An American Editor

June 9, 2010

Is it Time to Go Beyond Hyphenation?

Today’s paper New York Times had a front page article spotlighting the Republican primary in South Carolina that described Nikki Haley, candidate for governor, as “an Indian-American,” as if this was a reason to vote for or against her. USA Today reported today that Hispanics — both illegal immigrants and legal residents and citizens — are leaving Arizona in anticipation of the new anti-immigration law becoming effective in a few weeks (see Documenting Me).

Hyphenation is a tricky topic because people want a group identity, but unlike anywhere else in the world, Americans are hyphenated. I haven’t yet met a hyphenated British, Jamaican, Algerian, German, Mexican, Brazilian person, only of hyphenated Americans.

We speak of ourselves as Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans, African-Americans, even though our connection to Mexico, Ireland, or Africa is really tenuous. If someone tells me they are Mexican-American, I wonder whether that means they are immigrants just recently naturalized as American citizens or that they are Americans of Mexican descent (and if the latter, are they Mexican on both sides and for how many generations have they lived in America).

Here’s my question: If they were born in the United States, or were naturalized, aren’t they simply Americans?

Okay, I understand that this is an attempt by some of us to keep a link with a past with which we really have little familiarity or solidarity. And I also understand that it is an attempt by some to have a handy way to categorize others — either favorably or unfavorably. But if my paternal grandfather emigrated from Russia, my paternal grandmother from Poland, my paternal grandfather from Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my maternal grandmother was born in America (but her father emigrated from Germany and her mother from Spain), and both my parents and I were born in the United States, what am I?

What link should I keep? Why choose one link above the others? Does it matter that, for example, the Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer exists? If I emigrate from the United Kingdom, is my hyphen United Kingdom, British, English, Scotch, Welch, Anglo, Saxon, Celtic, Irish, Jute, French (remember 1066)? If from my hodgepodge background I choose, say, Russian and declare myself Russian-American, what am I really saying about myself? What useful (and accurate) information am I really conveying to someone when I respond by saying “Russian-American” — especially as I have never been to Russia and only know it by what I read?

How many generations back should I go to establish my hyphen? I suppose we could all claim to be African-Americans if science is correct that our first ancestors did come from Africa. How tenuous a connection is acceptable?

I am not suggesting that we should not appreciate or celebrate our roots; after all, somewhere along the line those roots made us what we are. But for those of us who were born in the United States or who became naturalized citizens, isn’t it enough to simply say we are Americans?

“Why,” you ask (I’m sure), “are you raising this issue? Is it really an important matter?” Good questions; let me see if I can provide satisfactory answers.

When we classify ourselves by hyphenation, we separate ourselves from other hyphens. After all, we all know that a Mexican-American is not the same as an Irish-American. When we hear the hyphenated identity, we conjure up specific images. We group ourselves, and our interests, in accordance with the left side of the hyphen rather than with the right side. And this is tragic. We see the tragedy in, for example, the discussions regarding immigration. No one views the struggle to solve America’s immigration problem as solving an American problem; it is viewed as solving (or addressing) a hyphenation problem. For example, Mexican-Americans and Latino-Americans view the troubles in Arizona as being discriminatory against them.

But without hyphenation the perspective changes. The solutions, or where someone falls in the spectrum of solutions, may not change, but the perception of the problem changes. No one asks now why it is okay for other countries to limit the immigration of Americans (no hyphenation) but it is not okay for the United States to limit immigration of prehyphenates. Mexico objects to our limiting Mexican immigration but no one objects to Mexico’s limits on American immigration. Why? Because of hyphenation. The problem gets mischaracterized into a problem of hyphenation rather than of America. The problem is viewed as a restriction on the Mexican part of Mexican-American.

Are we electing presidents and governors and senators and other officeholders based on their hyphenation or on their qualification. I think if the former, it is a sad commentary on us.

Isn’t it offensive that Americans and legal immigrants believe they must flee Arizona, a state they have a right to live in, just to avoid being harassed. It certainly offends me to think that Americans have to flee America to avoid being harassed for being American or where they have a right to be.

