Photo by Pekka Nikrus

Hyphen Nation

How one punctuation mark gave us new identities, longer names, and a century of arguments

by Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite

Like most Ambiguously Brown people, I often hear the question “What are you?” Over the years, I’ve had a number of different answers: I’m mixed. I’m Canadian. I’m a person. Why do you really want to know? None of these answers really tell the whole story, and that’s when I use The Hyphen.

The hyphen crops up in almost every aspect of my self-identification, and in the ways others categorize me. It’s in my last name, a symbol of my parents’ interest in gender equality and allegiances to their respective countries of origin. (I am a child of the 90s, after all.) But it’s also how I’ve defined myself, as a first-generation Canadian-Indian-Italian-American. I am a walking hyphen.

As a kid, I was mystified by all of the words I wanted to cram into my answer when someone asked me where I came from. Because I don’t like to say “I’m half this and half that” (a personal preference based on the fact that I don’t like fractions), I had to start with “well my Dad is from here and my Mom is from here…” before watching someone’s eyes glaze over. Growing up, all of my hyphens made things clearer for myself and for anyone who felt like listening, but they also made me feel like an outsider.


In American history, the hyphen has carried many negative connotations specifically related to immigration and citizenship. In a 1915 speech, President Roosevelt, then a Colonel, declared:

“There is no place here for the hyphenated American… Some of the very best Americans I have known were naturalized Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all.”

Roosevelt was talking about European and Asian immigrants to the United States. In the midst of the First World War, Roosevelt saw immigrants’ allegiances to their home country as a threat to America’s national security. President Woodrow Wilson echoed this sentiment in a 1919 speech to the League of Nations, saying:

“And I want to say–I cannot say it too often–any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready. If I can catch any man with a hyphen in this great contest, I will know that I have caught an enemy of the Republic.”

Wilson’s choice of words here is powerful. In making the hyphen a dagger, he turns it into both a weapon and a tool for dividing loyalty. In order to not be considered a potential enemy of the Republic, the hyphenated must throw down this dagger and choose one allegiance over the other. The correct answer, of course, is to choose America.

Since Wilson’s time, the hyphen has been largely erased from descriptions of immigrants and minority ethnic groups in the United States, and many now opt for a descriptor without a hyphen. Soon after its inception in the 1930s, the National Council of Japanese-American Citizens’ Leagues became the Japanese American Citizens’ League — no hyphen. The argument was that the hyphen implied the group’s members had loyalties to both Japan and the United States. In dropping the hyphen, the first word (Japanese) became a descriptor of the second (American), rather than a dual identity. Without the hyphen, Americans with roots in other countries can also claim to belong in America — or so the melting pot ideal would have us believe. In reality, it often means that people of color find their Americanness to be qualified, and in some ways, incomplete. An Irish American person can easily drop the first cultural identifier for 364 days of the year (and on St. Patrick’s Day too if she chooses). A Japanese-American person usually can’t — even if she identifies as Japanese American instead.


Canada has also experienced its own hyphen negotiations. In 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker declared his vision for “One Canada,” similar to his American predecessors but with the added element of French-English conflict. In a 1958 speech, he said:

“I determined to bring about a Canadian citizenship that knew no hyphenated consideration… I’m very happy to be able to say that in the House of Commons today in my party we have members of Italian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Chinese and Ukrainian origin — and they are all Canadians.”

This speech took place just after the passing of Canada’s 1952 Immigration Act, which allowed the government to reject immigrants’ applications based on: “nationality, ethnic group, occupation, lifestyle, unsuitability with regard to Canada’s climate, and perceived inability to become readily assimilated into Canadian society.” Though less fiery than Wilson and Roosevelt in his appeal to drop the hyphen, Diefenbaker echoed their desires to ensure loyalty to one nation and one Canadian culture. But he also failed to determine how Canadian culture might incorporate traditions and customs of hyphenated Canadians, thus reinforcing the idea that Canadian culture was a white culture at heart.

