Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The power of the hyphen

Being in Britain, I completely forgot that yesterday was Martin Luther King day. Only after reading a very moving post at Dignan's, did I reflect on race relations and integration in the United Kingdom.

I certainly can't make sweeping generalizations, but one thing that stands out in the UK is the lack of hyphens in identities. What do I mean? I mean that often derided hyphen used to link two identities: African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, etc.

The hyphen allows people to have two identities simultaneously. Over the past 40 years, the emphasis has moved, but that is valuable. The 1970s was an era when people focused on the front half of the hyphen (African, mexican, gay, female, etc). The 1980s and the communist threat brought the focus back on the second half. We were all Americans united against the commies. Once the common enemy was vanquished, the 1990s brought a swing back to identity politics. Limbaugh famously ridiculed one group as "Feminazis", but others saw identity politics important. And pointed to the fact that Clinton had the most diverse Cabinet ever (and Bush followed suit) as a victory. In the aftermath of 9/11, the emphasis moved again to the AMERICAN side of the hyphen. We were united (at least for a little bit) against a common enemy.

Yet in the U.K., they don't use or have the hyphen. They have the catch all phrase "British", but no one knows what that means. A man from Northern Ireland, a 2nd generation Carribean immigrant, a Pakistani Muslim and a woman from Hong Kong are all British. They have nothing in common. What does it mean to be British? What if one gets mad at the government or society at large? You can't opt out. You are JUST British.

One of the after effects of the July bombings is the recognition that the U.K. is fractured along ethnic groups without a common identity. Early this week, Chancellor Brown gave a speech promoting Britishness. He defined it as a belief in "liberty, fairness and responsibility." Pretty weak ties to bind. I certainly believe in those, but I'm not British. The French believe in those ideals (most of the time), but they aren't British. What is one to do when the government fails to uphold these principles? Does it cease to be British? The U.K. is missing the hyphen.

Compare that with the power of the hyphen. Muslim-American girls and sororities explore common ground. These girls can emphasize their Muslimness while at the same time enjoying something very All-American. They can have duel identities. As events dictate, these girls (and all hyphened Americans) can switch between the two. They can have the best of both worlds.