Here is a topic that I've always wanted to write about and was honestly one of the reasons I made this blog in the first place. This topic actually extends beyond East Asian culture and people and is really just part of, what I view as being, a larger problem with the popular cultural perception and ethnic association in North America. I am talking about the hyphenated Americans and Canadians in our society.
Well, actually that's not entirely true, I'm talking more
about the hyphen ( "-" this thing) itself that is commonplace in our
society in distinguishing the cultural backgrounds of people and its
problematic usage. I will be speaking primarily in a Canadian context, as I am
Canadian and have lived in Toronto (Canada's largest city) all my life, however
I am aware this is a major issue in the United States as well. What do I mean
by the dreaded hyphen? I'm speaking of the hyphen used to distinguish
"visible minorities" here in North America. Here are some examples -
Asian-Canadian/American, African-Canadian/America, Chinese Canadian/American,
etc. I think you get the idea. So, you may be asking, "What’s wrong with
that? Isn't that all politically correct and whatnot?" the answer is
probably yes, these hyphenated titles, by and large, seem to be widely accepted
as being correct. However, the question we must ask ourselves is, how many
times have you ever heard "European-Canadian/American" to describe a
white person who lives in North America and speaks English fluently? Yeah... not
too many times right?
This all started when I was answering a roll-call
in my first-year East Asian Studies course tutorial where we were asked to
introduce ourselves and the countries that we came from to the group, as there
were quite a large number of international students present. Well, about half
way through the group, instead of listing their countries, people, who it was
very likely, were born in Toronto, started saying things like, "I'm George
and I'm Vietnamese-Canadian", "I'm Sue and I'm
Filipino-Canadian" etc. Well that would be fine, only that the TA asked
for the country of birth and/or citizenry not cultural background, which is
totally different. In fact I was quite convinced that most of my classmates in
our tutorial were Canadian-born Canadians either 2nd or possibly 3rd
generation. Because of this I found it strange that they felt the need to
emphasize their cultural backgrounds to the class despite being asked for their place of birth. Being the only
"white" person in the tutorial, by the time it was my turn I said, half-jokingly,
"My name is Alex and I'm European Canadian", suffice it to say, I got
some funny looks.
My problem with the hyphen is that it's used
inconsistently. For example, if I had introduced myself simply as a
"Canadian", I'm sure no one would have looked my way. To illustrate
my point I will use an example. Let's say I have a "Chinese-Canadian"
friend, both of whose parents are 2nd generation Canadians and the children of
1st generation immigrants. This makes him a third generation Canadian, however,
he refers to himself as a "Chinese-Canadian" and it seems likely that
most people would think rightly so. However, I myself am the son of an English
immigrant and a Canadian-born, yet no one would bat an eyelash if I referred to
myself simply as "Canadian." The question is, who is more Canadian, the
3rd generation "Chinese-Canadian" who is the son of two Canadian-born
parents who happens to have Chinese background or me, the son of an immigrant
and a Canadian-born with an English background?
Regardless of what you think the answer
maybe, people would certainly find it strange if I referred to myself as
"half English" or "English-Canadian" yet I should think it
would be expected of my 3rd generation friend, who can barely speak Chinese,
and has never set foot on the Asian continent, and watches more hockey then I
ever will in my life, to refer to himself as a "Chinese-Canadian".
Why is this? Because, simply put, I'm white, and the popular idea is that,
Canadians (and Americans) are supposed to be white. Not white? Here's a hyphen!
So here's the rub. The hyphen, when used in this
way, is really a racial marker. It serves to distinguish the
"otherness" of those who do not match our typical perceptions of what
a North-Americans should look like, i.e. white. We humans seem to be visual
creatures. When we see something that LOOKS different, we isolate it, examine
it, and categorize it. I would argue that many racial, sexual, and (sometimes)
religious slurs as well as stereotypes are negative examples of this thought
process manifested. I would also argue that the hyphen, is also an extension of
this process, albeit much more benign. Still not convinced? Look at the term
This term is both culturally and geographically
inaccurate. Part of the problem with the term is that it seems to apply only to
those we distinguish as "black" people and tends to leave out North
Africans, whom we often associate with Asia (i.e "Arabs" - from
Morocco, Egypt etc.). Also how many "black" Canadians and Americans
have actually lived in Africa? Many come from the West indies and come from
families who have been living there for generations (a result of colonialism);
many more have much deeper roots in Canada and the U.S. than many
"white" families, yet they are marginalized by the hyphen whereas
their "white" brethren (and sistren) are not. Strange no? Why is
this? Because "African-American" is really just another word for
"African-looking American" just as "Asian-Canadian" is
really another word for "Asian-looking Canadian".
So what to do? Do we get rid of the hyphen?
Well, maybe we should, it’s not really serving any useful purpose is it? I mean
who really cares where people's families come from? Is it really so important?
So many questions! I can't answer all of these. As a generally curious person,
I'm always interested in where peoples families come from, it’s just
interesting to know. If that was the only purpose of the hyphen, to distinguish
who came from where, that might be okay but the fact that it is only used for
some people and not others makes it suspect. How come its strange for me to
call myself a European-Canadian? White people come from Europe right?
My point is that the
hyphen should be used consistently, to include every visible "race"
or should be done away with entirely. In its current popular usage, it only
serves to create cultural barriers and to marginalize "visible
minorities", in other words to "catalogue" people based on
certain physical features that indicate ethnicity. Is it racist? Well yes, it
certainly could be viewed as such. Is there really any profound cultural
difference between me and my 3rd generation Canadian friend who happens to have
a Chinese background? I very much doubt it. So why are we "branded"
differently in the society we both share? Simply put, racism. No no, not the
overt, in-your-face racism that most of us condemn on a daily basis, but the
larger, more unconscious racism that is the by-product of thousands of years of
cultural development and nation-building throughout the world, the kind that
won't go away easily.
I suppose the hyphen could be used to distinguish those
Canadians and Americans who were born elsewhere and were once citizens of other
countries but even then I personally, can see little reason why this would be absolutely necessary.
Anyway, that's my two cents! Join me next time when I explain why the people
we often refer to as "Asian-Canadians/Americans" are often not as
"Asian" as you might think. Stay tuned! or... bookmarked?
PS: You may have noticed that I used a lot of quotation marks on words like
"Asian-American" or "black" when referring to
"race". That's because I find these terms problematic. Oh... and no
pictures, sorry : P