Several weeks ago, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, in trying to downplay the impact of voter suppression laws, stated that African Americans vote at roughly the same level as Americans. That may have been a slip of the tongue at that time, but it reflects the deeper attitude of he and many other white people in this country. In their eyes, they are the Americans. Others are seen as something less, often being told to go back to Africa, China, the Middle East, or wherever it is assumed their early ancestors lived. This attitude is pure racist and is not reflective of what most people know about this country, the United States of America.
Everybody who lives in America either came here from elsewhere or descended from ancestors who came from elsewhere. They migrated for one reason or another, or they were brought here against their will. Even the Native Americans came from elsewhere, Asia, in the distant past.
Nevertheless, we make the exception and refer to them as Native Americans because they are apparently the original inhabitants of this land, not because this is where they originated. We make a further exception by calling this America since the Sioux, Choctaw, Apache, Mohegan, and other nations were already here when Europeans began calling it America. It had not been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci, Christopher Columbus, or any other European. It was already being occupied by many nations.
Having made those exceptions, let’s proceed to look at all of the people who made their way here. People made it here from Japan – the Japanese; people made it here from China – the Chinese; people made it here from Indonesia – the Indonesians; and on down the line. When they migrated to this country, they were Chinese in America or Chinese-Americans, Japanese in America or Japanese-Americans, and Indonesians in America or Indonesian-Americans. Of course, if they are grouped together, they could be referred to as Asian-Americans. People from Germany are German-Americans; from France, French-Americans; from Norway, Norwegian-Americans. Grouped together, they are European-Americans. The descendants from Africa present a slightly different case. There are Nigerian-Americans from Nigeria, Ethiopian-Americans from Ethiopia, and Zambian-Americans from Zambia. Nevertheless, the term African-American is usually reserved for people whose ancestors came earlier as enslaved Africans. Even with that caveat, however, the point should be clear – the people from wherever they have come or originated are hyphenated Americans. Their place of origin represents their ethnicity and America identifies their country of occupation.
It is an arrogance of racism for the European-Americans to assume the identity of American to the exclusion of everybody else. The origin of the Europeans is Europe, be that Italy, Romania, England, or elsewhere. Since they developed and promoted the racial classification of human beings, at most they can call themselves White-Americans. That is the only modification that can be made. They are either European-Americans or White-Americans. They are as hyphenated as everybody else.
One close friend has decided that from this point forth, he will refer to his nationality as American and if pressed for an ethnicity, only then will he use the term African-American. Another friend has decided to always refer to white people as European-Americans to show their hyphenated reality.
The matter of using the term American should be viewed as a serious one since it is another prop used by white or European-Americans to lift themselves above other people. Correctly using the term would take away that prop, showing all to be the same, Americans with a hyphen. Second, using the term correctly is another way to underscore that this land has not always been controlled by those who would try to commandeer the term American, but that the land was taken from the native occupants through genocidal means. Third, understanding and using the term correctly would be another way to promote the truth that this country must be open to everybody.
If America is to ever become great, it will be because its people had the wisdom and the will to fully embrace and utilize the best ideas and resources from all of its groups rather than because everybody else was forced to accept the ideas and preferences of the European-Americans. Yes, this country, which is already a multi-cultural, multi-racial society, must develop the policies and practices that will make it the democratic society that is the model for humankind, the peaceful home of not one but all hyphenated Americans.