Labels matter: The case against the Hyphen

Heritage is important. It is essential that we celebrate it, but we must never forget that as citizens living and working in this country we are Americans first.

I am an American, hyphen free. You should call yourself one, too. In a time of vicious and polarized politics, we must revisit this philosophy and rid ourselves of divisive apparatuses like hyphenating our identities.

Perhaps the flaw lies in the misunderstanding of the term American itself. What makes someone an American anyway? Is it a question of citizenship, ethnicity or nationality? Ethnicity relates to culture, whereas citizenship and nationality relate to politics. So when posing questions on identity, individuals will recite answers that they identify the strongest with.

This is where the disconnect lies. For many children of immigrants, there is an unspoken sense of obligation to preserve ancestral culture, a debt which manifests itself in ethnic, not national, identity.

“I want them to know that I’m proud that I’m Mexican, that’s why I say it,” said Angela Lozoya, a SF state psychology major and third-generation American who identifies as Mexican.

Lozoya, like her parents, doesn’t speak Spanish, but views her heritage as an essential part of her identity. “But of course I see myself as an American, too,” she said.

However, basing identity solely on ethnicity can create an environment where children grow up thinking of themselves as something other than “just” Americans, and, by consequence, labeling whatever group they– unconsciously– see as the norm: “True Americans”. Embracing American identity does not necessarily need to be at odds with embracing cultural heritage.

“I was raised with two different cultures and I just identified with the one I was closer to,” said Alejandro Echevarría, an SF State geology major and a member of the Hermanos Unidos club who used to identify as Hispanic. “I didn’t really come to identify as Mexican-American until I came to college.”

“I was raised to believe in the American dream,” said Echevarría. “America is a melting pot of cultures, so I don’t agree that we shouldn’t mention it,” he said of hyphenating his identity.

What is American culture anyway? Surely it is more than fast food, apple pie, and football on Sundays. To me, identifying as an American is a way of saying, “I belong and I want to contribute.”  

“If you are in the United States and trying to live a life here, you should identify as an American,” said a member of the Republican Student Union (RSU) on campus, who spoke on the sole condition of anonymity. “That does not mean to forget where you came from. Everyone should embrace their heritage, but also embrace that America is one of the best countries to live in,” they said.

Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, the question of identity reaches politics. Identity politics, or the practice of basing politics on matters of identity as opposed to ideology (or other factors), has played a crucial role in splitting the electorate. The 2016 election is proof of it. Candidates chased votes along racial lines, (i.e the working-class white vote, the Hispanic vote, etc.) and largely ignored the spectrum of issues within those voter blocks. Plenty of Hispanic voters are conservative.

“No politics should be based on someone’s identity; everyone should be treated equally, period,” said the RSU student. “No group or people should be treated differently just because of their identity.”

Divisive politics and toxic climate aside, we must address the elephant in the room. The definition of American is fluid and no person or group can define what is and what is not American. Sadly, we man never come to an agreement on the term. However, the political turmoil of today may just be the necessary push some need to embrace American identity.

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