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.

Monday, January 7, 2013


I have been swimming at the YMCA twice a week for over two years, and I actually dread January because the pool gets crowded with people acting on their New Year’s resolutions. Usually by mid-February, though, the crowd has thinned out and the pool’s back to normal.
Why are resolutions so notoriously difficult to keep?
When we make a resolution we say that at some future point we are going to break out of the rut of our ordinary behavior and act in a different way.
Recent neurological research shows that much of our mental processing consists of deeply burned-in neural circuits—ruts—that make it easy to keep acting the same way over and over again.
For example, I may resolve to avoid fighting with my brother-in-law this Thanksgiving. I drive to the dinner full of determination, developing plans to avoid conflict. Then in the middle of dinner I notice I’m yelling at him. What happened to my resolution? The answer: I’ve been hijacked by subconscious programs running in my brain. Maybe I’m insecure because he is successful at business and I’m not, and this insecurity drives me to take a confrontational attitude towards him. I’m not consciously aware of this attitude, but it means that once I start interacting with him my resolution to act differently is forgotten; it’s so much easier to follow the old patterns of behavior.