I was struck the other day while reading an article about political trends and the surprising failure of the Democrats to garner the bulk of the newly-expanded Hispanic-American voting population. The article noted that Cuban-Americans, especially in South Florida, tended to vote more Republican than Hispanic-Americans elsewhere and that certain groups of Hispanic-Americans in South Texas were more amenable to socially conservative stances. In other words, they didn’t fit their stereotypes as promoted by the political commentariat in which (all words in individual quotes—poor, striving, brown—immigrants were committed to social justice and the removal of “racist”/”reactionary” republicans.
The electoral implications of these revelations are significant, but my concern is how this incessant ethnic categorization is more broadly facile and socially destructive. In other words, using “Hispanic” to describe all people who have come to the US from Central and South America is coarse. Using it defines them principally as not quite American (as with other hyphenated categories) and makes that difference more important than their particular cultures or self-identities.
We use the term “Hispanic” about twenty times more frequently than we do “Mexican-American” even though those of Mexican heritage in the US comprise more than 60% of those of some Latin American origin. One need not go very much farther down Central America to realize that phrases such as “Salvadorean-American,” “Panamanian-American,” or “Paraguayan-American” are no real part of our language (or our thinking).
We can see the same phenomenon with regard to the recent concern about anti-“Asian-American” discrimination and hate crimes. Outside the question of “what kind of food shall we have tonight?,” there is little time for distinction between those of Chinese, Korean, Thai, or Philippine extraction. Have we, as a society, advanced only microscopically beyond “they all look alike”? The phrasing of “anti-Asian” hate crimes might at least be accurate insofar as it reflects the same coarseness of thinking and over-grouping of people from Asia by those who attack/discriminate hate. But using this term doesn’t reflect/respect the individuals attacked who have recently come from places whose cultures are at least as diverse as Europeans.
The language used with regard to those of European descent is clearly different. How often have you referred to/thought of someone as a “European-American”? The cultural dominance of Europe is so strong that our emphasis on national difference ensures we talk of “Italian-Americans” or “German-Americans” distinctly. Does anyone even use “Anglo-American” or “British-American” as a significant domestic ethnic identifier?
This practice pre-dates the rise of “identity politics” in the late 20C. Americans—mostly mongrel—seem sufficiently insecure of their “melted pot” identities to avoid insisting on ‘othering’ everyone else in sight. And we’ve not been troubled to be particularly precise about it at that.
I’ve noticed that the regular use of such phrases seems to far outweigh any possible benefit from whatever identification benefit might come from their use. In other words, when talking to a colleague about a student’s performance, why do I say “this Black woman wrote a great paper” or a “this Japanese guy didn’t know how to do use the Library”? There might be some benefit if my colleague was going to meet them (an identification benefit); but generally, that’s rare. More likely, we’re just talking about them as an example of student behavior. I suspect that I’m using this language more as a memory aid, with the unfortunate side-effect of gratuitously classifying the student in an irrelevant context. So, I’ve undertaken a conscious effort to drop the ethnic (& gender) adjectives unless there’s a specific benefit I can think of in the moment.
What this comes down to is being more mindful in my language (and thought). Most of us are well past the stage of using the classic ethnic slurs, despite what we might have seen/heard as we were growing up. I hope I am ready for another step forward.
As to the second aspect of this question, I have noticed that the default term of reference for US citizens (both how we use it and how others refer to us) is: “American.” Whether as a noun or an adjective, it’s everywhere. Of course, I’m not urging the mouthful of “United States of America” in everyday conversation; but I know there are a whole bunch of other countries in this hemisphere; all which are filled with “Americans.” Other than the fact that the US has been the most powerful country in the hemisphere for two hundred years, I can’t think why we should claim exclusive rights to the adjective “American.”
In my writing and academic speaking, I have tried to shift to “US” or “U.S.” instead. I know that there are other “United States” in the world (including the “United Mexican States”, and other historical references), but I think it’s a clear improvement, even if it’s awkward not to have a good casual substitute for “American.”
As a white male from the US, I have been deeply immersed in systemic “othering” for my whole life. I have some work to do to dig out.