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White privilege and weird names

Working all day has made me late to the pile-on against Texas state representative Betty Brown, who said that if Asian-Americans want to be sure they can exercise their constitutional rights, they should change their names to something Anglo poll workers won't find so weird.

As many people have pointed out, plenty of non-Asians have weird names too. I'm one of them -- most people I meet stumble over my first name (despite the fact that it's pronounced just like it's spelled), and I've learned to respond to anything starting with an "S" (my dissertation advisor sometimes called me "Spencer" as a joking reference to a classmate who misunderstood my name long enough that I decided I didn't want to embarrass him by pointing out his mistake). My name is even misspelled on my birth certificate, so technically my various forms of ID are inconsistent.

Nevertheless, I have never encountered problems voting -- or conducting business at the DMV, a bank, or any other sort of institution -- because of my name. The people I encounter are typically solicitous about getting the pronunciation right, and sometimes make complimentary small talk about it ("that's a neat name. Where is it from?"). This is clearly not the experience of the Asian Texans who were at Rep. Brown's hearing.

I don't think it's too far-fetched to say this is about race/ethnicity. Aside from my first name, everything else about me -- my skin color, the shape of my face, my clothing and hair style, my accent, my last name* -- screams "'normal' (white) American." My name thus becomes an interesting oddity, but one that is reasonable for the person to learn to cope with because I seem like I belong, like I deserve the same quality of service as Jane Smith and Bill Jones. But when an Asian person with an unfamiliar name comes along, at least a few of those features will not match the implicit model of a normal American held by some such workers. Thus their weird name will be taken as one more mark of foreignness, making some people feel put-upon to accommodate an outsider who insists on being treated equally. This idea of Asians as perpetual foreigners is quite obvious in the way Rep. Brown spoke -- e.g. telling the Asian spokesman what "your citizens" should do -- and belies the idea that this is somehow simply about the inherent difficulty of pronouncing certain names. Accommodating "Stentor" is easy, because I'm clearly already a normal Anglo American, but accommodating Asians means not just learning new names but also admitting that the U.S. is a multi-racial, multi-cultural society.

(An aside I couldn't figure out how to work into the post: I have had two teachers in my lifetime who made "learn to correctly spell and pronounce my name" an explicit class assignment. One was my Polish 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Kolodziejski. The other was my Tamil college intro anthropology professor, Dr. Sangarasivam.)

*Interestingly, "Danielson" is much less common in the U.S. than it looks. I've never met a Danielson I wasn't related to, though I know they're out there. But since it uses the "common male first name + son" pattern, it comes off as a very common, normal name (though I do get referred to as "Daniels" from time to time) -- more normal than names like Nguyen or Vasquez which are objectively far more common in this country.


Blogger rabi said...

I completely agree with you that this is an instance of racism. but I will say that people give me a very hard time about my name and often want to refuse me services until I agree to be called by a more normal name. maybe it's because I'm not a guy.

1:31 PM  

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