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!

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