The Value of a Hyphenated Identity

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on January 19, 2011

Hyphenation helps new immigrants resolve a very personal and consequential set of questions: How can I acknowledge who I am while at the same time recognizing the reality of a fresh start in a new country of whose community I would like to be a part? But it does more than this.

The core of identity's value in the United States is that in spite of efforts on the part of some to make it ascribed on the basis of race, gender, economic status, or nationality, identity here remains fundamentally a matter of personal choice. Inherent in that capacity for choice is the bedrock condition of flexibility. You are not required to have the same identity at age 13 that you have at 30. You can focus more on your profession at 40, but then decide to switch gears at 50. You can be a feminist at 20 and a doting mother at 25 or a playboy at 20 and a proud father at 26.

And you can be Mexican when you arrive, a Mexican-American as you settle in and live here, and eventually you can think of yourself – and certainly your children can fully think of themselves and make legitimate claims to be – American. Yet a hyphenated identity's flexibility extends beyond the movement toward an American identity in the intergenerational process of assimilation.

A hyphenated American identity also contains a great deal of flexibility within the hyphenated identity itself. Consider the identity phase Irish-American. It certainly represents a step away from a purely country of origins identity: "I'm Irish." At the same time, it is a far distance from the identity statement: "I'm American." Yet between those two poles lies more of an identity range than is commonly understood.

Consider the variations. One can be an Irish-American, and Irish-American, or an Irish-American. Each of those italicized variations represents a difference in the relative emotional weight given to those two central elements of a hyphenated identity. The placement of the italicized portion of the hyphenated identity would seem, at least in theory, to be consistent with a framing of the American identity acquisition process as a progression, albeit probably one with some back and forth movement.

Yet there are even deeper levels to a hyphenated American identity than this. Michael Walzer, a political theorist who is indifferent to the importance of an American identity, nonetheless puts his finger on an important but overlooked aspect of hyphenation. He writes in his book What Does It Mean to Be an American (p.47) that:

"It is not the case that Irish Americans, say are culturally Irish and politically American, as the pluralists [theorists] claim…rather they are culturally Irish American and politically Irish American. Their culture has been significantly influenced by American culture…with them and with every ethnic and religious group except the American-Americans, hyphenation is doubled."

Walzer's point is that over time even the cultural and nationality dimension of the national adjective that modifies the American identity is, itself, undergoing change as it develops in a wholly American context. So there is a double change occurring: one is at the level of the individual's identity, the other at the level of changes in the nationality category itself as it engages and unfolds in an American context.

The point here is not that a hyphenated identity is to be preferred or that it is the necessary endpoint of the assimilation process. Rather the point is that a hyphenated identity is a critical element in the process of helping new immigrants make the transition, over time, from identities as nationals of their countries of origin to a new American identity.

And if this were the case, it would seem to be a very large and avoidable mistake to remove any mention of being an American from either a "Hispanic" or "Latino" identity.

Next: Why Not a Hispanic-American Identity?