Names are a very personal part of each of us, as it is the overarching symbol of who we are—the entity that is associated with the name itself. There is an almost chiasmic relationship between the self and the name. Yet, quite recently, Senator Perdue mocked Vice President candidate Kamala Harris’s first name at a Trump rally, with him changing the pronunciation of the name with clear antagonism. Perdue’s action has prompted wide and well-deserved criticism in the following days. However, his actions bear implications beyond its mere racial subtext and speak to a larger climate towards non-white names in predominately white societies.
In a Harvard Business School article published on May 17th, 2017 by Dina Gerdeman, it is cited that job applicants who “whiten” their names are almost twice as likely to be called for an interview. The article goes on to note that this trend applies even to corporations that claim to be diverse. Anecdotally, I recall countless occasions where ethnic minority classmates had their non-white names mocked in a fashion echoing that of Perdue. Yet, the irony continues: even if one were to change their name to another that is undeniably “English,” mockery does not cease. I recall vividly an occasion where an Asian classmate was referred to as “James or John [Last Name],” when their actual name was nothing of that sort. It appeared then that the offender was operating on the assumption that most Asians pick common and simple names that are associated with English, and has not bothered to recognize that this is a fallacy and an act of disrespect.
The question then comes to whether the mockery of foreign names stems from the xenophobia provoked by an unknown name, or if it is solidly based on the mere ethnicity of the bearer of the name. On both occasions noted above, one might argue that people have an expectation that immigrants, minorities, and foreigners actively adopt a local, definitively “English” name. However , there also seems to be a subtext of scepticism with which locals approach the selected “English” name of such an individual. It is almost as if the outward, physical appearance of this bearer is seemingly undeserving of such a name. Ironically, many commonly used English names do not come from English roots, with etymological connections to the Romance, Hellenic, Semitic, and even Asian languages.
This conflict of approaching names is not unique to the Anglophone world, in fact, I would argue that the same response of curiosity, xenophobia, and even hostility is derived from a foreign name in any nation. The inquiry boils down to this: that effectively catering to the expectations of the majority ethnicity serves little to no purpose, as picking a name that pleases their expectation would not detract from their perception of one’s exterior. On the other hand, maintaining a foreign name would prompt just as much of a negative connotation.
At CA, we are no strangers to teachers learning a foreign name at the start of a new school year or class, and this is a practice to be exalted. Of course, there’s no expectation that they can immediately manage the correct pronunciation perfectly. However, the spirit to make an effort to accept and treat the names without overt bias is very much laudable. Unfortunately, this willingness to acknowledge the variety in names is not so upheld elsewhere, as Senator Perdue has reminded us. Effectively, the stigmatization of names is to be ceased. Names are as big a part of us as any other, and respecting it appropriately—no matter what it is, where it is from—is a basic expectation.