The Associated Press recently made a major change in its style guide. Earlier this year at a conference for ACES: The Society for Editing, it was announced that hyphens will be dropped from identities and expressions of dual heritage such as “Asian American” and “African American.” Of course, the usage of the hyphen within racial indicators has long been called into question, and the punctuation has always been used differently by different people.
Hyphens have long been a symbol of dual identity, particularly when it comes to immigrants. Sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza grapples with the idea of the hyphen in America as it applies to non-white immigrants. Golash-Boza writes:
While whites self-identify as Americans, non-white Americans recognize that they are not Americans, but African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans or Latino/a Americans. In this sense, how one becomes American or how one assimilates into American society depends in large part on one’s racial status.
Golash-Boza explains that the hyphen has evolved into the “ultimate act of assimilation.” While being “American” has long been standard to mean white, as Toni Morrison writes, “Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Golash-Boza notes that all Americans have several identities and cultural backgrounds at the same time: “it is worth asking how long the idea that to be American entails being of exclusively European descent can last.”
Whether the physical hyphen is included or not, the phrase “Asian American” is particularly problematic in the way it clumps together a continent (“Asian”) and a nation (American). In “Being Chinese American, Becoming Asian American: ‘Chan Is Missing,'” film studies scholar Peter Feng questions the heterogeneous nature of so-called Chinese Americans. Feng writes that “Asian American ethnicity is determined by a tension between many cultures…Given this diversity of cultural experience, how can there be a voice that is distinctively Asian American?”
Feng notes that within America, Asian immigrants identify with specific countries within Asia. According to Feng, the more general term “Asian American” became popular in the 1960s, as Asians in the United States “first began to articulate the diversity of their cultural and national traditions along with their shared histories of oppression.” “Asian American” evolved into a political term as opposed to a “cultural designation.” Given that there are many ethnicities within the label of Asian American, Feng explains that there can never be one true voice within this “hyphenated community.”
As Feng points out, the hyphen has often been used to divide identities, as opposed to considering the possibility of a unified one.