Hyphenation does have a role to play today and certainly had a much larger role to play not so many decades ago. But hasn’t the time come when we should all just be Americans and unhyphenated? Yes, we should continue to celebrate ancestral days with parades and festivals and cultural organizations and activities — after all, what makes America great and different from everywhere else is the variety of nationalities that melded together, and continue to meld together, to create America. But perhaps we should just be Americans, without hyphenation.

Perhaps once we all think of ourselves as simply Americans, we will discover that we can, together, solve America’s problems — the universal problems that affect us all as Americans — and overcome the rancor that now pervades the political process. I do my part: When asked what I am, I always answer “American” — no hyphenation needed!

9 Comments »

  1. If you want to hyphenate your name, you’d be a European-American. Some people are proud of their ethnic background, and recent immigrants often don’t have the mongrel background of you and me (I’m Irish, Scottish, German, Italian, Flemish plus whatever the wives, whose background is often not indicated, were).

    My next-door neighbors often hang an Italian flag when they have parties. I think they’re proud to be Italian Americans (many styles no longer use hyphens).

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    Comment by gretchen — June 9, 2010 @ 10:04 am | Reply

    • “many styles no longer use hyphens”

      This is true but it would have been difficult to come up with an alternative to “hyphenated Americans” to cover the unhyphenated version. Perhaps “paired Americans”?🙂. I can’t remember the last book I edited in which we used the hyphen. The books now use African American, Italian American, etc.

      “Some people are proud of their ethnic background”

      Yes, this is true, but I often wonder what they are so proud of. What I mean is that many have no real experience of their heritage, just the Americanized version. I would think that only the recent immigrant and the first-generationers would have any true closeness to the ethnic background. Plus it seems as if much too often too much emphasis is placed on that background and too little on the American part. How many groups fight to oppose, for example, legislation or acts by the State Department that are in the best interests of America but not necessarily in the best interests of the ethnic background country? Or support legislation that favors their ethnic background country over someone else’s regardless of whether it is in America’s best interests. Aren’t we seeing that now with, as an example, the furor over Israel’s actions in Gaza?

      “My next-door neighbors often hang an Italian flag when they have parties.”

      I see this in my hometown as well and have neighbors who do the same. I had one neighbor who flew the French flag on Bastille Day. So I asked why. He was proud to be French he said. So I inquired further, especially as I knew he had never traveled outside the United States. Turns out that he had perhaps 1 drop of French heritage as a result of some French ancestor who immigrated to North America in 1720 (or thereabouts). That relative married a Native American and their children married outside the French line. So the only connection was this distant French relative. After learning this, I asked why he would choose to fly the French flag but never flew the American flag or celebrated anything Native American. The answer was incomprehensible.

      If I had to classify myself as you suggest, it would be as an American of European descent, not as a European American. I think the former gives it the proper emphasis and the latter does not.

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      Comment by americaneditor — June 9, 2010 @ 10:55 am | Reply

  2. Some uses of paired/hyphenated descriptors aren’t used necessarily to link a person to their families’ past in their home countries, but to link them to their families’ past here in America. Being called Japanese American out west links a person not only to the Asia island, but to the WWII internment camps. Many Irish Americans follow their American past back to the Irish Diaspora following the Great Famine, and then the prejudice (both de facto and de jure) that they were met with in America. And then, of course, there are African Americans, which I need not even elaborate on.

    Sure, all Americans have some shared history, but these hyphenated-Americans share other, unique histories. They share a specific suffering that is glossed over with a simple “American.”

    Hyphenation is also a tool in opposition of far-right-wing Amurricans who expect all true patriots to essentially be white Christians who speak only English. Referring to oneself as a Mexican American asserts your right, in the face of these people, to be different from them BUT TO STILL BE AMERICAN. I think thats why many legal Mexican immigrants in Arizona are fleeing the state now. They recognize that many of their neighbors don’t really believe that a Mexican-born naturalized American is really an American.

    From your point of view, you don’t need to identify yourself as a hyphenated American unless you need to tell people about who and what you are through that hyphenation. Sure, it can be used against people — like it has in the South Carolina election — to create an us versus them mentality, but it can just as easily be used to celebrate the fact that how we are different is as important and strengthening as how we are the same.

