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The Retirement of The Hyphenated American


By: Elaine Lehman


Words and punctuation are powerful. This past March, the Associated Press, viewed as the arbiter of language by American journalism, fi nally agreed that the hyphenated American is a relic, a common microaggression against immigrants and people of dual heritage, and would eliminate its use.

The hyphen, the tiniest connector, is a logical tool that has also been used to divide and to connote otherness – that certain groups, particularly peoples of color, with dual heritage are not really citizens, not fully American. Or simply not American. On October 12, 1915, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech to the Knights of Columbus in New York City that launched the blistering and controversial term “hyphenated American”: “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all.” The context of this speech emerges from the xenophobia of the second wave of immigration in the United States, to strongly encourage assimilation.

What does it mean to be an American? The Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1 states “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Section 101(a)(22) of the Immigration and Nationality Act states that “the term ‘national of the United States’ means (A) a citizen of the United States, or (B) a person who, though not a citizen of the United States, owes permanent allegiance to the United States.” Therefore, U.S. citizens are also U.S. nationals. U.S. nationals are individuals who have been born in the United States or certain territories or outlying possessions of the United States, or to have acquired citizenship, and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.

On May 31, 1916, Theodore Roosevelt, gave a speech in St. Louis that expounds “Americanism is not a matter of creed, birthplace or national descent, but of the soul and of the spirit.” Although the United States has not taken a position on dual nationality since 1967, the hyphen has been used when convenient to imply dual loyalties are not to be trusted. Multiple identities and multiple belongings are still viewed as a threat. As Roosevelt stated, Americanism comes in many forms and peoples. Perhaps, it is time to learn a new word: “integration”.

“Immigration has affected American society by increasing its racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, which has resulted in increased intergroup contact and the transformation of American communities and institutions,” says a 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Mary Waters, M.E. Zukerman Professor of Sociology at Harvard University and chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report, explains, “‘Integration’ is the term the panel uses to describe the changes that both immigrants and their descendants—and the society they have joined—undergo in response to migration. …integration as the process by which members of immigrant groups and host societies come to resemble one another. […] Integration is a two-fold process: it happens both because immigrants experience change once they arrive and because native-born Americans change in response to immigration.”

Our Philippine identities, our cultures and shared heritage from our 7,107 islands are woven into this country’s fabric, and together with peoples of diverse backgrounds we reinforce and enrich the American fundamental character and ideals. By settling here, our families affi rm the values that make America the country it is.

At a time when there is fomenting rhetoric about otherness, we must move past our own romantic notions of border identity – and accept the signifi cance and value of our cross-cultural identity. Those with dual heritage are not just Filipino. Or Filipino-American. They are Filipino American. Filipino is the adjective. American is the noun.

While care, in the context of Filipino and Filipino American identity, should be taken to distinguish between the two populations, effort must also be made to bridge these cultures and to foster appreciation and understanding of their unique and shared qualities. Since my appointment at FACC, I have worked hard to do this.

Individuation of Filipino American identity does not diminish one’s cultural heritage and ethnic identity, but like adjective to noun enhances and enriches the national ethos and what it means to be an American. It celebrates their integration and contributions to America. It is a statement and claim of their rightful place in America.

Our consciousness and embrace of our diachronic identity makes us whole and is an achievement of self-actualization.

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