This country is full of hyphenated Americans. Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, etc. And it leads one to contemplate why. (And yes, we know that, strictly speaking, the hyphens should be used only in adjectival constructions.)
Often the hyphenated designations are chosen and used by individuals either to show pride in their heritage or for political reasons, or both. In other cases, the designation is applied by someone else — journalists, for example — to specify a certain segment of the population. But whatever the reason, the result is a lot of different designations with no uniform purpose or rationale.
A Mexican-American, for example, may be a naturalized American citizen who was born in Mexico or a person born in America who is of Mexican heritage — which may mean Mexican parents, grandparents, or perhaps an even earlier generation. And while some Mexican-Americans may insist on the designation, others may feel it’s discriminatory to be called something other than just American. The same is true for other hyphenated groups.
And where’s the logic in using the terms “Mexican-American,” “Asian-American,” and “African-American” when Mexico is a single country and Asia and Africa are entire continents? The terms aren’t parallel; there’s no consistency. A hyphenation can indicate country (or continent?) of birth, parents’ citizenship, or lineage going back many generations. And it may even be inaccurate. Most “African-Americans,” for example, were not born in Africa, nor were their parents. Nor are all blacks of African heritage (eg, some are Caribbean), nor all Africans black (8% of South Africans are white). Going further, at one point it was even suggested the U.S. Census Bureau consider changing its racial designation “white” (formerly “Caucasian”) to “European American.” While that didn’t occur, the 2010 U.S. Census really got into the weeds with race and ethnicity:
For this census, Hispanic origins are not races. Is this person of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?
- No, not of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin
- Yes, Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano
- Yes, Puerto Rican
- Yes, Cuban
- Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin — Print origin, for example, Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Spaniard, and so on.
What is this person’s race? Mark X one or more boxes.
- Black, African Am., or Negro
- American Indian or Alaska Native — Print name of enrolled or principal tribe.
- Other Asian — Print race, for example, Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, Cambodian, and so on.
- Native Hawaiian Guamanian or Chamorro Samoan Other Pacific Islander — Print race, for example, Fijian, Tongan, and so on.
- Some other race — Print race
All that, and yet the 2010 census was the first one since 1850 that did not ask for citizenship or birthplace. Obviously both politics and genetics were in play here.
Between 1890 and 1920, the term “hyphenated American” was commonly used as an epithet to disparage those of foreign birth or origin or who displayed an allegiance to a foreign country. Both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were outspoken anti-hyphenates. Even today, hyphenations are used by some to discriminate and derogate. Like so much other terminology, it’s sometimes hard to know if a hyphenation will be considered politically correct or inexcusably offensive.
There’s not even complete agreement on what comes after the hyphen. “American” can mean someone from one of the Americas — North, South, or Central — although it usually means North and specifically, the United States. And in that context, the dictionary says it can mean either a citizen or someone who resides in the U.S., although citizen is the usual interpretation.
Hyphenation was a topic after 9/11 with USA Today’s publication of a poem by Reuben D. Eckels, 38, of Wichita, Kansas:
The Day I lost My Hyphen
Frantic, worried, wife didn’t call, the day I lost my hyphen.
Plane fell many died, black, white, yellow the day I lost my hyphen.
No more African-American once the second plane hit, the day I lost my
United in sorrow, pain, anger, courage, resolve and love of God, family
and of my country.
Day of infamy, no my day to stand, my day of rebirth, no longer
African-American but an American on the day I lost my hyphen.
Nobody was thinking about hyphens that day. We were all simply Americans. Too bad the feeling didn’t last.
Perhaps it’s an old-fashioned nationalist point of view and politically incorrect, but can’t we all just be Americans? Wouldn’t it be simpler all around, and a lot less divisive, to do away with all the hyphens and just call all U.S. citizens “Americans”? If you’re a citizen, you’re an American. Period. Nobody need be a modified, qualified American, a hyphenated part-American.