Who is American?: On Hyphens and Identity

 By Jaylin Paschal

Let’s be real. The default American is white.

History, society, politics, media, etc. have all rendered this to be true.

Next time you fill out a form which requires you to identify your ethnicity or nationality, look at the options. There will be the “White/Caucasian” box, and then there will be an arrangement of hyphenated Americans. “African-American,” “Asian-American,” etc. But with the “White/Caucasian” option, American is already conveniently implied.

We live in a society where even the natives are assigned prefixes. “Native American” is a redundant but necessary term. Although you should be able to identify Native Americans as simply “Americans,” you have to use a prefix to account for the fact that it will otherwise be assumed you mean white people.

See this quick Trevor Noah clip on prefixes and identity: 

(Oh, and by the way, I hate you guys for making me use a Trevor Noah clip.)

These hyphens were created to specify, but they do much more than that. Minorities are conditioned to believe that they are “other” in America; subcategorized and conditional. Which ultimately leads to an internal identity crisis within communities of color. Which makes sense. How do you identify when you are hyphenated and prefixed? With the first? Or the second? With both, with neither--does one compliment another? Does one cancel the other out? Notice how easily black-American becomes un-American; how easily one can be mistaken for the other when they both require add-ons?

This struggle with identity becomes particularly hard when mainstream politics revolve around chants of “Build That Wall” and “Take Our Country Back.” Or when the president looks like you, and you witness politicians and citizens so fiercely challenge his nationality and background. You receive a powerful message: You can run the country and still have people question whether or not you’re American, asking for birth certificates eight years later. Additionally, London mayor, Boris Johnson, referred to President Obama as “the part-Kenyan President” just last week (Yes, the full statement was as racist as you're wondering.), suggesting that the association of the term “American” with whiteness is global, and anything else must be asterisked.

You’d think that as we have a black president and demographics have changed, this idea of white Americans being the default Americans would have changed as well. But it hasn’t. Again, with current political rhetoric it seems to only be growing in strength although it weakens in validity.

While hyphens specify, unify, and even empower minorities, it is important to understand what these hyphens mean to many of the majority, where prefix often undermines identity instead of building upon it; where “take our country back” feels aggressive rather than progressive and little black girls are asked if they "speak American."

At the end of the day, I am proud to be a black American; an African American. Proud to be black. Proud to be of African descent. Proud to be born in America. Proud to be both. Proud to be either. Proud of my hyphen. Aware of my hyphen, and constantly building upon my understanding of what it means.