As I waited for the elevator in the Vera List Center building earlier this week, I noticed a poster for Hyphenated Identities: Discourses, Questions, and Polemics, a conference presented jointly by The New School and Columbia University. Hyphenated identities have become an everyday fact woven into Canada’s social fabric; a norm established as part of Canada’s overarching narrative. Having been born to Taiwanese parents and lived in Canada for the majority of my life, the conference immediately piqued my curiosity regarding language, identity and citizenship.
Valentina Branada discusses in her blog how “language is a representation that identifies things and enables us to share them and discuss them.” It demonstrates the emergence of varying realities, and a richness in the range of stories and worldviews it presents. Language demonstrates both sameness and difference; through semantics it reveals polarities, operates on the concept of the “other,” and relies on the establishment of distinctions and belonging in the process of sense making. As a form of communication, it plays a key role in both connecting and separating people. In my experience I’ve found that a key tenet of what it means to be Canadian involves attempting (and not always succeeding in) separating and preserving the diverse voices and viewpoints that contribute to the country’s population.
In this respect, language is an integral part of who we are as people and is inherently linked to our cultural identities. As stated on the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website:
“Multiculturalism ensures that all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry and have a sense of belonging.”
It is for this reason that my youngest sister is able to attend Chinese school every Saturday as part of the government’s initiative to provide free, publicly funded minority language instruction to its citizens. It’s a right written into The Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In recognizing the movement of people, cultures and ideas, we can see what Neil Brenner describes as the dissolution of the construct of the traditional city, and how “urbanization is being generalized” to create a new form of citizenship. (Brenner 2014, 25)
In attempting to both acknowledge where we came from and where we are now, we craft hyphenated identities in order to bridge our associations and identities together. We are able to select and create imagined communities that exist separately from our geographic locations. While the hyphens within an identity acknowledge these facets and acts as a bridge between them, as constructs they simultaneously represents points of stress—degrees of separation between one side and the other. As Arjun Appadurai states, “the central problem of today’s global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization.” (Appadurai 1990, 32) As I’ve experienced first-hand, hyphenation represents the systemic multiplicity of identities that urban societies contend with as a part of their everyday lives.
As part of the Self, Society and Design course I took at York University during my undergraduate studies, Professor Robert Gill noted that one transferable skill that designers learn in design school would be “bridging the potential of the social.” In this respect, I believe that as designers, we have the power to initiate change by finding and activating these hyphenated, interstitial spaces as points of overlap, dialogue, empowerment and, most importantly, human connection. In changing our understanding of the citizenship that current social structures create, we can distribute design in order to allow citizens of these in-between spaces the agency to participate—to dream—on a larger, planetary scale.
So I pose the question: how can we begin to harness the hyphen?
Appadurai, Arjun. 1990. Disjuncture and difference in the global economy. Philadelphia: The Project, University of Pennsylvania. PDF.
Brenner, Neil. 2014. “Intro: urban theory without an outside” in Implosions/explosions: towards a study of planetary urbanization. PDF.