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The Politics of the Hyphen

Source: New York Times

In a speech from 1916, Teddy Roosevelt boldly claimed, “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all.”

The context of this speech emerges from the xenophobia of the second wave of immigration in the United States. Enticed by economic and political freedom, immigrants from places like Southern and Eastern Europe, China, and Mexico fled from their home countries to the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Though some found their new home to be a paradise, many, facing nativism, found that one had to earn privilege to live in the United States. Accordingly, the term “hyphenated American” came into being during the second wave of immigration as a way to encourage assimilation. It condemned those who identified as anything other than American, putting into play questions of American allegiance, especially against German Americans during the World War I.

Likewise, the Japanese American Citizens League debated over the usage of the hyphen, discussing how “Japanese” acted as a noun with the hyphen between “Japanese-American,” perpetuating the notion of divided Japanese American loyalty during World War II, which rationalized internment.

Because of overwhelmingly negative, belittling associations with hyphenated Americanism, many scholars now omit the hyphen. Most grammar sources tell writers to abandon the hyphen altogether. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, the preferred way of writing is to not include the hyphen. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that, “Naturalized immigrants to the United States and their descendants have sometimes been termed hyphenated Americans in reference to the tendency to hyphenate such ethnic compounds as Irish-American and Polish-American. This term has come under strong criticism as suggesting that those so designated are not as fully American as ‘unhyphenated’ citizens, and it is best avoided in all but historical contexts.” Accordingly, the second entry of “hyphenated” in the Oxford English Dictionary reads: “Applied to persons (or, by extension, their activities) born in one country but naturalized citizens of another, their nationality being designated by a hyphenated form, e.g. Anglo-American, Irish-American; hence, to a person whose patriotic allegiance is assumed to be divided. Also in extended use. orig. U.S.”

Here, I digress, but hope to facilitate insight on the complex political implications of the hyphen. Sarah Song, a political scientist at Berkeley, provides a very nuanced view on civic solidarity and diversity in her essay, “What Does it Mean to Be an American?” (What follows is my interpretation, and by no means reflects what she actually thinks.) What does it mean to be an American? As Michael Walzer points out in a preceding essay of the same name, “There is no country called America. We live in the United States of America, and we have appropriated the adjective ‘American’ even though we can claim no exclusive title to it.”

Drawing from Walzer, Song, a legal theorist at UC Berkeley, zooms into three reasons why civic solidarity matters: distributive justice, democratic activity, and inclusivity in her article, “What does it mean to be an American?” Throughout the essay, she compares and contrasts two models of civic solidarity–constitutional patriotism with liberal nationalism, critiquing them for only heralding “first-level diversity.” The difficulty with constitutional patriotism, defined as common allegiance to the ideals of a political culture, lies in that it forgets how language shapes national identity and the problematic history of naturalization in American history (read: the 1990 Immigration Act retaining the Red Scare era ideological requirements for naturalization that still disqualifies people of certain ideologies today for naturalization). Liberal nationalists, who believe in a shared national culture, lend themselves easily to falling into into Samuel Huntington’s defense of Anglo-Protestant cultural assimilation for new immigrants.

Moreover, deep diversity, Song claims, does not fall into Horace Kallen’s idea of cultural pluralism, where “ethnic-political distinction maps onto a private-public dichotomy.” For example, Kallen’s logic follows that a person can be culturally Irish and politically American. Song, however, says, “Deep diversity recognizes that Irish Americans are culturally Irish Americans and politically Irish Americans,” drawing from Walzer’s discussion of hyphenated Americans.

Song obviously chooses not to include the hyphen. Whereas Walzer sees the hyphen as a plus or equal sign for a person’s original descent that evokes toleration, Song explains that notion of deep diversity is not only about immigrant ethnics, but also about racial minorities, who also struggle with belonging in the United States. Song reveals that the issues of identity, culture, and race are much more complex and varying, “history of racial and ethnic exclusions […] undercutting the universalist stance.”

To end, let’s observe a popular culture reference. John Wayne, the famous American actor and director, once crooned in a song called, “The Hyphen”:

The hyphen, Webster’s Dictionary defines,

Is a symbol used to divide a compound word or a single


So it seems to me that when a man calls himself

An “Afro-American,” a “Mexican-American,” “‘Italian-


An “Irish-American,” “Jewish-American,”

What he’s sayin’ is, ‘I’m a divided American.

He ends the song with, “United we stand…divided we fall.
 We’re Americans…and that says it all.

Wayne’s bleeding patriotism is admirable, but underwhelming. To consider everyone in the United States as only Americans is exclusive, adhering to a liberal nationalist notion of civic solidarity that erases the unique experiences of first generation immigrants and racial minorities.

Political correctness, on one hand, lays out an irksome prescriptivist framework that, as David Foster Wallace points out, cannot fix material problems that more commonly affect different ethnic groups. On the flip side, it opens up a valuable conversation about important, troubling histories, like that of hyphenated Americanism.

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