Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Case For Hyphenated Identities

Back in July I read this article, "What Are We Supposed To Call White People?" by Adriel Luis, in the Race In America section of The writer relates an incident where a white classmate got offended by the phrase "white folks". Luis notes that while visible minorities have put time and energy into debating what to call themselves collectively, the same can't really be said for whites. He lists some suggestions for alternatives to "white". The point of the article was not so much to actually raise the question of what white people should be called as to get people thinking about who gets to name whom what and within what framework - Luis points out that not being white himself, it's not really his question to raise.

I, however, am white, and I actually do think that it's a question worth raising. One that I think might possibly have the potential to de-normalize whiteness in some small way. (Equivocal!)

I think it would be a positive step if white Canadians (and Americans, and Australians, and New Zealanders) hyphenated their identities, and encouraged other whites to do the same. No matter how long your family has lived here. Instead of just "Canadian," whites would identify as Polish-, or German-Lithuanian-, or British-, or  European-Canadian. 

The main logic is that this is already how we identify visible minorities - we ask or expect them to identify or identify them ourselves as African-Canadian, Jamaican-Canadian, Chinese-Canadian - so shouldn't we apply the same standard to ourselves? 

Full disclosure: I already identify as Ukrainian-Canadian. So what I'm suggesting would not be a major effort or sacrifice for me. I could identify as just "Canadian" if I wanted to. My family has been in the country for several generations; and unlike some Ukrainians there's no trace of Asian-ness in my looks that would prompt people to ask, "what are you really." But it would not be accurate to identify that way. My background has shaped my family's experience and my experience in Canada - and I have a feeling that the same is true of other Canadians-of-European-origin, whether or not they are aware of the fact. 

I think it would be beneficial if whites got used to the idea that we are not "just Canadian". I've seen it written about American politics that African Americans, by their group name, are excluded from the phrase "regular Americans" - though white people would conceptually exclude people of colour no matter what they call themselves. Broadly speaking the same is true of Canada. Those who advocate colour-blind strategies would argue that it is black people who should drop the "African" from their identities, that people of colour should de-hypheante. Of course, trying to pretend that there's no difference between the experiences of people of colour and white people is no solution; it just papers over racial inequality.

However, if European-Canadians embrace hyphenated identities, and commonly came to be referred to as such, then "Canadian" could only be used to refer to all Canadians collectively. In other words, only when no single group identifies as "Canadian," will "Canadian" include us all.

I also tend to think that having hyphenated identities would force European-Canadians to acknowledge their immigrant origins, and hence the fact that no one person has a better claim to Canadian-ness than another, with the exception of aboriginal peoples; it would force us to regularly and frequently acknowledge that this land was someone else's home before we got here.

What do you think?


  1. In other words, only when no single group identifies as "Canadian," will "Canadian" include us all.

    That's an interesting idea. You make a good case for it.

    Wish I had something more to add, but I don't. Maybe I will later after I've thought about it some more.

  2. Sometimes I prefer not to be called even with my origin or my grandparent's... I mean it is definitely better than white and black but still we are distinguishing people by the lands. Using origins/nationalities in our world the way I know it, is inevitable but looking at it from a humanitarian point of view may be different. Perhaps you know all that better than me but I just wanted to mention to it.

  3. @Moji

    I'm not sure that I'm entirely grasping your point. Do you mind expanding?

  4. A very interesting post. It always seemed to me that the white attitude in North America (and especially the US) wasn't "People like us are normal on this continent" but "People like us built this country", which makes me question how much difference it would make to race attitudes to remind people that their ancestors migrated there. But then again, I don't really know what I'm talking about.

    The situation is rather different over here in Britain, and we have other problems with identity to go along with it. There was a documentary over here a while ago (which I've seen only part of) in which a number of people who prided themselves very publicly on being "indigenous Britons" were genetically tested to find their ancestry. Unsurprisingly, they weren't quite as uniquely British as they thought...

    It was fairly lightweight and I don't know how well the science holds up, but it was a good illustration of how silly the idea of a British identity based on ancestry is. Nonetheless the British National Party and the like insist on going on about the "indigenous population".

