Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Hyphenated American

There was a time, not too long ago, when America described itself as a "melting pot," a nation singular in the notion that it was composed entirely of immigrants.  Oh, sure, there were those who opined how the American Indian ( or Native American, if you prefer) was here first, but if you really want to be accurate about it, the Indians were just as foreign to North America as anyone. They migrated from Asia. So when you get right down to it, America really sits on a continent of immigrants, with the United States having codified it as a melting pot.

Except we're not supposed to say "melting pot." Apparently, someone, somewhere decided the phrase was a trigger of micro-aggression, inciting feelings of racism or something like that. I know, it confuses me, too. How can a nation of immigrants be anything but a melting pot? No matter, I've never pretended to understand the whining of mediocre minds, but the concept does bring to mind an issue that probably should concern us all.

One can't venture past the breakfast table without inadvertently bumping into a victim claiming some sort of discrimination. It's become so routine as to become tiresome, numbing the population to the point where we really don't empathize with victims, especially when they lodge their complaints with an attorney at their sides.  I have noticed, however, that just about all of the complainants identify themselves with a peculiar punctuation: the hyphen. We have Afro-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and probably some Short-Fat-And-Hairy-Americans, too. 

Nobody seems to be a plain old vanilla American any more.  And that's not good -- for anyone in America.

The fact of the matter is that if you label a yourself a hyphenate American, you're not an American at all.  The whole point of this country has been, and continues to be, the new home of immigrants who have consciously forsaken their homelands in order to adopt another. Nobody comes to America to be come an African-American or a Japanese-American or a Mexican-American.  Assuming you come here legally, you're supposed to leave all that foreign baggage at the front door, because once you become an American, that's all you are: an American.

That's not to say all immigrants should immediately reject and abandon their heritage. Quite the contrary: it's the mongrelization of our society that makes America so great. We all borrow from each others' customs and practices, trying each one on to see how well it does or doesn't fit, and emerge healthier and stronger as a result. I love the fact that a blue blood WASP injects a little Yiddish into his oratory. I'm charmed by the way an Asian guy might describe a swagger as "having real cojones."  That's the brilliant part that adds sparkle to an immigrant culture.

But when you add a hyphen to your self-description, all of that goes away.  The hyphen loudly declares, "I'm not an American. I'm not like you. I'm another ethnicity who just happens to live here." And that, my friends, is not a good thing, because it turns those immigrants inward, to a self-segregated "safe space" where they begin to inbreed themselves out of the national fabric.  On university campuses across the country, various ethnic groups are currently declaring entire dormitories off limits to any group other than their own, claiming safe spaces that supposedly shield them from racism and other threats, imaginary as those may or may not be.  The truth is that those safe spaces are really nothing more than shelters for narcissism, prolonging a polarizing adolescence until graduation and the discovery that the country isn't such a bad place after all -- assuming you embrace it with as much welcome as it embraces you.

Hey, I'm not denying that racism and competition and hard knocks are out there. They are, and at the time of this writing, it's going to get a lot rougher before it gets any better. All the more reason to drop the hyphen and join your neighbor in a productive, supportive manner. You don't have to be best friends, you simply have to be curious and appreciative.

That's always been the American way.


Blogger Unknown said...

Problem is called tribalism.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Rob Frankel said...

It's euphemistically called tribalism. When it tips over into self-segregating paranoia, I call it separatism.

7:29 AM  

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