Sunday, September 20, 2009

have an aversion to non-white names

I was at a party recently, talking to a young woman of Korean descent named Hae Sook. We'd just met, and as we were talking, a middle-aged white woman I knew approached us. Since Hae Sook didn't know her, it was up to me to introduce them.

"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?


  1. White people have a hard time with other white people who have "unusual" names. Jewish names are very difficult to pronounce as well. Rivka, Yocheved, Yiska, Iyov, Moshe, Aryeh etc..

    Even if we look exactly like other white people, we get a lot of grief about our names. A lot of people want to shorten or Anglicize them, or they just shrug and go "whatever".

  2. A friend of mine couldn't get a job in Australia until he changed his name. Previously it was 'Mohammed'. He knew people turned him down because of his name, and couldn't understand why they gave him all these bullshit excuses why they wouldn't hire him, instead of the truth, until I explained the anti-discrimination laws.

    I really struggled to remember my Japanese friends' names at first. But I often have problems remembering names, so it didn't bother me. I explained that I was having trouble and asked them to repeat their names as often as I needed until I got them right. Now their names are just as familiar to me as my Aussie friends'.

    My Taiwanese friends changed their names in Australia though; it was easier for them. Though come to think about it, so did my German friends, and my European family.

    It's pretty clear us native English people struggle with names that are unfamiliar, but it's not that hard to learn if you're prepared to make the slightest bit of effort (which clearly some people aren't).

  3. I live in a progressive city, so I do not see white aversion to non-English names. I just get something along the lines of, "What a beautiful name. It's so exotic! What does it mean? My name is so boring. I wish I had a name like yours."

    No, you don't.

    A name like "John Martin" is not exactly a "white" name, as there could be a POC named "John Martin". "John Martin", however, is an English name.

  4. I have a Zulu first name and two English middle names. The first time that I remember someone deciding to call me by my middle name without asking my preference was when I was in the 5th grade and it happened regularly from then on. To this day, I still get people who ask if I have a middle name that I go by.

    By the 9th grade, I was ashamed of my first name and I didn't want to use it. I gradually worked through my issues and I now use my first name, but it is a very isolating experience for someone to reject your name.

  5. I really think this is a trait of a certain social class and/or certain parts of the country. When I was at school non-English names were more common than English ones and everyone just took them for granted. Also much of my family have south-Asian names.

    I remember a friend had an exceptionally short single-syllable English name and on the first day of class when the teacher called it out everyone spontaneously laughed, because it was one of the few English names in the class and sounded weirdly out-of-place amongst all the multi-syllabilic non-English ones (I think quite a few were Tamil, which tend to be long).

    One thing I find very odd indeed is that names of some of my class-mates, that I took completely for granted at my first school, _now_, decades later, when I remember them, sound foreign to me, when they didn't at the time. As a child you just happily accept everything you encounter without worrying about it - only adults find things 'foreign'.

    So when you say white Americans are going to have to get used to it, I can't help thinking this might be a self-correcting problem, as long as the country isn't too segregated.

    A much more serious issue is that, as cinnamon girl says, many studies have found employers blatantly discriminating on the basis of names. My own name isn't English and I've been told by employment agencies in the past to add 'native English speaker' to my CV - just in case they assume otherwise.

    There was a medical school here where, a decade or two ago, it turned out the computer program that assessed applications had a special sub-routine in it to knock off points for anyone with a South Asian name.

  6. p wrote,

    "A much more serious issue is that, as cinnamon girl says, many studies have found employers blatantly discriminating on the basis of names. My own name isn't English and I've been told by employment agencies in the past to add 'native English speaker' to my CV - just in case they assume otherwise."

    Did you even finish reading Macon's post?

  7. I have an Anglo first name and so does my partner - some white people actually get upset and disappointed that we don't have "different and exotic" names lol

  8. I think it's natural to struggle with names in an unfamiliar language. My own name isn't in English, yet I struggle with non-English names myself because I'm so used to English names. (But then again, I get English names mixed up too - was it Sue, Susan, or Sarah?...or maybe Helen...?)

    Transliterating names into the local language happens all the time. Tony Blair in Chinese is 'Tuo ni Bu lai er'. So I get that white people might struggle to pronounce non-English names.

    But the Margaret type response is incomprehensible. I once introduced a young Indonesian man by the name of 'Hariman' to a middle aged white Australian woman. She responded with, 'Oh, that's Harry.' She noticed the blank look on Hariman's and my face. She explained, 'In English that's Harry. The name is originally Harry. That's where it comes from.' Blank. Blink. Blink. Blank. What???...I so regret not pointing out the absurdity of her statement to her.

