Hyphenating Americans


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.

  • White
  • Black, African Am., or Negro
  • American Indian or Alaska Native — Print name of enrolled or principal tribe. 
  • Asian
  • Indian
  • Chinese
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Filipino
  • Vietnamese
  • 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.

14 thoughts on “Hyphenating Americans

  1. I agree; plus, if you want to identify someone by race who isn’t American, there would (hopefully) be less of a temptation to use that hyphenate. I still remember an Entertainment Tonight segment in which they referred to Brit model/trouble-maker Naomi Campbell as African-American.
    Seriously, people? I can just imagine Naomi chucking a phone at whoever dared tag her as an American. 😀

  2. Great post, PT. Powerful poem, too. I remember reading an article about this a few years ago, and the author noted that when Americans travel abroad, we don’t use hyphenation. We’re just Americans. That’s true. When traveling to other countries, you don’t hear people say, “I’m Mexican-American or African-American.”

  3. Dream on, Susan … along with so many others of us. Part of the problem you’ve outlined early: immigrants want to hang on to their heritage. You can’t get past that – not for a couple of generations at least.

    1. I understand that on some level. But still, if they were so eager to come here and become Americans … it’s not like their heritage will be lost if they don’t hang a hyphen on it.

      1. They want to shout it. It’s exactly the same here: I used to wax wrothful about ’em and wonder why they didn’t want to become completely integrated into the country. But I gave up on it: reckoned there were too many complex issues for them. Besides, their children will be. 🙂

  4. When I was a kid, I was confused by those around me who were complaining about being denied the rights afforded to other citizens one one hand, and yet were demanding to be identified as something else on the other. When I’m in a foreign country, I expect to be referred to as “The American,” but here at home, where I’m supposedly among equals, I should have the right to be called by my name.

    You’re right PT. It is too bad the feeling didn’t last…

    1. Well, I’m no kid, and I’m still confused by what you describe. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. And yes, everyone has the right to be called by their name. That’s just respect and common courtesy.

  5. I always thought it had to do with generations of Americans: The first three were hyphenated, and the fourth wasn’t. They hyphen melted away in the pot. I’m fourth generation on my father’s side, so not hyphenated there, but third on my mother’s, so Italian-American, German-American, Polish-American, Russian-American there. It does seem antiquated, but that’s what I learned as a kid. I didn’t learn it as a form of disparagement. Heck, a lot of people were proud that their grandparents were OTB–“off the boat.” I certainly was. A lot of them arrived with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing, and the Russians barely got out of their native land alive during the Revolution. Maybe it’s a New York thing? They were all extremely proud to be Americans, but things like food and holiday traditions just don’t disappear because of geography. A nonna’s kitchen was Italian, on pain of being hit with a shoe. 😉

  6. I submit that the urge to hyphenate is a symptom of tribalism, something firmly embedded in human beings by evolution. Overcoming that for the purpose of national unity, historically, is easiest under serious external threat, like the attack on Pearl Harbor or, as in the poem, like 9/11.

    We have made progress in my lifetime. The armed forces were successfully integrated and the schools desegregated. The government recanted the WW II internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry, blacks were admitted to professional sports and found prominent roles in the entertainment industry. But a strong substrate of ethnic tribalism remains – I blame that for much of the inter-party rivalry in Washington. It is visceral. The election of a (half) black to the presidency is at once a symbol of progress and a source of bitter but mostly unvoiced resentment. The actions of the GOP make it clear that they would rather injure the country than afford this president any kind of legislative success. Examples: the sequester and the government shutdowns.

    Overcoming hyphenation is symbolic of the challenge of overcoming tribalism, and that’s contrary to our nature. Can rationality prevail over instinct? And maybe I should add, can a nation of navel-gazers do it without war? So far, the stats at the voting polls are not encouraging.

  7. Members of my family did their best to obliterate the hyphen (German-American), perhaps because just before and during WWI there was quite a bit of animosity toward things German where they lived. My father was second generation, and was fluent in German, yet he refused to teach his children the language. When the topic arouse, I well remember his “We are Americans here” comment. Two of the three young men in the family volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army as soon as they could.

    Of course, the unintended consequence of the American patriotism was that my sister and I lost a great opportunity to learn a second language. To this day, I can count in German and sing snatches of a few songs, and that’s about it. We’ve visited new relatives in Germany several times in the past few years. It would have been nice to talk with them in their own language.

... and that's my two cents