Drop the Hyphen in Asian American
On the historical divisiveness of an unnecessary punctuation mark.
By Henry Fuhrmann • January 23, 2018
Ed. note: This article contains slurs as examples of how our society and language have evolved.
When author Viet Thanh Nguyen told his Facebook followers in May about a new essay of his in The New York Times, he noted that he and the paper of record differed on a seemingly minor detail: the punctuation. Elaborating on the piece, “The Great Vietnam War Novel Was Not Written by an American,” he pointed out that he had used Vietnamese American, “but the Times hyphenates it.”
Nguyen serves as the Aerol Arnold Chair of English at the University of Southern California, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Sympathizer in 2016, received a Guggenheim Fellowship in April, and was granted a MacArthur in October. Yet even such an accomplished teacher-author-scholar—a multihyphenate, dare we say—had to yield to his publisher’s stylebook over the handful of presumably unwanted usages of Vietnamese-American in his essay.
Many leading U.S. news organizations—notably the Associated Press, in addition to The New York Times—render Asian-American, African-American, Mexican-American, and similar terms as nouns and adjectives alike. To them, the hyphen, that tiniest of connectors, is a logical tool for connoting a subject’s dual heritage, as they explain in their stylebooks.
Nevertheless, to many of us in the trade and, more to the point, many of the people we write about, those hyphens serve to divide even as they are meant to connect. Their use in racial and ethnic identifiers can connote an otherness, a sense that people of color are somehow not full citizens or fully American: part American, sure, but also something not American. “Hyphenated Americans” is one derogatory result of such usage.
Nguyen pointed me by email to a literary great, Maxine Hong Kingston. In her 1982 essay “Cultural Mis-Readings by American Reviewers,” she wrote about critics’ invoking of stereotypes in their reviews of her classic The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Many described the California-born author as Chinese, she noted, whereas “I am an American writer, who, like other American writers, wants to write the great American novel.”
“I have been thinking that we ought to leave out the hyphen in ‘Chinese-American,’ because the hyphen gives the word on either side equal weight, as if linking two nouns. …Without the hyphen, ‘Chinese’ is an adjective and ‘American’ a noun; a Chinese American is a type of American. (This idea about the hyphen is my own, and I have not talked to anyone else who has thought of it; therefore, it is a fine point, ‘typical’ of no one but myself.)”
Those hyphens serve to divide even as they are meant to connect. Their use in racial and ethnic identifiers can connote an otherness, a sense that people of color are somehow not full citizens or fully American.
In fact, she was not alone, and more recent commentators have continued the thread: “Words are expressions of power and identity. And even something as trivial as punctuation can say a lot about what it means to become American,” wrote Eric Liu, a former speechwriter in the Clinton White House, in his 2014 essay “Why I Don’t Hyphenate Chinese American” at CNN.com.
“Chinese is one adjective. I am many kinds of American, after all: a politically active American, a short American, an earnest American, an educated American. This is not a quibble about grammar; it’s a claim about the very act of claiming this country.”
In that light, the humble hyphen—fraught with unintended meaning—merits a deeper exploration.
It might help to go back a few decades, focusing on the origin of one of the terms in question, Asian American, and its evolution in wider society and in my old newsroom at the Los Angeles Times. (We’ll follow Conscious Style Guide’s preference, unhyphenated, for the sake of clarity.)
Merriam-Webster dates the first use of Asian American to 1956. (Among dictionaries, M-W uses the hyphen in the noun, American Heritage lists the unhyphenated noun as preferable, and Oxford Dictionaries lists only the unhyphenated noun form.) Demographers and others began to use Asian American to describe a growing and distinct segment of Americans. (That older word Oriental would gradually fall out of favor.)
Others trace the rise of Asian American to Berkeley in the ’60s, when it became a term of empowerment, a means of distinguishing members of that cohort from White America as well as from their forebears across the Pacific. What it means to be Asian American remains a fertile topic for authors, journalists, and commentators. (See, for example, this episode from June of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce” with hosts Jeff Yang and Phil Yu, aka Angry Asian Man.)
Japanese-American would have perpetuated the notion that its members held dual loyalties and could not be trusted.
It’s a frequent subject for Viet Thanh Nguyen, too. In a public conversation last fall at USC, he and actor John Cho ranged widely over questions about art, scholarship, and diversity, mostly in the context of Asian and Asian American identity—taking care to distinguish between the two populations. They cited the influence of the late Ronald Takaki, author of the monumental history Strangers From a Distant Shore: A History of Asian Americans and a memorable figure from their overlapping days at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1990s.
There, Nguyen recalled, he found his discovery of Asian American authors like Kingston and Asian American history, books, and culture to be “transformative.” Cho described first hearing the term Asian American: “I sometimes look back and realize that was my individuation from my parents. It was like they identified as Korean, and I was going to identify as something different.”
