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Courtney McKinney Headshot

The Problem Is in the Hyphen

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Benjamin A. Peterson/Mother Image/mother image/Fuse via Getty Images

I don't like being called African-American.

I've always been pretty fond of being an American. I come from a military family from Texas -- patriotism is required. My appearance is not straight forward, black or white, so people often ask me what I am. Sometimes they ask for my ethnicity, sometimes they ask for my race, but sometimes they ask about my "nationality." My nationality is simple and very straight-forward. I am an American.

I have an American passport. I was born here, and I've lived here for my whole life, just like my grandparent's grandparents. Something interesting yet predictable happens when I respond that I am simply "American." People are not content with that answer, because it does not give the full rundown of the information they seek. What they are asking for is a deeper explanation. Within my definition of myself they seek an answer to the question of what part of America I belong in, which part of America's history my veins flow from. Being a citizen of America has always meant different things for different people, and deep down we all know that.

Native American. Isn't that redundant? Qualifying the people who were here first. Apparently it is not length of time a person's bloodline has on this land that makes an American, because then we would all have to agree that the only true "Americans" are the native population. So who is American? Who can say, in response to an inquiry about their ethnicity, that they are simply "American," and people accept their answer?

"America" as we now know it began with the Declaration of Independence. We have a constitution, we have amendments and laws, all created for the advancement of the country of Americans. When those foundational structures were created they were made for a particular group of people -- white, anglo-saxon, land-owning men. Over the years the pool expanded a bit, but the general aesthetic of the "American" maintained its potency. The blonde-haired blue-eyed beauty queens and the Barbies that circulate around the globe embody the imagined American ideal. The overwhelmingly white faces we see leading our country, and police forces, the faces we see in movies, in magazines, and on TV -- they are the American ideal. They are the ones at the table, creating the structures, the companies, and laws. The founders of this country were white men, and their families and their descendants are understood to be the "Americans." Never mind a majority of "African-Americans" (black people in America whose ancestors were slaves) are partially descended from white slave-owning men.

That is why certain (usually hyphenated) citizens of America do not feel protected by the laws of their own land. That is why sometimes it feels like there are many different Americas existing on the same large piece of land -- some living comfortably and some living in what feels like a war zone, or an occupation.

I desire to claim my complete and comprehensive Americanness. I am American. I have the history of this country's conception mapped out in my bloodlines. I am American. Some of my ancestors were born here and knew no other land, some of my ancestors journeyed here from Europe, and some of my ancestors were brought here from Africa. I don't know the complete stories of any of their lives, but I know their stories merge to create mine. One that is very specifically American.

Asian-Americans are American. Hispanic-Americans are American. African-Americans are American. By hyphenating groups we create a subset that relegates certain Americans to a second tier of citizenship that we all internalize whether we want to or not. Being labeled African-American feels like a disavowal of everything that I am as well as the singular thing that I am -- American.

I am ready to drop the hyphens. I am German-American, Irish-American, French-American, Native-American, and African-American. All of those hyphens make up who I am; who I am is the melting pot we learned about in school but have yet to fully conceptualize. I am what happens in a land of immigrants. I am the embodiment of the American experiment, and I am okay with that as long as I can call myself what I am. The push-back for "reclaiming America" or going back to "the good ole days" is a push back for something that never was. America has never been a happy place for everyone living in it, but the more of America a person can claim, the better America is for them.

It's time to reclaim Americanness as inclusive rather than exclusive, as a nationality we wear proudly no matter the color of our skin. The founding fathers started this experiment, now we have to carry it out. African slaves built this country, the Irish built this country, Native Americans built this country, the Chinese built this country, the English built this country -- we've all played our part, so why not let all of us have our name, no hyphens asked? It doesn't make sense to have a country with a hyphenated majority. This is America, and I am simply American.