    And recently an Asian woman introduced herself to a white woman as, say, 'Sarinah'. The white woman says, 'Nice to meet you Sarah.' The Asian woman kept silent because she was so used to this mistake. Then an Asian teenage girl comes in and introduces herself as 'Erika'. A few moments later, the white woman says to Erika, 'So, how have you been Sarah?' And guess what, Erika just responds to the question and doesn't correct her either.

    I wonder if we should put some more effort into making sure the other person gets our names right. Say it slowly and repeat it if the other person gets it wrong. Too often we just become complacent and give up at the first go.

  9. @AE

    OK OK, mea culpa, by the time I got to the end of the responding posts I'd forgotten that bit in the middle of the original article. But I'm not disagreeing, I'm thinking of specific cases of this here in the UK.

  10. European immigrants sometimes adopt "easy for Americans" first names. If you encounter a Polish woman called Stella, she's probably really Stanislava but doesn't want to deal with Americans butchering the pronunciation...or perhaps she's doing it to be more employable.

    My son's school has a ton of kids from immigrant families, and the teachers and kids just learn the kids' names. Nobody's name seems "unusual" when there's no overriding Anglo/American hegemony in naming. Actually, the kids from Slavic families do seem to have American/English versions of their names (Paul, Nicholas), but there are plenty of kids named Carlos, Tinuola, Hamid, etc.

  11. I babysat for a black family a few years ago. The mother repeatedly called me Ashley over and over depsite politely telling her it was Alexis. I've had tons of over people of all colors assume it was short for Alexandra and call me that instead.

  12. I have always made an effort to pronounce other people's names correctly and as you said, not that difficult and people appreciate it. I also insist on people pronouncing my (Spanish) last name properly.

    However, many of my Chinese-born students actually select an English name upon arriving in the US and have asked us, their teachers, to use their new English name.

    Interestingly, it tends to be a phenomenon occurring among the younger set, they are very eager to fit in quickly in the adolescent world and come with ideas, gleaned from TV shows catering to teenagers, of what life is like in the US. Some of them told me they had already selected their "American name" before coming to the United States to study.

  13. I've never encountered white aversion to non-white names in person, though of course I did hear approximately 57 different pronunciations of "Sotomayor" on radio and TV. That's probably because I hang out primarily with white people who would never say "I'll just call you Helen."

    What I have encountered is several non-white people with Anglo nicknames, and a lot of white people with Anglicized names. One Korean guy I knew in college generally liked going by his last name, as it was very easy for English-speakers to pronounce, rather than his first name, which tended to confuse native English-speakers. And I had a Chinese boss who went by "Ellen" instead of her Chinese name.

    I think the whole thing is ridiculous, for multiple reasons, one of them being that I don't usually think non-Anglo names are difficult to pronounce. The other being, I don't understand the point of Anglicizing things. Your name is your name. Why should anyone have to change it for anyone else's convenience? It doesn't compute.

    Also, I think this issue is an excellent illustration of my theory that American racism is strongly flavored with English culture and ethnocentrism.

    Question: If someone says, "My name is Hae Kyeung, but go ahead and call me Barbara," I usually want to just call them Hae Kyeung. Would it be more tactful to say, "It's okay, I'm happy to say Hae Kyeung if you like," or just go with Barbara? I guess it's probably more polite to go with the stated wish of the person in question, but that feels wrong to me because it's so clear that they're only using an Anglo nickname because other people are having trouble with the real one. I'd hate to go around reinforcing the pressures that make people hide or change their names.

  14. My roommate and I definitely surprise people. We are both black women with very English names. My first name is Morgan. I'm pretty sure i'm not what people are expecting when i interview or first have phone correspondence with someone before meeting them in person. I can tell on their face that they were expecting a white person. It makes me laugh to myself a little.

  15. I think I threw up a little in my mouth when I read that quote from Krikorian. Are you kidding me?

    Absolutely, we should always pronounce one's name in the way in which they request that it be pronounced. I heartily agree: it honors their individuality and their humanity. Anything less is discriminatory (which is obviously the problem here in many cases.)

  16. By no means am I saying that this is exactly the same thing. But I can relate to a certain extent, because when I served in the Peace Corps in a South American country I considered going by a different first name that would be easy for people to pronounce and remember. But I could never bring myself to do it; instead, I always used my real first name, which was kind of difficult for people to pronounce, but I just would not have felt right otherwise.

