“Hyphens serve to divide even as they are meant to connect. Their use… can connote an otherness, a sense that people of color are somehow not full citizens or fully American: part American, sure, but also something not American.”
– Henry Fuhrmann, Conscious Style Guide
In recent years, many activists and scholars have contended that the hyphen in racial and ethnic identifiers ascribe a foreign-ness to minority groups in the United States. While I agree with this assertion, I also want to develop the discourse surrounding hyphenated Americans by examining the assumptions and implications of dropping the hyphen in “Asian-American.”
I’d like to preface my argument with two important distinctions. First, the difference between ethnicity and race: “Chinese” refers to an ethnic identity, while “Asian” refers to a racial identity. Second, the difference between descriptive and normative statements: descriptive claims state that x is the case, while normative claims state that x should be the case.
Many discussions regarding hyphenated Americans fail to address the distinction between ethnicity and race. For Asian Americans, this nuance lies in the difference between descriptive and normative claims. Although they intend to provide descriptive markers, identifiers such as “Chinese-American” and “Chinese American” actually represent two contrasting abstractions (i.e. two normative claims). The compound noun perpetuates the notion of Chinese Americans (and all Asian Americans) as foreigners by qualifying “American” with another non-American noun. On the other hand, using “Chinese” as an adjective conceives of someone who can enjoy full American-hood while having Chinese ancestry and even celebrating Chinese culture. Two divergent ideals thus emerge in the debate over the hyphen in describing ethnic identity for Asian Americans. However, a different paradigm operates in the case of racial identity.
Duality centers most conversations on Asian American identity; Asian Americans constantly describe the arduous task of (insert verb: balancing/negotiating/reconciling) their ethnic culture with their American identity. To characterize this dynamic, I argue that we should use “Asian-American.” The hyphen, in addition to its othering connotation, evokes an image of distinct and, in our case, conflicting standards by representing a barrier between two worlds. On one side of the hyphen, we have “Asian,” while on the other, we have “American.” In contrast, “Asian American” implies a coherent racial identity that extends beyond the confines of duality. Although the ideal of an Asian American identity remains far from realization, I view the conscious use of “Asian American” as a significant step toward that goal. The lack of a hyphen— or rather, our decision to omit it— signifies both a recognition and a validation of efforts to establish a collective racial identity.
In dropping the hyphen, however, Asian Americans must avoid the pitfall of pursuing whiteness. The anti-hyphen argument maintains that ethnic and racial minorities are “American” enough. Yet, this obsession with being American enough often becomes an emulation of whiteness. Ask yourself, “American enough for whom?” Pursuing whiteness does not require one to desire the white phenotype. Nor does it mean that someone wants others to see him/her as white. Rather, Asian Americans emulate whiteness when they ignore or suppress racial identity— e.g. disregarding race as a meaningful construct that impacts one’s life, opting instead to focus on achieving high socioeconomic status through “hard work” and “merit.” Those who belong to the majority/dominant group— in the case of race, white people— have the luxury of ignoring that group identity if and when they so choose. For instance, as a man, I don’t think about my gender identity when I’m walking alone at night.
Recall Michael Luo’s open letter to the woman who told him to “go back to China,” published in the New York Times in 2016. This blatant act of racism and xenophobia triggered a defense mechanism that betrayed a pursuit of whiteness. Consider the following lines in his letter:
“We had just gotten out of church, and I was with my family and some friends on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.”
“You had on a nice raincoat. Your iPhone was a 6 Plus. You could have been a fellow parent in one of my daughters’ schools.”
“[My parents] raised two children, both of whom went to Harvard. I work at The New York Times.”
In responding to his attacker, Luo invokes his credentials for being considered American; he’s a Christian, upper-middle class, ivy league educated, resident in one of Manhattan’s wealthiest neighborhoods who writes for a prestigious American newspaper. To be sure, I empathize with Luo and many other Asian Americans who have been victims of hate. But, we must be conscious of how we respond; do our reactions actually maintain the racial hierarchy that subjugates us? In light of these implications, the development of an Asian American identity becomes crucial. We cannot and should not be content if the only alternative to the perpetual foreigner is an embrace of whiteness. Drop the hyphen in Asian American— but, examine what that decision entails.