Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Hyphenated Americans

Here's one of my pet peeves....

I am old enough to have been through a few public renamings of the so-called African-American cohort in this country. When I was a little girl, blacks were known respectfully as Negroes (as in "the United Negro College Fund;" I remember their public-service announcements on TV and their great, memorable tag line: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste," which impressed me deeply). My grandparents still called blacks "coloreds" when I was little (as in "the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People"), but I could discern that that term had somehow grown passé since the Shirley Temple era; it was more polite somehow when I was in elementary school in the early 1960s to refer to the Negroes, in my classes and in our nation, as "Negroes." I somehow understood even then (probably following the examples of my schoolteachers) that one term was preferred over the other, as a show of respect.

I was in junior high school in 1968. Around that time I was cogent enough about current events to be aware that blacks (or most young blacks, or the most publicly outspoken blacks, including those proponents of Black Power) had undertaken to change the way they referred to themselves and the way they wished to be referred to. Now it was to be the word "black" instead of Negro that was to be used to show respect.

I remain happy to show deference and respect to most people's images of themselves (the Golden Rule and all). I usually have no problem with calling people what they wish to be called, but when it comes to the term "African-American" I am sorry, but I have to balk.

This is the term, beginning in the 1960s and attaining more prominence in the late 1980s (especially in 1988 when endorsed by Jesse Jackson), that many polite, well-meaning people in the U.S. who wish to show respect now use to refer to U.S. blacks. But I won't use it, for a couple of reasons, none of which, I don't think, have to do with questions of respect or deference:

As an American of mostly German heritage myself, I could conceivably be similarly labeling myself a German-American (and I do love my German heritage and want to remember it and venerate it)--except that this label would be a gross inaccuracy on several levels.

First, it wittingly slights my many other ancestors who weren't German. (Do "African-Americans" really wish to slight all of their non-African ancestors en masse, along racial/racist lines?) Such one-sided promotion is inaccurate, biased, and untrue. I want to embrace all of my ancestors and my family's roots, and really the best way to do that is to be not a hyphenated American, but just a plain old American, which has always meant a full citizen of our crazy-quilt homeland of people of all nations, colors, cultures, and stories.

Secondly, calling myself a German-American would lead any ordinary person to assume I or my German ancestors were recently right off the boat. In reality my latest foreign-born forebears set foot on Ellis Island in 1904. I feel the only people in my family tree who could properly call themselves German-Americans were those who were born in Germany and who immigrated to the U.S. and were granted U.S. citizenship. There is only one generation in each family tree branch that can properly call itself that--a truly hypenated American generation.

Third, the ghosts of my German ancestors would haunt me if they ever heard me passing myself off as a hypenated American. They made many sacrifices and endured real hardships to cross an ocean, build a new life and a new identity, and they were grateful and proud to have left the disadvantages of the Old World behind and become American citizens--and by golly, they'd want me to stand up for what they'd achieved. This in no way means I need renounce the culture that shaped them, and by extension, me. But after their immigration and two searing World Wars wherein my German ancestors in the U.S. had to choose where their full allegiance lay once and for all, they definitively renounced hypenated Americanism as a trap and a tragedy, and saw both the importance and the goodness in being what they and we are all: Americans.

I can understand that some blacks have a justified resentment that their black ancestors were brought here in chains. Some of their ancestors did not have a choice in emigrating from their homelands. But is that historical resentment big enough to be codified in a label reflecting renouncement of unadulterated U.S. citizenship for their entire cohort en masse?

As a copyeditor and proofreader, I would be all over the term "African-American" with a leaky red pen. Such a label makes scant sense for what it purports to refer to. Most "African-Americans" here in the U.S. were not born in Africa only to subsequently become naturalized U.S. citizens, which is what the label implies. Many blacks in the U.S. have closer ties to other foreign countries than they do to the continent of Africa. And many Africans who move to the U.S. and/or gain citizenship here are not black. To use "African-American" as a synonym for native-born U.S. blacks (many of whom have been in the U.S. for generations) is a terrible and confusing misnomer which frankly, sounds embarrassingly ignorant.

Call me racist for that last statement if you will; I don't care because I am not a racist. I am happy to refer to people as they wish to be referred to, but not at the expense of tarring them all with an ignorant-sounding label that someone should have edited out before they trumpeted it as the latest preferred label of respect.

Make sense, people.

And don't call me by the trendy new label, Euro-American or European-American, either. Blech, ptui. I am an American, and if you insist on labeling me as to my skin color (which I take exception to as contrary to the ideals of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), I'm white. (It's nobody else's business, really, but it's also pretty obvious as I go about my life, and people, especially racists, will always label). But while I celebrate my own unique blend of cultural heritages and my plucky, lucky ancestors, I prefer that those who want to "label" me with a term of respect just call me an American. That's the heritage I embrace most.

LaShawn Barber agrees with nixing "African-American." Read this article by her, too.

For more background, see the Wikipedia article on "African American" and "Not Black and White" by J. A. Foster-Bey.

"Thank God my grand-daddy got on that boat!" --Muhammad Ali

UPDATE: Go Back to Black: "I'm black again."

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