“Hyphenism” just doesn’t work

“Hyphenism” just doesn’t work December 28, 2014

This line of thinking started when a friend commented on facebook about her own friend’s complaint about The Interview that it stereotyped Koreans, and another friend joined in that his biggest gripe was the lack of Asian Americans in films, more generally.  And it just seemed like an odd complaint to me.  Asian Americans (that is, as defined by the census bureau) are 5% of the American population, and one suspects that, as a whole, the group is less likely to dream of, and pursue, Hollywood stardom.  (And, of course, I have no idea how well, or poorly, American actors/actresses of Asian descent are represented in American movies and TV.)

It was also not clear whether his complaint was (a) lack of opportunities for aspiring American actors and actresses of Asian descent or (b) Americans of Asian descent in the United States being unhappy that there aren’t enough faces that “look like them” at the movies or (c) racism/prejudice among American filmmakers.  But it struck me as odd, in any case, that you’d bean-count about the number of “Asian-Americans” in American films when multiple Asian countries have huge film industries:  India, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines come to mind.  I imagine that aspiring “Asian-American” film stars are even at a disadvantage; once it’s decided to cast an Asian face in a major role, wouldn’t  Hollywood rather use an established star from elsewhere (e.g., Jackie Chan), and pick up some marketing appeal to that market, than cast a relatively unknown American?

And then you start to contemplate the oddness of the label “Asian-American” and the fact that, per the census definition, it encompasses such a wide range of ethnic origins, from India to Japan and everywhere in-between.  (But not Iran, apparently — Iranians are “white.”)

And you start to think about this whole business of “hyphenation.”

What does it mean to be an American of German ancestry?  Is that in any way different than being an American of Greek ancestry?  Yes, in the latter case, you have to fuss with the upper lip hair a lot more.  And — maybe — you still attend the Greek Orthodox church and preserve various cultural traditions, if your ancestors immigrated recently enough and didn’t intermarry.  Perhaps you even go to Saturday school, and have a tradition of running small businesses in your family.  If your grandfather was the Black Sheep who left the Greek Church to marry a Lutheran woman of German and Irish ancestry, then all you’ve got is childhood memories of periodic attendance at a local Greek festival and a sometime-tradition of lamb at Easter.  Oh, plus the upper lip hair.

Of course, you’d never think that you needed a “Greek-American support group” at work or at the university.  And even the label “Greek-American” doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense, as it combines ancestry/ethnic heritage and nationality, two different characteristics.  Why not say “actuary-American” or “Republican-American”?  It would mean just about as much, or rather, just about as little.

The only way the hyphenation really makes sense is for those individuals who truly do have a connection to two different countries, a dual citizenship of mind, even if not an actual, legal dual citizenship.  Which means, really, that “African-American” doesn’t make much sense (and you’ve probably seen, as have I, those examples of too-slavish following of the stylebook that says, “use ‘African-American’ to refer to someone with an ancestry from Black Africa” and ending up describing people in wholly different countries as “African-American”), but “Mexican-American” may, in that these communities of recent immigrants have as much tie to Mexico as the the U.S. — it isn’t a descriptor of ethnic origin for these people, but, in fact, a statement of dual nationality.

And let’s make this a bit messier:

In college, I knew a student who had a Polish last name, and grew up in a generic middle-class neighorhood, but had a generous scholarship for “Hispanic” students — because his mother’s maiden name was Garcia.  (I can’t even say that his mother was herself an immigrant, but may herself been multiple generations removed from arrival in the U.S..)  Another student’s family had immigrated from Argentina, and thus was similarly the lucky recipient of such a scholarship — but her ethnic origin was German, one generation prior.

And at work, there’s a woman who immigrated here from Kenya, but comes from the Indian community there.  We’ve always wondered whether the company claims her as an “African-American” hire.

So far as I know, no other country conflates ethnic origin and nationality quite like we do.  When speaking of “homegrown” terrorists in the UK, they aren’t referred to as “Pakistani-British,” for example.

And we don’t quite know what to do with the fact that some Americans do have an “ethnic identity” that corresponds to the national origin of their ancestors, and some don’t, and, instead, their “ethnic identity” is that they are Americans.  (“But,” you say, “it’s not possible for ‘American’ to be an ethnic identity” — but that’s only because we’re told it can’t be.  Of course it can.  It can’t be an ethnicity in the strict “bloodline” sense but that’s different.)

Add to the mix the fact that the beancounters are headed for even more trouble by intermarriage.  According to a brief snippet in the National Review (citing data from Brookings), “more than 40% of Hispanics and Asians marry someone of a different race (usually white) and nearly 30% of new black marriages are to someone of a different race (usually white)” — though the effects of intermarriage may be muted for blacks and Hispanics, who are predominantly dispensing with marriage anyway.   But for Asians, at least in my town, intermarriage is very much the norm — and I’m not sure how much these kids think of themselves as “Asian-American” vs. “my mom is Filipino” or “my dad is Korean.”

So what’s my conclusion?  Not much of one.  Look, it’s clear that a certain degree of beancounting is necessary, in order to understand just how far behind people of certain ethnic or national origin, or culture, or skin color, are.  But we have to understand that these are just functional categories, and nothing intrinsic, or permanent.  They have to be flexible.  And the “hyphenism” of my title refers to thinking of these as a person’s key defining characteristics in a “bloodline” sort of way, and failing to recognize that the national origin of one’s parents or grandparents is just that, nothing more.

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