A Case for Hyphenated Americans

As a social studies teacher, I always discuss the differences between nationality, culture, ethnicity and race with my ninth-grade students.  It’s part of our World Geography curriculum (click here for a PDF paper on the subject).  I get some interesting reactions from my students during this discussion.  It is, after all, a very sensitive subject.  Many of my students do not want to be referred to as black, or red, or yellow, or whatever.  One of my girl students last year raised her hand during this discussion.  When I called on her, she said, “Mr. Garry, we prefer the term African-American.”

“I know you do, Jamasa (not her real name),” I said, “but that is a term that refers to one’s cultural or ethnic identity, not to race.  To illustrate, I continued, “In my church, there is a white family that came to the United States from South Africa.  If they were to become American citizens now, would it be appropriate for us to refer to them as African-Americans?  No, you see how that wouldn’t quite work?  Years ago, in another community, I served in a ministry that included a black man from Rhodesia.  He was still a citizen of his native country, working in the U.S. as an employee of the World Bank.  So, it would have been most inap- propriate for me to refer to him as an African-American, right?”

She, and all my other students, got the point.  But, as a result of this dialogue, the growing diversity of my present congregation, and my choice of words in recent blog postings, I have become acutely aware of a gaping chasm in the way that we refer to one another in this country.  With so many of us preferring to be referred to by our heritage… African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Native-American, etc., why is that the rest of us are just referred to as “white?”  Why is it that being called white doesn’t bother those of us who are?  Maybe it’s because we don’t need to be some special kind of Americans because we are the norm?  We’re just the regular kind of Americans.

Regular?  Hmmm… who gets to be regular in this multicultural country, and, why?  Is it because people that look and act more like me are still in the majority?  What happens after Mexican-Americans and African-Americans both outnumber whites in this country?  And, as things are progressing demographically, especially here in Northern Texas, it won’t be very long now before this becomes the new reality.  So, maybe I better start claiming my own heritage.  What do you think?

As far as I know, my great-great grandparents all came from various parts of northern Europe.  So that makes me European-American, right?  If I’m that, instead of “white,” then I am claiming my heritage.  When I call myself a European-American, I put myself on the same level as others who claim their heritage.  Then nobody gets to be “the norm,” and nobody has to feel like they are surrounded by strangers.  Either that, or we all feel surrounded.  My hunch is that after there’s no place left for “European-Americans” to flight to, and we’re all bi-lingual, we’ll stop being hyphenated Americans and just be… angels.  Won’t that’ll be the day?  In the mean time, I want to celebrate and participate in the multicultural nature of this country. The mix of languages, religions, perspectives, foods, art, music, and appear- ance adds immeasurably to my life.  To become fully a part of that multicultural reality, then, I need to claim my own heritage.

Theodore Roosevelt, who vehemently spoke out against hyphen- ated Americans in 1915 for not expressing full allegiance to this country (click here to read what he had to say), will probably roll over in his grave when I say this, but I’m finally with you, Jamasa.  I now prefer the term,  European-American, to just plain white.  Let’s leave all the racial references to the geneticists.  After all, following the completed mapping of the human genome and the huge genetic marker study recently completed, if we believe what science it telling us now about race and the origin of mankind, we all came out of Africa originally.

Is this a positive step in consciousness, or just an unneeded burden for the politically correct?  I invite your thoughts — groans included.

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Published in: on July 29, 2006 at 8:54 pm  Comments (6)  

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  1. Funny how we are a virtual melting pot of different etnic backgrounds and cultures. I took an Ethnic History Class in my senior year in High School, and Mr. Maio (wherever you may be at this time) really taught a lot about the various groups that all somehow contributed to the American Culture as a whole.
    My High School, Montgomery High in San Diego, CA was a miniature United Nations. Our majority races were Mexicans and Filipinos. This was stemed from that we had many retired United States Navy People in the area, and Mexicans as it was close to the border of San Diego and Tijuana, Baja California. The minorities were Blacks and Whites, and they too were from retired miltary families, or people who chose to move there as the housing was affordable then. We also had other races that were a very small population, roughly about 1-1.5%.
    Whatever people choose to identify themselves as, my feeling is the bottom line, we are all American Citizens. Thank you, Kent! I liked the article very much. 🙂

  2. I have to disagree with the author and blogger and agree with President Roosevelt. I am Jewish, my granparents were Russian and Romanian, and my wife is Puerto Rican. It is about time my kids could call themselves American and not worry about where their ancestors came from. All of our ancestors, with the exception of those forcibly relocated, came to this country to start anew. This means giving up the old, and joining the new. We all support the ideals of the United States, even if we do not support the government, and we should all be part of the same group, Americans. Anything less, and I consider hyphenization less, is not American, it is other. And we should all live together as one people, not other. Black, white, brown, no matter what color, no matter what culture, no matter what ancestry, we are Americans.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Bob. I respect your opinion, and I suspect that more Americans of European extraction think as you do than as I do. In fact, before I became a teacher in a multi-ethnic school district and joined a church in a different, but also mixed community, I felt the same way. But I’ve become more, dare I use the word… liberal, about others’ preference to preserve their ethic identity.

  4. Multiculturalism is the only alternative I know to Monoculturalism. In this context, monoculturalism is the tendency to think that the ideal American is tall, handsome, male, white, protestant, athletic, self-reliant, possessed of a English surname, a wife, children, a steady job with a middle-class income, a house of his own, and an American flag flying out front. (The description could easily be expanded.) Anyone may just judged as to his or her degree of “Americanism” by the extent to which he or she conforms to, or at least buys into, that image. Any one of those qualities may be missing without seriously impairing one’s Americanism; but the more that are missing, the less one “counts” in this scheme of things.