Long before Asian American became a choice, the L.A. Times had to evolve, if at times sluggishly, to societal norms. The newspaper’s 1938 style guide included a listing labeled “Nationalities”:
Exercise care in all racial references. Chinese, for instance, are neither Chinamen nor Chinks. An Englishman is not a Limey and a Frenchman isn’t a frog. Hence, a German is no Heinie nor is an Italian a Wop. By the same token, a Japanese is not a Jap and a Jew is never a Kike or a Yid, etc.
Sadly, that thoughtful guidance went out the window upon the outbreak of World War II. The Times’s archives of that era are littered with the anti-Japanese epithet, often in the form of screaming, tabloid-style headlines.
By 1979, a quieter time, the Times’s stylebook called for the use of Asian-American in place of Oriental. In November 1993, the paper removed the hyphen from all such terms as it distributed wide-ranging new guidelines on “ethnic, racial, sexual and other identification.”
The listings, some 200 in all, covered subjects including gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, mental illness, immigration status, and religion. They discouraged, for example, the use of crippled, handicapped, and invalid to describe those with disabilities. The guidelines inspired derisive articles in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, and other publications. Commentators labeled Times editors “the thought police,” “big brother,” purveyors of so-called political correctness. The editor of the paper, Shelby Coffey III, wrote to The Post in defense: “Looking at how language has affected those who have been scorned, ignored and excluded is a worthy task for a newspaper.”
The disappearing hyphen managed to escape the ire of the critics, though the change was mentioned prominently, albeit without elaboration, in the introduction to the guidelines: “A key change is the dropping of the hyphen in expressions of dual heritage.”
A quarter-century later, colleagues from that era offer differing recollections about the motivations. Several told me recently that social concerns inspired the change. But another scoffed when I raised that possibility, saying that the hyphen was simply deemed unnecessary for conveying the meaning.
Whatever the Times’s motivations, the dropping of the hyphen put the paper in agreement with many of its neighboring organizations in Los Angeles and, thus, many of the readers it served. Among these groups were the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (rechristened much later as Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Los Angeles), the then-brand-new Japanese American National Museum, and the Japanese American Citizens League. (The league, according to lore, disdained the hyphen upon its founding in 1929 because Japanese-American would have perpetuated the notion that its members held dual loyalties and could not be trusted as being fully devoted to the United States.)
Whatever the Times’s motivations, the dropping of the hyphen put the paper in agreement with many of the readers it served.
Faced with such enduring questions of how best to refer to racial and ethnic groups, writers and editors can take commonsense steps to sensitively address potential audience concerns:
- Start by asking whether references to race or ethnicity are essential to the story. If such details are not germane, then omit them.
- Remember that the common labels are, by definition, broad, even blunt. It’s better to be more specific: a Taiwanese American, an immigrant from Guatemala, a native of Colombia who identifies as Black.
- Refer to people by the terms they choose. At the L.A. Times, yes, that meant Asian American supplanting Oriental. African American eventually joined black in the stylebook. (One day, I imagine, my successors may consider replacing black with Black.)
For those who choose (or are obligated) to use the leading stylebooks, you might ask whether your publication or client might be flexible:
- The Associated Press Stylebook, as noted, is strict about using hyphens. However, you might advocate for setting differing local rules or an exception for the job at hand. AP, after all, does not hyphenate French Canadians (i.e., Canadians who trace their roots to French colonists). Aren’t Asian Americans, similarly, Americans who trace their roots to Asia?
- The Chicago Manual of Style expresses doubt about whether the hyphens in racial and ethnic terms show bias. Nevertheless, it advocates a hyphen-free style for nouns and adjectives. The terms are clear enough without the punctuation, the editors reason. That might be a persuasive argument for those who follow other style guides.
As a Japanese American, I certainly cringe when I see those unwanted hyphens being used by The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and others I admire. But I’m grateful that from 1993 onward, or for all but the first few years of my editing career at the L.A. Times, I didn’t have to read them in the stories crossing my screen.
It’s safe to say that in the 1990s, the critics who excoriated my old paper would not have been ready for a Conscious Style Guide. Yet many of the then-new guidelines that drew such ire are commonplace and generally accepted in the wider culture today. The passage of time, in that sense, is the great unifier, more powerful than any punctuation or stylebook could ever be.
Henry Fuhrmann, an adjunct instructor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, worked at the Los Angeles Times from 1990 to 2015. Before retiring as an assistant managing editor, he led the print and digital copy desks, chaired the standards and practices committee, and oversaw the editorial stylebook. He is a longtime local leader of the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as a member of the executive board of ACES: The Society for Editing.