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Globalizing Americana: Part 16 – Xenophobia and the Hyphenated American

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The Hyphenated American

In the last section I suggested I would discuss the notion of the hyphenated American, and in keeping with that promise, I wish to offer an analysis of not only the concept of the hyphenated American, but also an account of how its practice influences Americana and the norms with which we assess Americanism and more importantly American patriotism.

In his 1915 speech entitled, “Hyphenated Americanism,” President Teddy Roosevelt spoke to an altogether separate concept, and the two ideas — that is, the hyphenated American on the one hand and President Roosevelt’s notion of hyphenated Americanism on the other — though closely related, have significantly different meanings.

President Roosevelt rightfully noted, “The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin…would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality.”

President Roosevelt offered an insightful account of our nation’s strengths and our greatest weaknesses. Insofar as we identify the members of our population, many of who are naturalized Americans — that is, American citizens born on foreign soil — we embolden the intellectual, economic, and social might of the United States by recognizing their citizenship and the potential contributions to Americana.

Conversely, however, insofar as we continue to identify Americans in terms of their hyphenation, we pay greater attention to their difference than to a shared sense of being an American. It is that specific idea of being an American, which is, in its broadest sense, the driving force behind my analysis.

As Roosevelt had mentioned, “The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin…would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.” Yet despite his warnings and despite the eloquence with which he advocated a more inclusive conception of a unified American population, the atrocities that befell Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans during WWII and their internment speaks to the vehement and immobilizing force of fear. More precisely stated: xenophobia.

For me, the most definitive moment during the 2008 presidential election was not initiated by Barack Obama or John McCain. In fact, the most powerful statement I heard during that time came during Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama on Meet the Press.

Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell responded to allegations that Barack Obama may be Muslim to which he rightfully stated, “Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America.”

Later Colin Powel described the tombstone of an American soldier that died in defense of this country, saying, “He was 20 years old…at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American.”

The profundity of Former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell’s claim is that he did not qualify, though he did earlier by saying he was an Arab-American or a Muslim American. Colin Powell simply and succinctly stated that the young man was an American.

Rightfully so, President Teddy Roosevelt would probably disavow the xenophobe as being unpatriotic, as fundamentally seeking to undermine the integrity and strength of our national diversity. This diversity, however, is encompassed under the ideals and goals of a unified nation. As President Obama has himself stated, “We are not a nation of red states or of blue states; we are the United States of America.”

The attempt to hyphenate American citizens based on their religious, ethnic, and racial differences only leads to feelings of isolation and resentment among those being isolated. The fact is, immigrants have built this country and made it the superpower it has become. For those Americans willing to risk their lives in battle, to offer meaningful contributions to society, or to simply live their daily lives as decent taxpaying American citizens, why must we qualify their citizenship with hyphenation?

This practice of hyphenating Americans is as if one were to suggest that the person or people in question are “almost Americans” or “barely Americans.” This is, however, blatantly false. One either is an American or one is not an American. For all naturalized and native-born Americans, identifying their citizenship through their difference calls more attention to their difference than to the camaraderie shared by being a fellow American.

In discussing Americana and the norms that govern our interactions with others, it is particularly peculiar why, as a culture, we have embraced this practice of classifying and defining types of Americans. In the 2008 presidential election, Sarah Palin even went so far as to describe “real Americans,” which is certainly the most vague of phrases. As a leader of the Republican Party, I am sure Former President Roosevelt would be ashamed of the debacle that has now become American politics and the American way of life.

The truth is that if you are a citizen of the United States of America, you are an American. It is a privilege with which all Americans should take pride. The attempt, however, to qualify what type of an American one might be undermines the essence of American diversity. Thus, it is through our diversity that we give meaning to the claim, “I am an American.” 

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About Jason J. Campbell

  • Keilani Ludlow

    Thank you for your post. You made some points that I have been trying to make in a class, but in a much more succinct manner.