HOORAY FOR THE HYPHEN

What goes around comes around. Recently, several European leaders declared multiculturalism a failure. Europeans, who once avidly condemned America’s racial and religious shortcomings, have encountered their own challenges involving large Muslim minorities from North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

French President Nikolas Sarkozy declared on February 10, “If you come to France, you accept to melt into a single community, which is the national community, and if you do not want to accept that, you cannot be welcome in France.” This followed on the heels of a statement by British Prime Minister David Cameron that “under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.” This, Cameron believes, erodes national identity. Germany’s Angela Merkel and Spanish ex-premier Jose Maria echo these sentiments.

Must a Frenchman, Briton, German or Spaniard identify only as such without acknowledging a different ethnic or religious background? Or should minorities be permitted to live apart? I suggest a third way—adoption of the American hyphen.

The concept may seem old-fashioned in a rapidly changing world, but it has worked well for the United States. Not perfectly. Let’s not rant about America’s racial and religious wrongs, which have been many. It’s a given. But the hyphenated American—sometimes an American with more than one hyphen owing to multiple ethnic identities (scroll down to “Beyond Definition,” 2-4-11)—has succeeded where the European immigrant has not.

Yes, most African-Americans were brought here in chains. The Irish, Jews, Poles, Italians and Chinese, among others, were not universally welcomed. Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Indians and Filipinos were not always embraced, either. Early in the twentieth century, many immigrants or their children submerged or attempted to erase their prior identities. They changed their names while discarding the language of the old country along with its dress, food, religion and folkways. Yet over time, newcomers and their descendants proudly identified as African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Chinese-Americans—and loyal citizens.

The hyphen balances a challenging equation. Americans share a common political bond rather than an ethnic one. The left side of the hyphen reveals one’s other heritage. The right side binds us together with the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.

When the baseball season opens in six weeks, fans representing a multitude of ethnicities will flock to see my San Francisco Giants defend their World Series championship. They’ll eat kosher hot dogs, kung pao chicken, burritos and pizza—all American food now—while uniting as Giants fans with a common cause.

Europe’s governments must learn these lessons. So must their minorities. Patriotism does not exclude ethnic awareness, and ethnic awareness does not rule out patriotism. They can—and do—enrich each other.

Hooray for the hyphen indeed.

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One Comment


  1. Carolyn Power
    Feb 20, 2011

    And that’s why we are a melting pot of many cultures, many minds. We don’t always agree, but we share a commonality of shared freedoms absent in many parts of the world.

    Carolyn Power Perlstein

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