Monday, January 21, 2013

Hyphenated Americans

Today is Barack Obama’s second inauguration and Martin Luther King Day—a good day to think about where we are with race in this country. I think one of the reasons Mitt Romney lost the election was the stark visual contrast between the two parties’ conventions last August. The Republicans were a sea of white, mostly older people, while the Democrats looked like America—men and women of all skin colors and ages.
The 2012 election marked a turning point in our national story: the white majority voted for the losing candidate and the winner was elected by the “minority vote.”
Maybe now it’s time to change the way we speak about the people of this country. When we call someone African-American, or Asian-American, or Hispanic-American the hyphen insinuates that they are only half American. The true Americans, the hyphen implies, are the people who don’t need the hyphen—the White people. So either we need to start calling white people “European-Americans” or we need to stop using the hyphen all together. I’m in favor of the latter.
Language is very important. There is a linguistic theory called the “Sapir-Whorf theory” which argues that the language we speak actually shapes our experience of reality. Speakers of different languages think differently.
For example, in English I would say, “I like this soup.” In Spanish I would say, “this soup is pleasing to me.” In the English version I am the subject, the center around which everything moves. The soup is just an object that I, the principal, am commenting on. But in Spanish it’s reversed: the soup is the center, the subject. I only exist as having a point of view about the soup. This may sound minor, but when you multiply this difference across every statement made over years, the repetitive placement of “I” as the subject will have an effect on the way we see life.
The use of the hyphen is just as important; it declares that Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics are not fully as American as the Whites. The hyphen has got to go.

1 comment:

  1. I am also in favor of the later. And one of your points is one of the reasons that I love reading books written in other languages translated to English, or reading Native American writers. It's a whole other take, view and expression. Thanks again.