatory requirement on a national level. The United States doesn’t exist alone, and understanding the world around us is beneficial for more reasons than just getting along with potential immigrants. As for the immigrants, mandatory and extended education about American culture, prior to being admitted into the general population, would likely go a long way towards accelerating their assimilation into society, or at the least, help them understand the people they’ll be interacting with. If the Somali immigrants in Lewiston had been taught about the role women play in our society, they wouldn’t have reacted the way they did to female employees (Belluck, 2002). Another helpful accommodation the government could make would be to provide English lessons for refugee immigrants that are admitted to the country. If the government is going to introduce groups of foreigners into US society, it should take responsibility for its actions and make sure these people are well equipped to, at the least, communicate with other Americans on a basic level. It is irresponsible to simply turn them loose in the US and expect them to become successful members of society. These refugee immigrants should also be evaluated for potential job skills, and if none are found, they should be trained. Again, it is irresponsible to simply release these people into American society, where they will invariably wind up living off the welfare system in perpetuity.

There are many things institutions, such as schools, could do to accommodate Muslim Somali immigrants, but the question to be asked is should they? As previously stated, the separation of church and state has rendered the practice of religion in public schools, for example, impossible except for the most private and innocuous of activities, such as praying silently (to yourself) over your meal at lunch time. If these sorts of restrictions have been placed on religion in public institutions, based on a Constitutional Amendment, should we make allowances for immigrant religions just for the sake of appeasement? Should we create a double standard where one religious group is excluded and another is permitted as much freedom as they want? Part of living in the United States is adhering to the local culture, which includes the local laws regulating what is acceptable in public institutions. If that means that religious traditions have to be slightly modified to fit the current situation, then it wouldn’t be the first time it has happened. Rather than ask what the government can do for them, they should ask what they can do for the government. Performing ablutions in a school’s gym showers would be perfectly fine, but allowing Muslim students to miss class time for religious practices would be unfair to the other religious groups that are denied similar privileges, as well as be detrimental to their education, since they would be missing instruction. If an accommodation for Muslims to practice religion in the schools is made, then that same accommodation should be afforded to people of all religions. If that were the case, then the solution would be simple. The school day could be extended by half an hour to 45 minutes, with a period of ‘free time’ beginning at noon. This would allow immigrant Muslim students to go to the gym showers to perform ablutions, conduct prayers in a designated location, and then return to class without missing out on anything. It would give students of other faiths time to have religious meetings, or to hang out with friends, or even to do homework. Another advantage would be that the practice of having a break between classes would start acclimating students to the educational atmosphere present in most colleges. In short, for a religious accommodation in a public institution, such as a school, it should be an ‘all-or-nothing’ policy that includes everyone.


(Photo from ISEDSolutions (Institute For Social And Economic Development))

The experience of the Somali immigrants in Lewiston and the reactions of the locals (noted in Belluck’s article (2002)) illustrate some of the basic concepts of culture and cultural change. We, as individuals, are all products of our social and physical environments, meaning we are all shaped by the culture around us. The way we interpret the world around us depends as much on culture as it does our educations and economic abilities. Because the Somali’s grew up in their Muslim dominated African culture, they had certain expectations of what liberties they should have, what ‘place’ women should be in, and they also had certain expectations of what to believe in terms of ‘white people’. When the mayor of Lewiston presented them with his letter, they immediately assumed they were being put upon by an “ill-informed leader who is bent towards bigotry” (Belluck, 2002). They assumed that because he was white, his intentions toward them were racist, based simply on the color of his skin. In this instance, the mayor’s skin color acted as a “floating signifier” (Jhally, 1997), conferring certain expectations in regards to his behavior, and the behavior of the other white townspeople. The mayor’s letter was made based on the townspeople’s own interpretation of what “them people” (Belluck, 2002) did or did not understand about American culture, economics and the situation of the town. It was an assumption of the Somali’s level of intelligence, based on the fact that they’re from a third world country and have immigrated to the United States. The integration of the Somali immigrants into the Lewiston population also gives us a clear example of acculturation. Based on Belluck’s article (2002), we can see that the Somali immigrants did what most Americans do when confronted with a social problem: they turned to the media to gain attention for their situation and swing popular opinion in their favor. If that isn’t American, nothing is. You could also say that the Somali have adopted the “American Dream”, migrating from place to place within the US to try to find a better life for both themselves and their children, even going so far as to dream of having “a house by the beach one day” (Belluck, 2002).


Culture is a powerful factor that influences our lives in ways that most of us never even begin to guess. It affects our outlook on life and can cause us to come into conflict with people of other cultures due to differences and a lack of education. The Lewiston residents and the Somali immigrants to Lewiston found that out the hard way, by allowing conflict to occur, rather than initiating discussions to learn about each other and overcome differences and challenges as a unified group. These sorts of problems could be greatly alleviated by an aggressive education campaign among American secondary students and incoming refugee immigrants. Additionally, greater freedoms could be allowed to people in institutional settings for the accommodation of religious practices, so long as those practices do not interfere with the actual purpose of the institution and the implemented policies are unilaterally applied. The case of the Somali immigrants in Lewiston serves as a great example of the importance of understanding culture and how it works, or doesn’t work, for us in the real world, as well as showing us the beginnings of cultural acculturation of immigrants. The process of understanding and reaching common ground between groups with such different backgrounds will never be an easy one, but with proper education and respect it will be possible.


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