What’s In A Name?
A Republican Texan legislator, Betty Brown, created an uproar Tuesday by suggesting, during House Elections Committee testimony, that Asian-American voters should use names which are “easier for Americans to deal with.” Ramey Ko, a rep for the Organization of Chinese Americans, had earlier stated “that people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent often have problems voting and other forms of identification because they may have a legal transliterated name and then a common English name that is used on their driver’s license on school registrations.” Brown’s response?
“Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?”
While the Texas Democratic Party called for an apology, Brown’s spokesperson expressed outrage at the racialization of the statement, saying: “They [the Democrats] want this to just be about race.”
While most of the discussions I found online center around the racial aspect of the remarks, I found the assumptions about language particularly interesting. “Here” is America, an English-speaking space, in contrast with (other) spaces where (other) languages are spoken. Also, “you and your citizens?” One point: here is not so plainly English speaking. Further, Chinese is portrayed as “a rather difficult language,” whereas English-aligned names are “easier,” dealt with “more readily.”
It is not that people don’t use Anglicized names upon immigrating to America-whether officially or not. I have had Indian friends with Hindu names who suddenly became “Alan,” “John,” and “Harry,” tired of the inevitable pronunciation issues they faced with, or what one called the “introductory nightmare.” For some, it is easier to use such names because there are too many things “otherizing” one already, and a modified name becomes a way of indexing membership, in-groupedness.
For others, there is violence. I remember one of my students once telling us of how when he first arrived from China, his High School teacher decided that his name was unpronounceable-without even attempting it, or asking how to pronounce it-and “christened” him with an “American” name. He felt miserable about it, but that’s what he was called, and he had to resign himself to that. It was not until he arrived in Berkeley that he “reclaimed” his name, and insisted that everyone call him by his Chinese name, that he felt, in his words, “empowered” again.
Brown’s remarks are highly inflammatory, and it is a wonder she didn’t recognize that early. There’s plenty in a name…which is something she would recognize were she ever at the receiving end of her own rhetoric.
How hard, really, is “Ko” to pronounce? Though that’s so not the question.
Update 1: Watch the exchange between Ko and Betty Brown:
Update 2: I just watched the video, and she immediately says, after making that first statement about Asian Americans using easier names, that she didn’t mean people should change the names, but use a transliteration. She goes on to say that Ko and his “people” should adopt names that are more accessible. While the video offers some context for her remarks, I am still deeply uncomfortable with her thinking. She does, at the end, though, ask that the “bright” young man, Ko, come up with a solution that everyone can live with. I am beginning to rethink this a little…