Hyphen-ated for Life: Palestinian-American, Almost

“Democratic representation of We The People requires an accurate

ascertainment of who ‘We The People’ are.”

~Arab American Institute

The space of identity is tight. A single identity can hardly fit into its place, yet that is what society expects. The reality of identity is much more dynamic and colorful than dry categories of some census-defined race or ethnicity.

But wait. Is any generic definition a fair categorization of a person’s true identity? Do the census-defined presented categories neatly fit into the narrow space of society’s conceptualization of identity and therefore expected to accurately define a population?

I live a hyphenated life—an inherited scar that cannot be washed away nor neatly tucked into the space of races presented in the census questionnaire or many people’s one-dimensional minds. As far as I reckon, my hyphenated life is not one I chose, but it is the one I choose to cherish, at times. Fitting more than a single identity into the identity space is hard enough, but trying to squeeze in the hyphen makes it a lifetime chore, not to mention having to squeeze in multiple hyphens as the world intermingles.

My identity is one, regardless of the number of hyphens, but the constructs of each side of the hyphen are constantly jockeying for the limited identity space. White does not do it for me. When I look at my skin it does not resemble the color of the paper I’m writing on. I can’t cut it as black either. My skin color is somewhere in the middle, between bronze and tan of sorts. But why is anyone’s skin color important?

U.S. Census

The U.S. Census Bureau is bound by the 1997 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) standards on race and ethnicity, which guide the Census Bureau in classifying written responses to the race question. The categories adopted are White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. That’s it. You are expected to fit into one or more of these categories crafted by a group of government professionals sitting in Mary’s Room, knowledgeable beyond belief, but light on world travel.

Reasons for collecting race information are serious. In the U.S., the Census Bureau notes that: “Information on race is required for many Federal programs and is critical in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights. States use these data to meet legislative redistricting principles. Race data also are used to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks.”

Billions of state and federal dollars are allocated based on how you self-identify. So, ticking the race box on your census form is much more than a feel-good act. For some communities, it could mean the difference between life and death.

The Census Bureau knows better than to view skin color as the defining factor, but one would need to read their race category definitions to learn this. The trick word used in those definitions is “origin.”

A “White” person is one “having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” I have no idea why the word “White” was chosen or why these vast areas are all lumped into one category, but I am willing to bet that those picking the word never visited the areas mentioned. France’s “Black” community is not ‘white,’ nor necessarily ‘White,’ but I can see how one may miss that given it is illegal in France to keep records of statistics based on religion, ethnic origin, or race. Middle Eastern Iraqis are, at minimum, all tanned, and defining Egyptians as white would need to be followed with the person making this determination as being blind. Also, do we need to be aware of any unoriginal peoples in this region? Maybe a color-blind designation of European, Arab, and African would be more accurate.

A “Black” person is one “having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.” Ohh, no “original peoples” here, just a “racial group” in a vast geographic location. Africans can claim many beautiful shades of color, from black to white and every shade in between, but they do not neatly pack into racial groups, so this definition is troubling from every angle.

An “American Indian or Alaska Native” is one “having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.” Ahh, here the geographic location is not enough, one must maintain “tribal affiliation or community attachment.” I wonder how those are defined and by whom.

An “Asian” is a person having “origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.” Here, the general area is expanded upon by stating some specific state examples, unlike the Middle East, for example, where all the states are dumped into a single regional distinction.

Lastly, a “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander” is a person having “origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.”

Of course, one can always write in the blank space provided in the census questionnaire their own self-identifying term, but that would be merely self-gratifying since odds are almost nil that enough people will fill in the same term to have any impact on the policies intended to use this data.

Palestinian-American, Almost

Census aside, my identity happens to be Palestinian-American, or is that American-Palestinian? Since I’m not a Native American, my “American” part needs expanded even further. It’s Lebanese-American. I guess that makes me Palestinian-Lebanese-American. Does it matter? Yes! Well, not really. Then again, it depends on the day and which part is in the current space. Does this dual-hyphenated identity neatly fit in the identity space of a person’s mind or relevant census categories? No, but who cares; this is me.

What two words could be further apart? I ask myself while contemplating how paradoxical my identity is. While the word ‘Palestinian’ weighs in at eleven characters, ‘American’ weighs in at eight. They should be in different leagues, but here they are in the same one. “American” is like the Wall Street Bull, charging forward and perfectly fitting the eight-character spaces of identity. But in the space of identity, it is not the number of the characters of the words that matter, but rather the meaning of the words that define the character of the person in question.

The space of identity is tight, but it can fit so much.

Palestinian—from Palestine—the tormented land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River that is beautiful beyond words. A state in the making on a very slow burner.

American—from America—but not all of America, just that state in North America called the United States of America. Not the oldest state, by far, but an all-mighty one, stretching from sea to shining sea, but itself not always shining as more have come to see. It is today’s makers of states and the denier of others, I presume.

Fitting these words, Palestinian and American, in that limited but endless identity space is an ever-challenging ordeal, and that is before adding the hyphen. But it is the hyphen that adds the best of both worlds, giving a deeper meaning and more colorful representation to each of the hyphenated parts that make the person whole.

The American part reminds us that America is not the government per se but the people, all the people. It reminds us that melting pots may never fully melt into one, but the never-ending cooking process is crucial for crafting a social contract amongst citizens, all hyphened, if not native.

That hyphenated space makes one full—full of hummus and hamburgers. They co-exist just fine.

It makes one reflect on geographic space—while in Bethlehem, PA (Pennsylvania), about the original Bethlehem, Palestine, sometimes also tagged as PA (Palestinian Authority).

It makes one struggle between dual narratives, squeezing both in the same space. For the hyphenated, history is not a snapshot, but rather a story. The banner of Wounded Knee bleeds into The Star-Spangled Banner, just as much as Black September owns a page in the chapter in the blackest September of Sabra and Shatila.

After attempting to disguise their hyphenated reality depending on where they physically are, the hyphenated-many learn that they populate all the spaces. They are the majority when in America and the embodiment of displacement and refugeedom in Palestine, or, shall I say, the fragments of Palestinian presence, within Palestine and without.

After all, it is not society’s pre-defined space of identity that matters, rather it is the elements of any number of hyphenated parts of one’s identity that we choose to fill the space. The space itself is not policed but is politicized; we are allowed to reconstruct it as we grow, as we need to survive. No one holds us accountable to our hyphenated self but ourselves, I guess. I hope. I wish.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant and frequent independent political commentator from Ramallah/Al-Bireh in Occupied Palestine. He blogs at ePalestine.ps. @SamBahour