"Hae Sook, I said, "This is Margaret. Margaret, Hae Sook."
As I told them a little more about each other, they smiled and shook hands, said "nice to meet you," and so on.
Then Margaret said, "Your name is really hard to catch! How about if I just call you Helen."
I didn't write a question mark at the end of Margaret's question, because her tone implied that she wasn't really asking a question. It was more like an announcement, a statement about something that she was going to do from now on.
Hae Sook's smile sort of froze in place, and she looked as if she felt stunned. I certainly felt that way.
"Um, well," Hae Sook said, "Helen's not my name."
Margaret has this way about her sometimes that I find hard to describe. It's a kind of insistence on getting her own way, but in a friendly way.
"Okay," she said, "well, I'll just do my best, then."
She acted almost . . . put upon. Burdened by an expectation that she take an extra moment to learn and use someone else's actual name, instead of the one that she'd been ever so kind enough to suggest instead. As the three of us chatted for a couple more minutes before Margaret headed off toward someone else she knew, she never asked for a repeat of Hae Sook's name.
"Do you get that a lot?" I asked Hae Sook. "About your name?"
"Sometimes. I've never had someone suggest Helen, though. A lot of people just don't ever bother calling me a name."
As I later told Margaret, her comment reminded of an incident involving Betty Brown, a Texas state representative who was speaking about voter registration problems with Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans.
As Ko explained some problems that arise when people of Asian descent transliterate their names into English, Brown said,
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?
Betty Brown seems like a nice, well-meaning person, and she was quick to apologize to Ko (but also to say that she was "misunderstood" -- it can be so hard for white people to admit that they've done something racist).
"We're ready to work with any of these people who are having problems and have them educate us on anything that might be going on that we're unaware of," said Brown.
Among the things that Brown seemed unaware of, as did Margaret, was that her comments said a lot about who she presumes the real Americans are, and what should be done by others to accommodate them.
This aversion to non-white names can also have significant practical consequences.
For instance, researchers in Canada last year conducted a study of "English" versus "non-English" names on resumés. They "composed 6,000 resumés to represent applicants with English or non-English names and sent them to 2,000 different job postings offered by Canadian employers in the Greater Toronto Area." The researchers then discovered that "those with an English name like Jill Wilson and John Martin received 40 percent more interview callbacks than the identical resumés with names like Sana Khan or Lei Li."
In a similar study conducted earlier in the U.S., researchers sent out about 5,000 false resumés in response to want ads for jobs in two newspapers. According to Jet magazine, these researchers "analyzed birth certificates in coming up with what names to use. The White names include Neil, Brett, Greg, Emily, Anne and Jill. Some of the Black names used were Ebony, Tamika, Aisha, Rasheed, Kareem and Tyrone."
The results were even more stark than those in the Canadian study:
Resumes with White-sounding first names elicited 50 percent more responses than ones with Black-sounding names. . . . the "White" applicants they created received one response -- a call, letter or e-mail -- for every 10 resumes mailed, while "Black" applicants with equal credentials received one response for every 15 resumes sent.
Here's another example of the common white aversion to non-white names. A lot of white people who dislike Barack Obama do so in part because they think his name sounds so "un-American" -- that is, non-white. They often express their derision by including and emphasizing his middle name, Hussein. Birther movement leader Orley Taitz -- a woman dedicated to "proving" that Obama wasn't born in the U.S. -- does just that at about 1:45 in this clip.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's last name is another one that many white people couldn't be bothered to pronounce correctly. Writing for the National Review, Matt Krikorian spoke for many when he wrote,
Deferring to people's own pronunciation of their names should obviously be our first inclination, but there ought to be limits. Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English . . . and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn't be giving in to.
[One] of the areas where conformity is appropriate is how your new countrymen say your name, since that's not something the rest of us can just ignore, unlike what church you go to or what you eat for lunch. And there are basically two options -- the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there's a lot more of the latter going on than there should be.
Oh, that damned multiculturalism!
I obviously disagree with Krikorian's plea for assimilation to (white) American standards. I think that instead of expecting non-white people to adjusting their names for the lazy comfort of white tongues and ears, white people should struggle a little more than they often do with names that they find unfamiliar -- it's really not that difficult.
Using a person's actual, correctly pronounced name acknowledges his or her individual humanity. White people in the U.S. should also practice correct name pronunciation because, as their demographic majority continues to decline, they're likely to encounter more and more people with names that they haven't heard before. I also think that if white people do feel uncomfortable when they encounter unfamiliar names, they should do some self-reflection about just what that discomfort means.
How about you -- have you encountered other instances of white aversion with non-white names?