In Search of the Hyphen: National Identity and Integration
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of an ongoing series of contributions from participants in The German Marshall Fund’s flagship leadership and development program, The Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF).
“I’ll never understand why Americans say they are Italian. You were not born in Italy. Your parents were not born in Italy. You do not even speak the language. You are not Italian. And you are definitely not Italian-American.”
We were studying abroad, and my classmate made the fatal error of telling our new Italian colleague she was “Italian-American.” Having previously made a similar mistake, I simply replied “American” when I was asked.
I have always found that the concept of a hyphenated identity is foreign to most Europeans, whose national identity is often viewed solely within the context of the geographic borders of the country in which they were born or, in the least, spent the majority of their formative years. United with their countrymen by a common land, language, and culture, they unequivocally state they are Italian. Or German. Or French. The idea that someone could self-identify as multicultural, even going so far as hyphenating two distinct nationalities, is absolutely baffling.
Indeed, the hyphenated identity is a very American concept forged from our history. The United States is the proverbial “salad bowl,” to use the modern metaphor. A country founded by immigrants whose citizens pledge allegiance to the Land of the Free while also openly embracing the culture of their forefathers, whether those ancestors willingly or unwillingly journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean in the colonial period or arrived on a flight to New York City sometime last year. The United States’ traditional motto, e pluribus unum, not only reflects the unification of several states under one union, but also the fusion of multiple cultures to form one nation of people united by common laws and values. While this idea has been contested from our nation’s inception — including the current populist voices advocating exclusion and intolerance — e pluribus unum is an ideal to which many in the United States strive.
E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
In my admittedly short travels through Europe with the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, my cohort engaged in multiple conversations across several countries about national identity, specifically in the context of the refugee crisis and different states’ treatment of historic minority populations such as the Roma. We were consistently assured that the sole focus was on the integration of these individuals into local society. But as I listened to our European colleagues discuss the challenges and failures of their respective integration programs, there was an underlying critique that refugees and other minority populations were not rapidly shedding their former identities to fully acquire the traditional social, economic and civic characteristics of their new neighbors. They were lamenting a failure for these populations to assimilate into their communities, not integrate.
Integration is an effort to include individuals into a society, not to redefine and remake them in the mold of the majority. Effective integration policies are therefore focused on providing the education and skills necessary to thrive in a new homeland: language, legal protections, access to employment, and economic opportunities. For the experiment to work there must be a give and take on both sides. The welcoming society must demonstrate a resolve to see that new populations thrive. Newcomers must see a clear path toward a better future as that hope is critical to overcoming the feelings of alienation and failure that ultimately breed hostility and discontent. For those individuals making a life in a new homeland, there must be an understanding that while they are able to hold fast to their traditions, they are also living and working in a multicultural context with others who may not possess the same cultural norms as they do. Mutual respect must exist between all.
Looking back to the United States, our example is by no means perfect. Like the current European paradigm, we too have emphasized assimilation at points in our past, and there are factions of our population that actively support similar policies in the present. But our history has demonstrated that social and economic integration is possible. It takes continued commitment, and it definitely takes time. For the next few years or even generations, the nations of Europe will have many new residents wrestling with their identities, perhaps seeking to straddle two worlds with a hyphen. As an Italian-Irish-French-now-just-American, I can tell you that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Brittany Williams, senior project manager, Destination Cleveland, is a Fall 2016 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.