Friday, November 21, 2014

Hyphenated Americans

"All of us, no matter from what land our parents came, no matter in what way we may severally worship our Creator, must stand shoulder to shoulder in a united America for the elimination of race and religious prejudice. We must stand for a reign of equal justice to both big and small."  -- Theodore Roosevelt, 1915
I've had people try to tell me that the reason I wince every time I hear a person describe themselves as a hyphenated American (you know... "Irish-American", "Asian-American, Croatian-Italian-American, and whatever...) is because I am a racist.

My usual reaction is immediately stifling the urge to beat them senseless.

I am not a racist.  Anyone who has seen pictures of my family knows that I'm not a racist.

In point of fact, I tend to not even notice the ethnic background or even the skin color of a person as anything other than trivial data about the individual in question unless that person shoves it into my face.  It just doesn't matter to me what color a person is.

No, the reason I wince is because identifying oneself as a hyphenated American is... well... so exclusionary. Its also vaguely un-American.

Has anyone else noticed the difference in the way in which people are referred? Its become custom to refer to people as African-American, Latino-American, Asian-American, and Native-American rather than referring to them by their skin color, and this is all a good thing.  The less we notice skin color, the less skin color matters.  But then you get to the "white people". Why are they referred to by skin color, when everyone else gets to hyphenate themselves?

And as a short digression, why are they referred to as white? I've never met a white person. I've met some pale tan people, and some pasty peach people, and some light pink people, but never a white person. Wait... small correction. I met a woman in 1996 who was an albino, and I will go on record as saying that she was as close to white as I've seen... but even she had a slight grayish tinge to her skin.

But anyway, why are Caucasians referred to by their skin color?  Is it because they are perceived as the norm against which all other groups are compared?  I hesitate to even suggest it for fear of the return of accusations of racism, but is "white" the skin color in this country that is considered "normal?"

Besides, what in the world could be called a "Normal American" given the absolute truth of our country's diversity?

Let me use myself as a for instance: I've got ancestral cultures I could hyphenate myself with, were I allowed. My grandparents and great grandparents and great-greats came from England and Scotland and Ireland and France and Norway and Germany and Morocco and Portugal and Malta and Lebanon and the Sudan and Russia and Mali.

Yes, Mali and the Sudan.  I've got close ancestors from Sub-Saharan Africa, folks.  Not so white as I appear.  Heh heh heh heh...

So should I call myself an Anglo-American, Scottish-American, Irish-American, Franco-American, Norwegian-American, German-American, Moroccan-American, Portuguese-American, Maltese-American, Lebanese-American, Sudanese-American, Russian-American, or Malian-American?

And how does the fact that some of my Scots ancestors stopped in Ireland and lived there for five generations before coming to America affect things?

Or the fact that some of my French ancestors moved to England and lived there for close to a hundred years before returning to France?

For that matter, some of my English ancestors settled in the Bahamas and lived for three generations before moving on to South Carolina.

Am I an Anglo-Bahamanian-Franco-English, Scotto-Irish-Irish-Norwegian-German-Moroccan-Portuguese-Sudanese, Russio-Malian-American?

I mean, come on... where do I cut this sillyness out?

Besides, "country of origin" is only accurate if you put a time limit on it.

Human beings have been migrating for several million years now, and every time a tribe moves into a new area, they either merge with the folks already there, kill everyone whose already there, or drive out everyone whose already there. This sort of continual movement has blended racial and ethnic characteristics in all of us.

(Maybe I should call myself a Celtic American, since the majority of my ancestry lies in countries that were settled by Celtic people.)

I do not hyphenate myself because I do not identify culturally with any of those places. I was born and raised here, in this country, and except for two years in Germany and a year in Japan with the Army, I've never spent any significant time anywhere else.  My cultural identity is with the United States.

Of course, I'm betting you can start interviewing people who call themselves African-Americans and spend all day before you find one whose actually spent a great deal of time in Africa. And I'm not talking about a one week vacation, either. I'm talking about spending years, living as an African.

This brings up another issue:  Africa is not one big monolithic cultural block.  Rather, there are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of different cultures on that continent, and I think to claim the entire thing as your "cultural heritage" is being greedy. After all, I don't get to claim all of Europe, why should they get to claim all of Africa? This greediness gets even worse when you bring "Asian-Americans" into the picture. The "Asian-Americans" get to claim half of the Earth's land mass as their own, despite the fact that when people say "Asian-American" they mean "Oriental".

Except you can't say "Oriental" anymore, because its racist.

Of course, even saying "Oriental" is inaccurate.  Want to get your ass kicked in Korea?  Call a Korean man Japanese.  Its as sure to start a fight as calling an Irishman English.

What's my point?

That Korea isn't Japan, and that Japan isn't Viet Nam, and that Viet Nam isn't India, and that India isn't Burma, and so on.  If you insist on hyphenating yourself, get specific.

Here's something else: why are no one but American Indians allowed to call themselves "native" to the North American continent?  I was born on this continent, and have lived the greater majority of my life on it.  My ancestors have lived on this continent for thirteen generations, and my children and grandchildren will likely be born here for hundreds of generations past me.  Does that not make us natives of this continent?  Its not like American Indians are indigenous to North America either... their ancestors came from somewhere else just like mine did.  Maybe they qualify as aboriginal to North American, but not indigenous, and therefore not native.

Speaking of aboriginals... a friend of mine named Corey (who, coincidentally, happens to be black) and I were once at the Federal Courthouse in Orlando when a man distributing leaflets cornered us. The leaflet distributor pressed the sheet of paper into my friend's hand and began talking to him about the issue thereto, which had something to do with "African American solidarity" or something.  Corey, my friend, looked at the leaflet, laughed quietly, then gave it to me too look at. The distributor got incensed at this, loudly proclaiming that the information it held was intended for "African-Americans Only!!!!" (emphasis added for accuracy).

Corey laughed again and handed the leaflet back, saying 'In that case, take it back... my ancestors are from Australia...".

There is, of course, a really serious downside to all this hyphenation.

When we hyphenate ourselves, we are basically saying that we no longer are a part of the Great American Melting Pot.  Rather, we are a part of a single tribe, and we hold true to the traditions, customs, and language of that tribe above even the homeland which birthed us.  This exclusivity has nearly destroyed the feeling of community once felt in the United States, because insisting on being referred to as a hyphenated American amounts to declaring that you aren't an American. A hyphenated American is saying "Your America is not my America, because my America is filled with people like me."

"We the People..." is coming to mean smaller and smaller groups in this country. Consider the rise of ethnically based lobbying groups and political action committees lately.  The Republican Party here in Florida does nothing without the approval of the Cuban-American voters. The Democratic Party of New York does nothing to offend the Jewish voters.  In Arizona, its the Mexican-Americans.  In Illinois, its the Polish-Americans. When is this ethnic-based separatism going to end?

Its a dangerous road we walk on. When you ground your personal identity with a single group, you tend to do what you have to in order to feel good about your own particular group. In modern human beings, this tends to become racist simplifications. Blacks are all ignorant. Irish are all drunks. Muslims are all terrorists. Jews are all greedy. Italians are all gangsters. Hispanics are all illegal immigrants. And whites are all racist. When we segregate ourselves into small clannish groups, we perpetuate these stereotypes willingly even when we know better.

E Pluribus Unum, remember? We're supposed to be one out of many. The way we're going, we're never going to get there.

As for me, I fall back on the words of Daniel Webster, who said: "I was born an American, I have lived as an American, and I shall die an American."

A hyphen doesn't even enter into it.

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