The Hyphen as a Bridge to an American Identity

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on January 18, 2011

New legal immigrants have chosen the United States as their home in which to live and work, but it is not yet fully their country. Nor, can we expect it to be right away.

The new immigrant arrives having spent his childhood and formative years in his country of origin. She has absorbed its language, culture, and outlook, while at the same time having had an uncountable number of experiences that reinforce and deepened the connections among these elements. So that immigrant arrives here with an already formed identity. He or she is a Nigerian, a Chilean, a Vietnamese, and so on.

Yet all of these legal immigrants are also incipient Americans. They have, after all, chosen to live here, chosen to endure the uncertainties of the immigration process, and reinforced those choices with their presence. Yet, they are, from the standpoint of identity, poised between the identity they came with and the beginnings of a new identity.

There are several major differences between the last great wave of immigration and our present circumstances. Now, the very idea of assimilation is debated and "contested." There is no consensus among political, religious, and civic leaders about the importance of assimilation. And globalization has made it easier immigrants to be in consistent and direct contact with their "home countries," and vice versa.

The lack of a uniform consensus regarding the virtues of new immigrant assimilation coupled with the lack of systematic efforts to help facilitate that process as was successfully done in the case of past "Americanization" efforts doubtlessly lengthens and complicates the process of transition to an American identity.

Moreover, not only are new legal immigrants left to fend for themselves, but they are also being warned by irresponsible supposed friends and advocates they are unwanted and disdained by "anti-immigrant" Americans. This can only have the result of making new immigrants more uncertain about their status as new members of our community, and perhaps that is the purpose of such warnings.

These are strong headwinds blowing against the acquisition of an American identity and it is unclear how much the hyphen, by itself, will be able to blunt them. Still, it is an important resource, and in these circumstances, perhaps even more so.

The hyphenated identity helps resolve a major issue for new immigrants. They choose to come here, which reflects an initial identification with the country, but they arrive with an identity that has already been years in the making. They almost certainly identify with the opportunities that this country provides and which are the major initial reasons for their decision to come here. Yet they cannot really feel like genuine Americans without having spent time here, and learned more about the country’s language, people, culture, and institutions.

As a result, they might well want to belong, but do not yet feel that they do. They may want to belong, but do not yet really feel they can legitimately say, "I am an American." They may be pulled between their past and their future and not feel emotionally ready to lay full or even substantial claim to being an American.

Into this experiential and emotional swirl, the hyphenated identity provides a pragmatic solution. The Nigerian-American, or his counterpart from any of the over 200 countries and territories that contribute to the American immigration stream, can at once retain their identity and begin to develop new one. They can elude the loss that comes with giving up a core part of one's self even as they begin the process of embracing a new aspect of their identities that will, with time and assistance, grow.

In these critical, initial ways, the hyphen provides a solution to some difficult emotional issues involved in the immigration process. It is one unheralded form of "welcoming" new immigrants. It welcomes by providing a flexible bridge to a new identity while allowing new legal immigrants to continue to honor what may become, over time and in their children, a remembered "symbolic identity" rather than an active one.

But there is more . . .

Next: The Value of a Hyphenated Identity