Friday, April 27, 2012

The Hyphenated

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 "African-American".
     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        
     

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