  5. @Mark - Indigenous Britons? Goodness...don't you lot have a rather illustrious history of Roman and Norman conquests in your blood, anyway? (not to mention centuries of colonialism and trade and such). Goes to show just how socially constructed the whole notion is, anyway.

    This is a great point, and well argued, Marissa. But I have a couple of points in rebuttal of your proposed solution.

    One reason I like the "colour" system (Black, White, Brown,...) is that it's fairly portable. By which I mean that, as an American of European descent and citizenship currently living in Canada, I can identify exactly where I fall. It eliminates the conflation of recent African immigrants to America (African-American immigrants) with historic African-American communities, while highlighting their shared experiences of oppression as POC. And it recognizes our experiences in a racially-conscious world without tying us to a heritage that for many people can be extremely remote, leaving those hyphenated identities for those whose ethnicity - not just race - is important to them. It's totally imperfect, I'll agree...but I don't really want to scrap it, either.

    My other quibble is that if you're going to go the hyphenation route, I'd much prefer to see "European-American" than, say, "German-American." Given how we have constructed whiteness (in North America, at least), ethnic differences are not that important - resulting in mixed or unknown ancestries for many people. Additionally, to compare "Ukrainian-Canadian" to "African-Canadian", for example, perpetuates the erasure of the multiplicity of countries and peoples that make up the African Continent, while holding up each European country as worthy of unique recognition.

    Thanks for the ongoing wonderful posts:)

  6. I think that part of the problem is that race and ethnicity are constructed differently in Canada than the US because of the cultural mosaic vs. melting pot ideologies. Instead of just whiteness, the "just Canadian" also tends to have ancestors mostly from the British Isles, which is why it's easy for you to identify as Ukrainian-Canadian or for me to identify as Italian-French Canadian and really difficult for my roommate to conceive of herself (or anyone else) as Scottish-Canadian (Scotch-Canadian? see there's not even a good word for this...).

    And it's also complicated for people who come from multiethnic backgrounds. For example I more or less identify as Italian-French Canadian, but that's after over a decade of angsting about it. European-Canadian would make things smoother but that's an identity I don't feel I particularly fit. And then what about African-European-Canadians or European-Asian-Canadians?

    I feel like I can't identify as Italian-Canadian because that only reflects half of where I come from, and also I have never had much contact with the Italian-Canadian community. And also my father doesn't identify as Italian-Canadian (touchy subject for him as a first/second-generation Canadian). I feel like I can't identify as French Canadian (there are so many politics that go into that!) because I speak English as a first language and live in a mostly anglophone environment. And also my mother doesn't identify as French Canadian, probably because of the political implications.

    That kind of took a tangent, but what I'm getting at is that it's really complicated, especially with the idea of the cultural mosaic still hanging about.

  7. I suppose a big part of this problem is that labels are massive simplifications, and so impossible to get right, but also powerful and important, so that it's important that we get them right. Maybe it's more useful to think about how we should use labels than to think about which we should use?

    The correct answer to "What are we supposed to call white people?" might be "It depends on the context" - for example, it might be useful to describe Marissa as "Ukranian-Canadian" if you're talking about how ancestry shapes experience, but more useful to describe her as "white" if you're talking about how prejudice affects success in job interviews.

    I suspect a lot of the trouble people have with labels for ethnicity stems from the fact that they don't know quite what characteristic they're trying to indicate and why.

  8. While I understand the sentiment behind this, I think it's pulling the wrong way - isn't the goal to have every Canadian-born person recognized as simply Canadian, without being pressured to further parse their cultural background/identity?

    And even if this is not the case ,the suggested solution here is far too complex. I, for one, can only positively identify 3/8 of my "immigrant origins" so I could easily be deniyng a majority of my background by identifying with what i know.

    Or what would you suggest for my husband, who will be a cAnadian citizen int he near future, but who is actually Scottish born, and whose family is French two generations back?

