Before you’d mentioned it in your previous piece, I was unaware of Theodore Roosevelt’s distaste for the various labels that fall under the classification of “Hyphenated American.” After having that historical fact revealed to me, I took it upon myself to read Roosevelts “Unhyphenated America” Speech.
His jingoism shows through his words quite clearly. It’s not surprising, as Roosevelt is probably the biggest and most famous American nationalist. He was such an advocate for American identity and imperialism that he wasn’t afraid to be a true “war hawk” – as opposed to a “chicken hawk” – and put himself in the literal line of fire for the international dominance of the United States.
I wouldn’t consider myself to be on the same level as Roosevelt in any of these categories, but I nevertheless agree with his sentiment. My American sensitivities have always been irked by the practice of designating certain U.S. citizens with labels corresponding to their family’s original nationality or place of origin. To the best of my knowledge, no other country has so-widely adopted this practice in the same way the United States has. Now, I understand that the United States is a unique case in how it prides itself on being a “melting pot” for the immigrants of the world. However, that’s just the point. We’re a melting pot, not a smorgasbord or a sorting tray. All of our ancestors came here to melt into a single substance: the American people.
I’ve also always been uncomfortable with the racial component of hyphenated Americans. Roosevelt held some outright racist views by contemporary standards, but I didn’t sense any racial undertones in his speech. I saw it as a call for unity, and an urge to abandon any national loyalties for countries of old world Europe. While conflicting national loyalties isn’t as big an issue for modern Americans, I can see why Roosevelt had to address it in his day.
But, what I mean by the racial component of the situation is the fact that Americans of color are often hyphenated – African American, Asian American, etc. – more often than their white counterparts. There’d seem to be a lingering belief among some that it’s harder for Americans of color to assimilate than white Americans, or they have to be separated from white Americans. I highly disagree with both of these beliefs. Larry Elder, a conservative radio host, has separated himself from the African American label, as he feels no connection to Africa, just America. I respect and support that outlook. It’s one that I wish more Americans would embrace.
Certain white Americans hyphenate themselves, either due to some historical national pride or because they hold some sense of white/European superiority. I have great issues with these ideals as well. As Roosevelt advocated for in his speech, there is no higher loyalty than to the United States. And no one can hope to belong to a greater class of persons than to the American people. That’s not to insinuate that Americans are inherently superior to citizens of other nations, but a certain amount of national pride is acceptable, and even expected, when one has assumed the American national identity.
It’s not only race or nationality that’s supplanted “American” as some peoples’ most important label, but religions have done this as well. Christian American and Muslim American are the most popular of the religious hyphens. Vice President Mike Pence has a piece of rhetoric that he likes to roll out while campaigning in the Bible Belt, which goes like this: “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” Where’s the American part? Is Pence insinuating that he puts the interest of those three groups over the greater needs of all American people. After all, his American identity doesn’t even crack the top three of his self-imposed labels.
Do you think John F. Kennedy would have ever made it to his televised debate with Richard Nixon if his opening line was: “I’m a Catholic, a liberal, and a Democrat, in that order.” Not a chance. That would have only massively exacerbated the concern at the time that Kennedy was going to put the concerns of the Catholic Church over the concerns of secular America. The steadily growing base of non-religious liberals would have also rejected Kennedy’s front-and-center Catholicism.
I can’t help but wonder why citizens of the United States are so hesitant to assume a straightforward national identity as Americans. It’s an issue from both sides of the political spectrum. Liberals are often lampooned for renouncing their American status in disgust and shame, but conservatives have an equally pressing problem of relegating secondary labels to a higher status than their label as an American.
For a country called the United States, we are sorely lacking in unity. I think a pressing component of that problem is our inability to feel like we’re one people, and our counterintuitive habit of relegating ourselves to disparate groups that are believed to be in conflict with one another. I think it’s time that we as a country, with a unique national make-up, national identity, and national culture, stop clinging to our barley relatable roots, and declare ourselves to the world as one thing: Americans.