Tired of the “Hyphenated American?”

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Asian American?” “Hispanic American?” “African American?” Hey, what’s the big deal and why should you care?

Well to answer that question let’s go to a “conversation” I had with a hyphen recently, someone who has literally been, eh, “caught in the middle” of the dilemma:

HYPHEN: Pssst, Terry. Got a sec? I want to talk to you about something that’s been eating away at me.

ME: Sure hyphen but I only have a few minutes. What’s up?

HYPHENYou know, I feel like the Roger Dangerfield in the punctuation family. I just don’t get any respect.

ME: Huh?

HYPHENSeems like I’m the bad guy in what was once fashionable, a source of pride that is now mired in strong emotions. I figured that since we are a country of immigrants, the swing towards hyphenated American was a good thing. Now I’m not so sure.

ME: Tell you what, let me do some digging into this and I’ll get back to you further down.

Consider the hyphen, a puny little guy used in compound words and to break words between syllables. On the other hand, the dash (–) is reserved for compound compounds—it’s hyphen’s “big bro!”

The truth is that although the purpose of the hyphen is to connect – or unite – in a diversity and inclusion context it has been under attack lately.

You see, on one hand “hyphenated American” is a confirmation of one’s pride in his/her country of origin; on the other it’s cringe-inducing, a smack in the face of assimilation. Feelings about it run strong, nowadays more than ever.

To wit, some, like Nick from Newark, have a problem with it as evidenced by his response to an opinion I posted on LinkedIn a while back in which I referred to myself several times as an “African-American”:

Terry you are NOT an African-American,” extolled Nick (the capitalized “NOT” was his, not mine). Mr. Nick, a renowned entomologist I suppose, continued his blistering tirade against my butt. “If you were born in the United States you are an American, NOT a so-called African-American (again the “NOT” was his).

Unfortunately for poor Nick I had to inform him that he has absolutely no say in what I want to be called. That’s my call and the call of anyone who chooses to be called a hyphenated American. It’s called the “Platinum Rule “– Treat people the way they want to be treated; or in this case, how they want to be called.”

Now entrenched into his “I win, you lose” stubbornness, Nick just wasn’t buying it. Okay, cool. Now since he opened the door I decided to walk in with a reminder that in 2004 his governor, the former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevy, announced, “My truth is that I am a gay-American!” I asked Nick if that was okay and if he was okay with Native-American, Jewish-American, or Muslim-American.

Nick? …Nick?… Nick?…. No response. That was the last time I heard from Nick from Newark.

Alas, poor Nicky!

Let’s shift gears now and take a brief look into the origins of and early reactions to the “hyphenated American.”

A “hyphenated American” is a U.S. citizen, whose family origins are outside the United States. During the 1970s, many U.S. groups were proud to refer to their nationality of origin in hyphenated constructions without feeling any less patriotic as Americans. However, in the early part of the 20th century President Theodore Roosevelt was openly critical of Americans who had this split  identy. In a speech he left no doubt where he stood on this issue:

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”

Alas, poor Teddy!

President Woodrow Wilson also regarded hyphenated Americans with suspicion; “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.” 

Alas, poor Woody!

By contrast, other groups have embraced the hyphen, arguing that the American identity is compatible with alternative identities and that the mixture of identities within the United States strengthens the nation rather than weakens it. Thus, some hyphenated American references remain today, i.e., African-American, Native-Americans, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, etc.

However the key is that this reference – or any reference for that matter– is an individual choice and doesn’t necessarily apply across the entire group.

So in the end the debate rages on, one that folks can choose to weigh in on or, like many, just sit quietly on the sidelines and watch the ball go back and forth in the days, months and probably the years ahead.

Oh yes, let’s close with how my conversation with hyphen ended:

HYPHENWow, thanks for what you’ve come up with Terry. I’m feeling a tad better now.

ME: I enjoyed my discussion with you but now have to make a mad dash to the airport. So until the next time…..

HYPHEN: (smiling now) Have a safe trip Terry but want you to know that nowadays I’ve been dropped to the bottom of the punctuation barrel in this age of email addresses, passwords, etc., and have now morphed into, get this… an “underscore.” 

Alas, poor hyphen!


©Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, story teller and trainer who resides in metropolitan Atlanta. He is a senior associate with Diversity Wealth, a member of the Cross Cultural Academy and Contributing Writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle. He can be reached at (470) 558-7310, or via email at wwhoward3@gmail.com.

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