TRAVEL, HUMANITARIANISM, AND BECOMING AMERICAN IN AFRICA, CHAPTER 5: Disrupting the Hyphen: Identity and Belonging in America

Mathers, K. (2010). “Chapter 5: Disrupting The Hyphen: Identity and Belonging in America’ Travel And The Discovery Of Home.” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillon, 117-135.

Kathryn Mathers’ fifth chapter “Disrupting the Hyphen” in Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa, centers around the experience of three students studying abroad in Cape Town. Prior to their study abroad experiences, Megan, Maria and Corey had never “thought of themselves as just American” (P.117). Each woman had labeled herself as a specific kind of hyphenated American. Thus, their introduction to a South African perception of them as ‘just American’ proved to be particularly unsettling. Mathers argued that their interactions with South Africans caused each woman to rethink her identity, and to transform it in various ways.

Mathers began her chapter with an introduction to Megan, a particularly politically orientated “white American from a rural conservative town” (P.121). Prior to her experience in South Africa, Megan had accepted the American phenomenon that “only black Americans were allowed to speak about Africa” (P.121). However, visiting Africa bestowed her with a confidence and validity to speak about Africa. Mathers suggested that Megan’s desire to speak about Africa was reflected in her desire to buy and wear West African styled clothing. However, I am more inclined to argue that this interest in local clothing was perhaps more related to her financial insecurity. She wasn’t able to afford the fashionable clothes or the excursions that other students could. However, in South Africa, Megan realized that “a small amount of dollars went quite far in terms of life’s little luxuries” (P.122). Among the South African clothing stores, for the first time, Megan was likely in the position of a buyer who could afford to buy. Megan spoke about how she had “enjoyed being able to wear what she wanted and how in South Africa she was able to feel comfortable wearing clothes that matched her own sense of who she [was] rather than the expectations of others” (P.123). Perhaps ‘being able to wear what she wanted’ can be stretched to include being able to afford and partake in fashions. Perhaps someone who can afford to belong, is more in line with Megan’s sense of self than someone “who carries a stamp of the outsider” (P.119)

Mathers revealed Megan’s understanding that her West African clothing preference couldn’t continue back in America (P.122). Just as fashions don’t necessarily translate between countries, neither do one’s finances. Megan likely realized that her time as a wealthy individual in South Africa couldn’t continue in America. Despite the lack of permanence in Megan’s financial climb, she discovered that she was in fact wealthy, privileged, and powerful compared to many South Africans. She determined that this wealth and privilege was tied to her fate of “[being] born into the world’s wealthiest country” (P.123). In other words, Megan realized that being American, no matter the difference between working, middle or upper class, bestows one with a wealth and privilege in many places outside of America. This wealth and privilege, or American citizenship, likely fed Megan’s preexisting “guilt over the role the United States played in the negative effects of globalization” (P.121). As well as her “[feelings of responsibility] for the plight of others” (P.124).

During our seminar we discussed this concept of guilt transfer. Is it fair that these young Americans have to bear the wealth and power differentials of their country? We came to no definitive answer. One student related guilt transfer to a coffee shop worker or a cashier. These workers are almost never in charge of store policies, price augmentations or really any responsibilities outside of their often limited tasks. However, due to their frequent interactions with customers, they bear many complaints. Ironically, it is often common knowledge that these workers hold no power to change things to satisfy a customer’s desires. Similarly, travelers are often confronted with complaints in regards to their countries’ governmental decisions, policies, and etcetera, even though it is often known that these travelers have very little power to change their governments. Whether it is fair to hold citizens accountable is almost irrelevant. The point that was emphasized during our class is that it happens regardless. An anthropologist’s task should be focused on capturing and interpreting these moments of collision.

In the chapter Mathers also introduces Maria, a Mexican-American who experienced culture shock in college due to her traditional Mexican upbringing (P.124). During Maria’s time in Cape Town she was confronted with South Africans who refused to believe that she was Mexican, due in part to her light complexion. Mathers noted Maria’s performance of drenching her food in hot sauce in order to assert her Mexican identity, and resist the American identity imposed on her (P.126). Mathers concludes that Maria’s use of hot sauce was in fact her assertion of the possibility of being both Mexican and American, rather than a rejection of an American identity. I am not so convinced. Maria’s experience is the only one that mentions a xenophobic and negative reaction towards Americans. She encountered South Africans who vocalized their ability to identify Americans through their accents, and their general discontent with their presence (P.125). Perhaps this general displeasure towards Americans encouraged Maria, through the use of hot sauce, to distance herself from the possibility of being ‘just American,’ and her American classmates.