  9. It's an interesting idea. In New Zealand we kind of have a name for white New Zealanders already: Pakeha. It's actually a Maori word that means 'different' and because of that many Pakeha people don't like it and see it as an insult which I've never really understood (especially given Maori people never had a name for themselves as such, it was really Pakeha settlers who named them Maori). The situation isn't helped by the fact that there are a bunch of rumours that Pakeha really means white pig blah blah blah - it's not true. All kinds of words have evolved since the beginning of time so to me what Pakeha once meant isn't overly important, what it now means is basically white, NZ-born, European-New Zealander and, to me, it works. It's an option in the census but many white Kiwis seem to want to claim the term 'New Zealander' instead. It's so frustrating to me that these people cannot see that that is excluding Maori, Pacific Island, Asian and other New Zealanders. But as your post suggests, this is what many countries have to deal with - it's kind of like mild racism that is being confused with patriotism.

    Back to your original suggestion - my only problem with it is that, in a way (maybe I'm nitpicking), it is actually kind of doing what it seeks to avoid. Not all Europeans are white but using the term 'European-NZer/Canadian/Whatever' is kind of making it seem that way. But maybe it's the case that we need to not worry about such details ('What does European mean?') outside of Europe and leave that for actual Europeans to worry about! I think it'd make life easier if each country could just have a word like Pakeha and, of course, if Pakeha people in NZ would accept the term and move on!

  10. Sorry for the lack of replying, folks! You've left some great comments.

    @libractivist: Interesting point about portability. How true does that hold elsewhere in the world? I know that the phrase "people of colour" isn't universally accepted; that someone who might be considered "black" in Canada or the US could be considered "white" in another country depending on their features; and that not everybody falls neatly in the colour spectrum - Persians, for example.

    Good point about "European-Canadian" vs. Specific-Country-Canadian" too. Although the way I've seen it applied currently is that if you know what country a person of colour's background is, that's how you'd refer to them (Chinese-Canadian, Jamaican-Canadian). I imagine it working similarly for white people. If you haven't specified, or if you don't know what country your ancestors are from, or if you do know but it's a total mixed bag, then "European-Canadian" would suffice.

  11. @ ~s~: I tend to discount the difference between the melting pot and mosaic ideas because multiculturalism hasn't done much to actually help people of colour, and you still meet a lot of white Canadians who have a problem with the policy. But that is a good point you make there.

    The whole point is that it might not be easy for your room-mate to conceive of herself as Scotch-Canadian, but that is who she is, and that background shaped her identity whether she knows it or not, and I think it would be good to encourage people to recognize that.

    I think the degree to which we identify with a community can seem like an issue to us because we're choosing how to identify. But someone who is Chinese-Canadian is identified as Chinese-Canadian whether or not they are part of the Chinese-Canadian community. Part of de-normalizing whiteness would mean having to acknowledge your background whether or not you really consider it a part of who you are.

  12. @ Mark: What I'm talking about is how to use labels to de-noramalize whiteness. To make it a characteristic that is no longer assumed to be the norm.

  13. @Anonymous:
    isn't the goal to have every Canadian-born person recognized as simply Canadian, without being pressured to further parse their cultural background/identity?

    I think that goes in the colour-blind direction, which I don't think is helpful.

    You and your husband might both simply be considered "European-Canadian"

  14. @Gem

    Thanks for that information about New Zealand, that's really interesting.

    I see your point, and I think the comments here have certainly proven it true.

  15. Actually, I've been doing this since High School. When it came to those surveys and such people are always asked to take, when the "race" question came up I'd check "Other" then in the blank put "European-American"

    Well, ok, not always. It sorta depended on how snarky I felt that day and whether screwing with the tests could actually land me in real trouble.

  16. What about those of us who don't know where our ancestors came from? I look European, but being adopted, and since my parents have never identified as anything other than Canadian I have no connections to anywhere in Europe, other than my lack of melanin.

    As well there can never be any truth to race or ethnicity, which is as equally constructed as gender. Ultimately we are all from Africa, so at what point do we draw an arbitrary line in a person's lineage to distinguish where they're "really" from?

  17. African-Canadians who are descended from slaves don't know where their ancestors came from either. They were robbed of their culture and traditions, their "connections" to Africa, other than their skin colour. Their identities are still associated with Africa, so why shouldn't your identity still be associated with Europe?

    The point, as I explain in my post, is to de-normalize whiteness.

    The notion of us all ultimately being from Africa is not helpful when trying to deal with race and white privilege, because it obscures the fact that people descended from Africans in more recent history are subject to racism in ways that others are not, as well as the legacy of European imperialism and colonialism in present-day Africa.


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