“I know I’m going to butcher this” — Asian names, racial assimilation, and resistance

teachers

By Heather Vaughan

We were all familiar with the recurring scene. It’s the first day of school, the classroom abuzz with chatter and excitement, and the teacher is calling roll for the first time. Inevitably, sometimes just a few names in, she pauses, furrows her brow, looks a little closer at the name. “I’m sorry, I know I’m going to butcher this, but… last name, Chang?” My friend raises her hand: “I go by Jenny.” And so it continues, through the entire class list, with most of my Asian American peers, who make up more than half of the roster, informing the teacher of their preferred, “American” name.

Growing up white in a self-proclaimed liberal suburb that claimed to celebrate the values of diversity and multiculturalism, my younger self would have denied any claims of racial prejudice in my school — after all, my school was majority students of color, and I never heard any slurs or witnessed any hate crimes. However, racism persisted on micro, meso, and macro levels, as it does in many spaces regardless of racial makeup. One of the most prominent and insidious forms of racism that individuals in my community perpetuated was the pressure to racially assimilate, which often took the form of stigmatizing ethnic names. While many of my Asian peers engaged in this assimilation by choosing American names to use at school, many later reclaimed and embraced their names as a form of resistance.

So, what is racial assimilation, and what does it mean to be pressured to racially assimilate in America? In a study about Asian Americans on college campuses, researchers Museus and Park defined this phenomenon as feeling a need to conform to the dominant, institutional culture of the campus to belong and succeed. Although I didn’t hear my peers articulate their experiences in this way when we were children, the desire to belong was nevertheless omnipresent. Even in my schools, where the plurality of students were Asian American, white supremacist ideals pushed students into feeling a need to assimilate to whiteness.

This pressure to assimilate is intimately connected with the black-white racial binary that exists in the United States today. Asian Americans fit into neither category, and are therefore perceived as more proximate to whiteness or to blackness based on their actions, as argued by DePouw in her research about Hmong American students. A foreign-sounding, difficult-to-pronounce name places them in the category of other, and further from the fleeting dominant ideal of whiteness. Adopting an American name seems like an easy fix to be more palatable to your peers around you, but can cause a dissonance between a school identity and a home cultural identity, which Museus and Park call an “internal conflict.”

Despite these external pressures that persist both in K-12 and higher education, many of my Asian American peers have begun to reclaim and celebrate their cultural names as a form of resistance against the pressures to assimilate to whiteness. As a friend, I feel happy that my friends are using their cultural practices and signifiers as a tool of empowerment. But for me as a member of the dominant racial group in America and a beneficiary of the structures that are oppressing my friends of color, I ask myself: what can I do to disrupt the pressures that my Asian American peers and other peers of color face to racially assimilate?

Through academic research and conversations with friends, I drew many key conclusions. One relevant theme: make the effort to pronounce your peers’ names! Along with this comes making the effort to dispel assumptions you may have about their cultural background or customs. If you don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name, respectfully ask, and practice until you get it right. Don’t expect them to change an integral part of their identity for your white comfort.

The effort of dominant group members — in this case, white folks — to correctly pronounce the names of those around them is just one small step in the process of breaking down white supremacist structures. But for those of us who care, it is one vital step toward creating inclusive educational spaces where all students can thrive. 

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