This path shifted under Diefenbaker’s successor Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who made multiculturalism a tenet of his political agenda in 1971. Trudeau claimed that encouraging new immigrants to retain links to their countries of origin, as well as instituting English and French as the official languages of the country, would make Canada a more diverse and “just society.” He argued: “Such a policy should help break down discriminatory attitudes and cultural jealousies.” Under Trudeau, and in the decades that followed, hyphens were reinstated.

In Trudeau’s multicultural vision, the hyphen was intended to be an equalizer; a way to ensure social equality for all Canadians, regardless of their other citizenship or language ties. At the same time, only some Canadians choose (or are given) a hyphen, and it usually doesn’t relate to their place of citizenship. (If that were the case, I would be a Canadian-American.) On the Canadian census, “Canadian” is listed as an ethnic origin. The census question asks: “To which ethnic or cultural group(s) did this person’s ancestors belong… An ancestor is usually more distant than a grandparent.” Considering Canada’s age as a nation (147 years young), and its restrictive immigration policies prior to the 1960s, the “Canadian ethnic origin” label is reserved for white Anglo-Europeans and Aboriginal peoples. This automatically sets up a distinction between Canadians and non-Canadians without specifying when that distinction will disappear.

In this Canadian model, citizenship, culture, and ethnicity are muddled together. Does “Chinese-Canadian” indicate that someone holds dual Chinese and Canadian citizenship? Does it mean that someone has Chinese parents and was born in Canada? Under the multiculturalism vision, this logic should extend to include all ethnic, religious, and language differences in the country. But I’ve never seen someone introduce themselves as Scottish-Canadian, unlike those who self-identify as Chinese-Canadians or Indo-Canadians.


So where does that leave me today, a hyphenated person in name, citizenship, and cultural makeup? In an interview about her novel Itkusa, Joy Kagawa says: “In the new novel, Aunt Emily tells Naomi that a Canadian is a hyphen and that we are diplomats by birth.” Kagawa, a Japanese-Canadian (or Japanese Canadian?) woman, points to the possibilities of “bridging” that exist within the hyphen. In the same interview, she illustrates this idea: “Even if we are all in different hyphens, we could put a line through the hyphens and be connected as hyphenated people.” This is an optimistic viewpoint, and at the best of times, I think it’s possible to achieve. But there’s also so much weight and power that hangs on the hyphen and its wearer, especially given its recent history.

In 2008, a Canadian newspaper reported that by 2021, “hyphenated Canadians” will be the majority in the country. According to the research firm that carried out this investigation, Canadians “will be reporting more than one ethnic background” on the census. This is in part because of a change in the census question that asks respondents to trace their ancestry past their grandparents. As a result, fewer Canadians are able to choose “ethnic Canadian” on their census forms. At the same time, more people report mixed heritage on the census, citing different ethnic origins for their parents and grandparents. Comedian Hari Kondabolu’s album Waiting for 2042 is a reference to the year when “white people will be the minority in [America].”

Kondabolu’s joke and this newspaper article speak to the anti-immigrant sentiments and culture of white privilege that prevail on both sides of the border; in both countries, the idea of white people not being a majority population has become cause for media attention and concern. Some politicians even fret that a hyphenated America will become “Balkanized.” The implicit idea behind these rumblings is that something has been lost in the culture of each place, as Wilson and Roosevelt threatened not so long ago. What’s changed, in fact, is the atmosphere of overwhelming whiteness, but there’s no easy way to print that in mainstream news.

As a member of the hyphenated near-majority, I’m keeping all my annoying punctuation marks for now. Sometimes, when filling out online forms, I pick one of my last names to comply with the character limit. Sometimes, though, I don’t change my name. If I feel up to it, I spell out the whole thing from beginning to end over the phone, feeling simultaneously guilty for taking up someone else’s time and proud for having the gumption to do it at all. Whether I reject my hyphens and pledge allegiance to one nation (and in so doing, one culture, language, and color), or add more descriptors to display the full extent of our global citizenship, that punctuation still marks me as something different and, given recent history, untrustworthy. These everyday problems make more obvious what I’ve known for my whole life: that I don’t quite fit into the categories created for me. But I like the hyphens. They help me define myself as a person of color and a first-generation Canadian. And even if I decide to drop some of them along the way, they help me take up space that I so desperately want to claim.