    If America, as the old WWII song goes, embraces “all races, all religions” then all races, all religions have to be equally American. Can Americans be proud to be Americans, if they can’t also be proud to be Virginians, or Texans, or Vermonters? To be proud of, and celebrate being an Italian-American is no more un-American than celebrating being a Texan-American, although I grant you nobody uses that term. Yes, Texas is part of America. So is the Navajo Nation. So is the community of Arab-Americans. Or Jewish-Americans. E pluribus unum.

    I don’t blame Roosevelt for what he said in 1915. He was talking mainly about those German-Americans and English-Americans who were trying to draw their country into World War I on the side of their ancestors’ homeland. He was talking about loyalty in wartime, not culture.

    The fact is, there is still a difference in economic opportunity and other advantages between Americans who belong to the dominant culture, and those who don’t. If no one pays the least attention to, or assigns any value to, the fact that you belong to that group (people with green eyes, for example) then you will feel less particular association with, or attachment to, that group. Being in that group will seem to have little meaning. “I’m just me, I’m not a green-eye, the term green-eye doesn’t define me.”

    But the more people single out green-eyed persons, and impute certain characteristics to them, the more you will feel solidarity with that group. I never thought of myself as an “American” when I was growing up, just as a person who happened to live in America. After college I spent a year in Europe, where I got to be a foreigner, an outsider, and I discovere that I was an American after all, and that it meant something.
    Being taken for granted as just another person is like air: it don’t me a thing, and you never think about it, until you don’t have it.

    The fact is that many Americans feel that the only place they are really welcome and at home is among others of their own kind, whether that means Baptists, or Texans, or Italian-Americans. We do judge one another by our membership in groups, even if we consciously try to avoid it. A Texan can ignore his Texan-ness in Texas. It is harder for him to avoid it in Mexico, or Maine. Perhaps Mr. Singer thinks his Jewishness just doesn’t matter. Let him move to a community where there are no other Jewish people, and where the people (and I am talking about universally friendly and hospitable people) are always asking him about his Jewishness, and asking his views on the mideast and defend the actions of Israel, and serve as the Jewish representative on this and that, and always remarking on the ethnic nature of his surname (okay, that is really stretching it with Singer) and maybe he won’t feel that being Jewish is just an incidental matter, like his eye color.

    It is tricky. When are you recognizing differences that exist? And when are you perpetuating them?

    Perhaps it is a matter of degree. If my high school doesn’t have the resources of you high school, and geography prevents my from transferring, then I will naturally want the school district to apportion things more fairly. And with proper school spirit, I will root for the home team. This does not mean I have to spit on kids from another school. Nor, if some resources leave your school for mine does it mean that I, by asking for justice, have injured you.

    We should all celebrate whatever groups we feel that we are a part of; if folks want a St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York, or a Cinco de Mayo Parade, or a Texan Independence Day parade, and there are enough of them, then why not?

    If people are interested in knowing more about the history of Americans who came from the same background as themselves, is that so much worse than those who want to know more about their state history? Or the history of their Rotary Club?

  5. I agree with Teddy. I think that BeJay does not get it. I am proud to be an American is more than a bumper sticker. It embraces our diversity and our uniqueness. We are unique in that we take best of our diversity and mold into one culture which we call American. When we hyphenate ourselves we separate ourselves from the greatness that is Ameirca and chain ourselves to the ethnocentrism of our past.

  6. This has been on my mind too. When I lived in Cedar Hill, I was the minority. Generally I was referred to as “White ***” or “Boy.” Both these terms suited me fine. After all, who would stand up to a member of the Blood, with more than six hundred ‘operatives’ around Dallas? It was surely much smarter to play dumb.
    One day I tried to catch the attention of a girl whose backpack had opened without her knowing. Papers spilled everywhere, and pens and pencils littered what little floor space was left. However, she was busy talking to her boyfriend, and I quickly grew frustrated. “Girl! Excuse me!” I blurted, immediately regretting it.
    “What you want?” she demanded, stopping in mid-conversation, probably out of surprise. Had she just been called “girl” by a white boy?
    “Your backpack fell open,” I said, being careful not to meet her boyfriend’s eyes. But by then I’m sure it wouldn’t have mattered if I insulted his dog.
    “You’d better watch yo mouth, cracka,” he said, stepping closer to me.
    Always the witty one, and never one to stop a good debate when it was getting better, I tried intimidation. “Maybe this ‘cracka’ ain’t watching nothing but his self, what then?”
    He bristled. “Then that cracka ain’t gonna call no African-American ‘girl,’ you hear me?”
    “So now I’m food and you’re a person? Last time I checked I didn’t sleep on a grill. But you look marinated all over, what you been doin all day, huh?”
    We had gathered a crowd, and the last time a white boy had ‘scored’ on a member of the Crypt (which was apparent by his dress) was the last time that white boy had been heard from. They oohed and ahhed at this, relishing the moment.
    The Crypt gathered himself. “Ok, ok, white boy got game. So what? You think I’m stupid? Next time you wanna call my girl “girl,” you come find me, got it? I’ll be ready for you then, White ***.”
    At that time Cedar Hill was 11% white, and I was in sixth grade. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the Crypt was probably a sophomore in high school, and more importantly, probably a main ‘operative’ for that area. But that earned me some respect. I wasn’t just “Boy” anymore. I was nothing. In a way, this was worse, but the Crypt gave me a few glances for the remainder of middle school.
    What set him apart from me? His status with the Crypts? No, it wasn’t that. That he had a girlfriend and was always in the company of girls, while most of my time was spent alone in a practice room in the band hall? No, that wasn’t it either. He was African-American, and I was “white.” I wonder what would have happened if I had wanted to be “Russian-American.” He probably would have laughed at me. I was the minority, therefore I had no power. I was not the norm, because the norm was African-American, a title I would never live up to.

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