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Sonn: Time to set aside the hyphen

BY BARRETT SONN | NOVEMBER 04, 2013 5:00 AM

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Here are three things that are connected: I was unaware for the majority of my life that the term “Oriental” is actually degrading when used in reference to Asian people, as opposed to objects such as vases or rugs. Sometimes, I have to stop my own Mom from using it incorrectly.

In February 2013, the term “Negro” was dropped by the U.S. Census Bureau after almost 100 years of use. It was something some older black individuals associated with themselves from more trying times. A few weeks ago, a British play was assigned reading for one of my classes. One of the characters was black. Numerous times throughout class discussions, he was referred to as an “African-American” by my fellow classmates. Surprise — he wasn’t African or American.

Do you see the connection? Words are subjective, their meanings vary over time and from person to person, and they can hurt. My reaction to my epiphany regarding “Orientals versus Asians” is worth noting. Before, I was blissfully unaware. Now, even when I hear people use the word incorrectly without malicious intent, I get deeply offended by a word I didn’t give a crap about for 90 percent of my life.

Words can change in much the same way on a more macro level. “Negro” is a heavily charged racial word. If there were a pantheon of racist terms, “Negro” would probably be in there somewhere, especially if you are either black or white. The word has long since been removed from decent conversation and, much more recently, from those Census Bureau surveys. But the task of replacing outmoded slurs such as “Oriental” and “Negro” has been fraught, too.

Consider what happens when you try too hard to be politically correct. You make silly mistakes like referring to black people from the UK as African-Americans. The irony here, of course, is that “African-American” is offensive to some people right here in the United States. Obviously, not all black people are from Africa (or America, for that matter). Perhaps they are from South America. Perhaps they are from England. Can you tell how difficult of a maze this is to navigate, trying to avoid crippling generalizations?

Even the politically correct is offensive to somebody, somewhere. Perhaps what we need to do is do away with our incessant need to label people. I think the United States might be the only country where the hyphen is so devastatingly common in daily conversation. Does any other country use the hyphen so irresponsibly and casually as us? I’ve never heard of the term “Korean-German” or “Italian-Australian.” You are just a Korean living in Germany or an Italian living in Australia. The hyphen use is a stupid and antiquated method, and we should stop.

It muddles and overcomplicates things. The quest for efficiency in categorizing people has been detrimental. In our efforts to generalize and label people, we often unknowingly (or knowingly for the more evil individuals) pass along and reinforce ideas that are simply wrong. It implies that our differences matter more than our similarities, that we should be defined first by our race and ethnicity. It insinuates that those of hyphenated origins are less than fully American. America is home to many groups of many races and ethnicities, none of whom should be classified primarily as anything other than American.


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