    Now, of course, living in the USA again, I can take for granted that no one will look twice at my fairly normal (if slightly less than common) first name. But I cannot imagine asking someone if you can refer to him or her by a different name than the one by which he or she is introduced. That is so disrespectful.

  17. One of my good friends mentioned that he was seeing a new girl. I asked him what her name was and he was really embarrassed to tell me. It was a Chinese name that did sound funny to my ears but I couldn't believe he was so embarrassed about it. Later, I actually became friends with his gf who worked as a tutor and she had had to adopt an Anglo name so students would sign up for her time slots. She generously blamed it on the somewhat rational fear of thick accents rather than the very likely racism.

    Audit studies with black and white names are interesting but I have two criticisms. The white names are all really high quality, currently trendy names. Send out resumes for Bertha and see what the callback rate is.

    Also, in Freakonomics Levitt and Dubner analyze the effects of black names on lifetime earnings and find that there is no effect. It's simply that Kareem and Lashonda are way more likely to come from poor neighborhoods, bad schools, and broken homes.

  18. Good Lord, the problems I've had with white people and my surname. It's not even hard. It's not even long! It's completely phonetic! My middle name, as well. In full disclosure, I have a Dutch first name, a Japanese middle name, and a Ghanaian last name and I've had my friends complain about how my middle or last name is "so hard" and other similarly ridiculous shit, because really the entire thing is phonetic. And simple.

    When the Betty Brown thing happened, I was incredibly annoyed for a number of reasons, one of which was the fact that she claims that she was just asking for there to be a universal accepted version of a transliterated name, and getting rid of variations such as Wong/Wang or Li/Lee. Which is a completely ridiculous request, because in "American" names, you have Jamie/Jaime, Alisa/Elisa, and so on. Another reason I was annoyed was how she said "your citizens" as though somehow, these people are citizens of some abstract, all-encompassing country named Asia (like you can even vote in America if you're not an American citizen).

    And the person she was addressing has the last name "Ko"! How hard is that to pronounce???

  19. Somewhat related... I have a distinctly Korean name. There are two ways to pronounce it. One is the technically correct Korean way. The other is the bastardized Anglicized version. Typically Koreans use the first one, and everybody else uses the other. It's what I'm used to. Occasionally, when people find out that they've been pronouncing my name "wrong" this entire time, they'll insist on trying to learn the Korean version. You know, I appreciate that they are willing to try instead of getting all Betty Brown on my butt, but honestly... I am tired of hearing my name butchered -- the Korean version uses a phoneme not easily distinguished in the English language -- and I cringe every time someone tries. Just...use the Anglicized version, please! It's what I'm used to. It's what I *prefer.* Please and thank you.

  20. Oh yeah, I wanted to add that I worked in China for 2 years, and encountered this strange phenomenon where Chinese people would introduce themselves to me with names such as Sarah, Andrew, and Lucy. I asked my co-worker why they all had English names, because I was super confused about it. I mean, a few people wouldn't have been strange (I lived in Japan where a few of my Japanese friends genuinely had non-Japanese given names) but it was every single Chinese person that I met. He told me that they were required to have English names for work. This shocked me. My students also adopted English names, and one of the teachers asked me to name the kids. At first I felt really grimy about it, like I was legitimizing the adoption of English names as though Chinese names aren't good enough (read: white). I ended up giving them English names anyway, because I don't think for little kids to have a fantasy name is necessarily harmful (I used them too when I studied languages, and kids often use different names when playing games, at least my friends and I did), but it's the idea when they get older that they still need to use some fake English name in order to be accepted that really is troublesome (racist).

  21. Fromthetropics wrote:

    "I wonder if we should put some more effort into making sure the other person gets our names right. Say it slowly and repeat it if the other person gets it wrong. Too often we just become complacent and give up at the first go."

    My name is Nadra. I spell my name out: "N as in Nancy, a, d as in David, r, a," and people still get it wrong. Why assume the person whose name is butchered is at fault? Many people aren't interested in getting "funny" names right. I just had this experience while making reservations at a restaurant. I did the whole name spelling thing, and the person was not listening. I supposed she was too busy to care what my name was, despite the fact that I was making reservations for six. Anyway, usually in these situations I just use my boyfriend's name. His name is "normal."

