‘Our hyphenated selves: What it means to be a “__________” – American’ by Yasemin Acar

‘Our hyphenated selves: What it means to be a “__” – American’ by Yasemin Acar

           You know, what I’ve realized is that when you belong to more than one place you cannot call any of those places home. It might seem contradictory; I bet some people would say that all those extra places means you have more you can call home. But I don’t think so. You see, you end up leaving pieces of you behind. Every place you belong to steals a little bit of you, so that by the end, you can never completely settle where you are. You are never completely at rest, because the rest of you is somewhere else. Scattered.

            I don’t regret being scattered. In fact, it’s something I bear, a bit begrudgingly, but with pride. Because though those who belong only to one place can, in the end, go ‘home,’ it means they cannot really be comfortable anywhere else. They cannot, in essence, walk between worlds. This is what is so difficult and wonderful about having a hyphenated identity. When you walk the hyphen, you are a bit of an outsider in all places, but a bit a part of them as well.

            I carry two very interesting hyphens; sometimes they go hand in hand, sometimes they do not. I am Turkish-American. I grew up the child of immigrants, and this has played an extremely impactful role in my life. I was born in New York but grew up in the Midwest, and after a while got used to spending much of my time answering questions about where Turkey is (somewhere east of here and west of there), what “kind” of people live there (normal), what do Muslims “want,” (…helal food?) how much Arabic do I speak (none, because I speak Turkish), etc.

Because I spent so much time defending my Turkishness, I at times oscillated between wishing I could completely eliminate it and embrace Americanness to its fullest, and at others, feeling that since I spent so much time defending my Turkish heritage, I must logically, therefore, be proud of it, must think it is important or relevant. That I must really be “a Turk.”

            But I always felt I had one foot in each culture. Turks smiled at my accent, told me my manner of speaking was “cute,” were always quick to ask me where I was from, making it glaringly apparent (and making me aware that they were aware) that I was from somewhere else. Just as the Americans knew the moment I said my name that I was not “local,” so Turks knew as soon as I opened my mouth.

            I was caught. I did not know how to address this issue. The hyphen, that seemed to sit so innocently between those two words (Turkish and American) actually sat in silent judgment of me, surreptitiously splitting my two identities and leaving me unsure of not who, but what I was.

At times, it was my other, related hyphen that affected me more. Muslim-American. As with most Muslims and Arabs in America, our hyphens were nothing more than a point of interest or at worst an oddity, until 9/11. Suddenly we became the enemy. We were afraid. We used our American flags almost as a shield; in my family, we quite literally waved our flag (it flew in our front yard) for the better part of a year. We did not want to be seen as other.

            That’s probably why my life has taken the course it has. I study identities. It has gotten to the point where the word jumps out at me from any piece I happen to be reading. Whether consciously or not, I came to this field of study to better understand myself, and learn how my own identities have influenced the person I have become.

            You may or may not know that each of us has many interrelated and inextricable identities. Mother, divorcee, lawyer, Muslim, American, gay, can all be said for the same person. Each identity is unique and possesses its own properties that influence the individual. Each becomes important in different situations. When holding her child, she may be most aware of being a mother; when working on a case in her office she may be most aware that she is a lawyer. Yet each is also connected, intertwined.

            When I think about it, I realize I was always trying to consolidate my identities. I thought by doing so I would make it easier to find my place. In psychology the term is optimal distinctiveness, that sweet spot, that special place where you feel part of something, but not so much a part of it that you get lost within it. What is it that makes each of us different?

            The hyphen can be useful in this regard. It makes us very easily something ‘exotic.’ But it can also make us lazy. Being Turkish-American is fine, but it’s not enough to wear that badge all my life. It can be something that is part of me but should not define me.

            Too often in this country we allow our hyphens to do just that. In the US, we have turned our hyphens into a necessity of political correctness. Where we come from is important to the extent that we allow it to influence who we are. It has always influenced me, and I am grateful for it. I am grateful for where I have grown up, for parents that made sure I knew where they came from and why this was important for me, for a society that questioned me and toughened me for future, more difficult questions.

            In searching for a sense of self, we should find that optimally distinct point, where we balance who we are, as individuals, and who we are in larger society. For some of us, that point is balanced upon our delicate hyphens. And as much as it can be difficult to straddle the hyphen, it is something I am also grateful for. I am on the outside looking in on both sides, and in many ways, this gives me a perspective that no one on the inside looking out could possibly have. The hyphen, as much as it can be a barrier, a separation, can also be a bridge. That’s how I choose to see it.

For more on Optimal Distinctiveness Theory: http://www.psych-it.com.au/Psychlopedia/article.asp?id=239

A great piece on the hyphenated identities of Muslim-American youth: http://web.gc.cuny.edu/psychology/socpersonality/Fine/Mfine/hyphened_selves.pdf

*Yasemin Acar is a PhD student based at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. Her research interests focus on the real world manifestations of intergroup relations and social identity dynamics as seen through political protest and social activism. She focuses especially on the context of Turkey. She is currently based in Istanbul where she is conducting research and teaching social psychology.