    After all, it’s e pluribus unum, not simply “We are one.”

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    Comment by 4ndyman — June 9, 2010 @ 11:50 am | Reply

  3. I think it’s time for America to be TRULY colorblind. Stop ASKING for ethnic background on all official forms. Stop breaking into “us and them” groups. Whatever you want to celebrate on your own – GREAT! I joined my Scottish Clan! But I don’t expect to be called anything but “American” – because that is where I was born. That is where I grew up. That is my citizenship. And that is what my passport says.

    Enough is enough.

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    Comment by Kris — June 9, 2010 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

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    Pingback by Tweets that mention Is it Time to Go Beyond Hyphenation? « An American Editor -- Topsy.com — June 9, 2010 @ 6:20 pm | Reply

  5. Census forms will never stop asking race questions, as well as marriage and age questions. That information is used for all sorts of medical and demographic studies that can ultimately influence government policy.

    In other places, people will ask for one’s race because they have to prove to the gov’t that they AREN’T illegally discriminating.

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    Comment by 4ndyman — June 10, 2010 @ 12:50 pm | Reply

  6. For once you and I agree on something. I don’t see people based on their hyphenation. If you are in America, you are here in one of four categories: natural-born, naturalized, legal immigrant, illegal immigrant. Under the first two categories you are an American. Their isn’t any hyphenation. This is the what the founders intended, forget about whether they were pro-slavery or anti-slavery (there were those that were). Our founding fathers built a country that accepts all peoples. To say that hyphenating your affiliation is showing pride in your heritage is ignorant. To hyphenate my nationality is to segregate myself. If I say that I am Irish-American, I separate myself from all others. This is racism! I’m either implying that I am better than others, or identifying my minority status (which is another area that I have a problem with). Inner city areas that are devastated by poverty isn’t a minority problem, it is an American problem. We are the United States of America. Hyphenation is divisive, not uniting.

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    Comment by David — June 11, 2010 @ 11:13 am | Reply

  7. Y’all are tiptoeing around the real reason, which is if you don’t identify yourself as a something-American, then you won’t likely qualify for set-asides; for special hiring and business-owner,college entrance, and mortgage/housing preferences; and to get money taken from the un-hyphenated Americans to make up for something they (personally) never had anything to do with! If the Irish are still smarting over stuff that happened more than 70 years ago, and the blacks (excuse me, the African Americans) are still smarting over things that happened 100+ years ago — when does it end?! I’ve had a self-identified Mexican (excuse me again, a Mexican-American) woman snarl viciously at me that “she didn’t move! The BORDERS moved!” (I think she meant her family had lived in Mexico many, many, many decades ago, when “America” won a bunch of land in a war: welcome to history!) — and so her first loyalty is to Mexico and Mexicans? I don’t get that. If she’s so furious at “Americans” — what is SHE!?

    Choosing to hyphenate (or being denied the right to hyphenate — calling yourself European-American, or Euro-American can get you fired nowadays!) is just a way to act out of (and gain advantages because of) a group loyalty that is NOT related to the country, but to an ethnic heritage — while the ethnic heritage that created and formed this country is not allowed loyalty to THEIR ethnic heritage.

    p.s., This “Our founding fathers built a country that accepts all peoples.” is just not true. (Or, at least, it was fer shure not their intention. What’s been done to it would likely not meet with their approval.)

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    Comment by Avalanche — June 20, 2010 @ 11:51 pm | Reply

  8. Just because something is right for one person, does not mean it’s right for everybody. I think the evidence shows that having ancestral pride and national pride both make most people the happiest. It is rare that this leads to arrogance and extremism. Rather, it gives one a sense of community and tends to make one more aware of cultures in general without it being an “issue”. It gives a sense of all humanity being different AND the same at the same time and connectedness to things other than the immediate and makes one less bigoted. It also tends to cultivate a sense of curiosity and a knowledge of geopolitics, history and language, things which have no downside. On the other hand, saying everyone should be just one thing in one way is a rather fascist way of thinking that leads to the fundamentalism and hatred of the “other” which of course is negative.

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    Comment by Michelle Gouin — June 22, 2013 @ 12:00 pm | Reply


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