During our seminar we questioned why these Americans left their perceived identities to the hands of South Africans. Why should they have the last say? Why should their uninformed perceptions of American culture flatten Maria’s identity to that of ‘just an American?’ Examining Maria’s story a little closer, I am much more convinced that Maria’s performance of her Mexican identity was for the benefit of her audience, rather than her own. It is possible, likely even, that Maria’s resistance towards a singular American identity was due to her witnessed negative reaction towards Americans. Her alignment as more than an American can be interpreted as her method of gaining the approval and acceptance of her hosts. Perhaps Maria was aware that her flattened identity was only flattened in South Africa, when confronted with South Africans. After all, the opinion of a culture who shared none of her identities, is far less devastating. If Mexicans in Mexico had flattened her identity to ‘just an American’ perhaps that would have been more of a reason for an identity disruption. I argue that Maria asserted her Mexican identity in order to be better accepted by South Africans, rather than due to the inner turmoil Mathers had perceived.

Corey was the third and study-abroad student of the chapter. During her experience in South Africa, Corey discovered a piece of her identity no longer valid. Prior to her time spent in South Africa, Corey had labeled herself as an African-American, as most black Americans do. However, when a South African asked how she labeled herself, she realized that the African part of her identity sounded strange because she had no ties to the people in Africa (P.128). With the African part of her hyphen eradicated, Corey was left to contemplate the sole American identity left over. Labeling herself as simply an American also felt strange. In her journals Corey stated that an American identity only incorporated those of a European descent (P.129). Similar to Corey’s identity in South Africa, her hair was a source of stress. She needed to get it washed but she was faced with the dilemma of a lack of chemical strengtheners, not unlike the lack of adequate labels she was faced with. After hunting around hair salons, Corey gave up on her quest and opted for braided hair. What I believe to be truly telling is that Corey kept her hair in an even more natural style when she returned home. Her braids in South Africa can be understood as her temporary solution. Her ability to make do with what South Africa had to offer. Similarly, the disrupted ‘African’ in her African-American identity could have also been a temporary adherence to her presence in another culture. Upon her return back home, Corey could have easily reverted back to straightening her hair, and referring to herself as an African-American. What is interesting, and truly telling, is that she did neither. Mathers interpreted Corey’s afro as a sign of “how comfortable she felt with being both black and American” (P.130). However, I feel that Mathers’ conclusion expels the possibility that Corey was in fact just comfortable with her lack of any label. Rather than continue her former adherence to hairstyles expected of African-Americans, which her family articulated, or sample popular hairstyles of South Africans, Corey’s afro signified her resolve to simply let her hair and identity to be as is. Rather than navigate different identities, liker her afro, Corey seems to accept that she doesn’t belong to either an African or American identity, rather than to both as Mathers suggested.

Through Megan, Maria, and Corey, Mathers expressed the tensions felt by students who had their hyphenated identities threatened, even if only temporarily. Through the use of materials and objects, each young woman either asserted or navigated her challenged identity. Mathers believed that the manipulation of certain materials was a reflection of each woman grappling with her challenged identity. I have my reservations about her conclusions. I argue that each woman’s acceptance of fluidity in their identity, reflected through their use of certain materials, could have their desire to fit in, and adhere to a South African culture. Megan could have dressed in a West African style in order to better adhere to local trends, due to her ability to afford the trends. Maria could have asserted her Mexican identity in order to be better accepted by South Africans who exhibited animosity towards Americans. Corey could have rejected the ‘African’ in her hyphen in order honour the distinction South Africans made between themselves and her. Mathers correctly identified a complexity in each woman’s collision with her identity’s reflection in South Africa. By adhering to South Africans’ ideas of their identities were these women accepting their Americaness? Perhaps Megan was. I am not so convinced that Maria and Corey were.

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2 thoughts on “TRAVEL, HUMANITARIANISM, AND BECOMING AMERICAN IN AFRICA, CHAPTER 5: Disrupting the Hyphen: Identity and Belonging in America

  1. The point that you raise about the fairness of holding citizens accountable for the actions of their government is an interesting one. Generally speaking I would agree with you, Anthropologists should be focused on “capturing and interpreting these moments of collision.” The exception I take in this book, however, is that it is Mathers, at times, who is holding the citizens accountable for the actions of their government. She seems to have constructed the narrative in such a way as to insert the idea there and make it seem natural.

    • Great point. This makes we wonder about what exactly was said, and how much “inserting” Mathers did during her and Megan’s their more politically charged conversations. Did Mathers unintentionally enhance Megan’s already existing guilt? I question her objectivity, especially when she claimed to have at times used Megan to work out her own frustrations.

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