    As for Alexis, I think the black woman you were dealing was absentminded or too self-involved to care what your name is. This is different than someone not wanting to take the time to learn a "foreign" name. However, I will say that I have had my name butchered by every race.
    Moreover, because my first and last name are Arabic, people do trip out when they meet me. They expect a Middle Eastern person, and I'm black with a Nigerian Muslim father.

    The name thing is a mixed bag because, yes, I do get complimented on my name, but it's alienating to have a name unfamiliar to so many. If I have kids, I'm probably naming them something from the Bible, though not as plain as Mary and John.

    I disagree with what Krikorian said about the emphasis on Sotomayor's name. However, when it comes to names with a rolled "R," it's clear many Americans will mess this up because that's not a sound we ever make (though some Brits are great "r" rollers). On the other hand, Latinos and Italians I've encountered have wanted to pronounce my name with a rolled "r" because it's easier for them, and that's fine with me.

  22. bluey512 says "I don't usually think non-Anglo names are difficult to pronounce" - which yeah, maybe, but also - when non-Chinese people try to pronounce my Chinese name, they have never ever in my life once gotten it exactly right. To their ear, it may be right, but it's not.

    Which is fine, I don't expect them to, but that's why I don't go by that name in my day-to-day life because it's tiring to always hear your name pronounced incorrectly.

    I understand the aversion of many of the commenters to call a person by their American/English name when it's not their real name, but also try to understand how annoying it is to hear people think they are pronouncing your name in Chinese (or whatever) perfectly when it's actually way off.

    There's no universal solution to it, but folks will generally let you know what to call them I think.

  23. Wow, this is so disgustingly ethno-centric of them! As a teen, I knew several Korean exchange students, and I was embarrassed to not be able to pronounce them properly, so I simply practiced till I did it right. To shift the burden of something as intimate as a proper name away from oneself is to ultimately say "your person-hood is less important than my convenience".

  24. I wonder about the exact pronunciation issue though. Even ignoring the fact that certain phonemes don't exist in certain languages, people have regional accents. Most people where I grew up used the glottal stop in place of 't' in many words. Consequently they even pronounced English names 'wrongly'. I sometimes do it myself.

    Now if they do the same thing to an Indian-language name, say (where I believe there are still other forms of the 't' sound than in 'correct' English) does it suddenly become unacceptable for them to use their own accent?

    Is this not one of those things where the underlying power-relationship is the real issue? That having people mis-pronounce your name is only a big deal where it reminds you of wider power-differentials?

  25. My name is Hispanic (Jaime, pronounced "Hai-meh"). In Texas, however, when I run into most people who see my name, they pronounce it as Jamie (pronounced, "Jay-mee"). I correct people often, and most of the time they remember it, but there have been instances where people say "Where I come from that name is said 'Jamie', so I'm gonna call it that", as if my name were something independent from me.

  26. I don't see too many things in here that literally make my jaw drop - I think I'm a little too jaded for that most of the time - but that conversation in the beginning of the post did it. I was pretty much left thinking "The hell?! How could some one possibly think that was a reasonable thing to do?"

    I understand stumbling over a name you're not familiar with - I've done that too, though in my case it's not so much a white/not-white thing; I can be tripped up by some Scandinavian and Eastern European names (and, most embarrassingly, Dutch names, despite my family being part Dutch), while I'm usually fine with Hispanic names and fair proportion of South Asian names. To a certain extent it's just what you're used to vs. what you're not used to.

    But the arrogance required to think you have the right to arbitrarily rename someone for your own convenience, especially someone who's just a random acquaintance (as opposed to, I don't know, a child you're adopting or something) is just mind-boggling.

    And that really underscores the racist component - lack of familiarity is one thing, but automatically assuming that you have that kind of authority over the life and identity of someone you've just met is quite something else.

  27. "Which is fine, I don't expect them to, but that's why I don't go by that name in my day-to-day life because it's tiring to always hear your name pronounced incorrectly."

    Hmm. Well, people from other countries pronounce my (Latin-derived Anglo) name differently from the way I do. It doesn't occur to me that they're saying it "incorrectly," though I guess they are - I just chalk it up to accent differences and never did find it annoying. Is that comparable, or do you think the mispronunciation of your name goes beyond accent differences?

  28. I adopted an English name when I came to the US, but this English name is only used colloquially and not on any legal documents. It's my compromise in not having to hear people butcher my name, or repeated explanations of how to pronounce it.

    It makes me somewhat uncomfortable at the idea that students who register for classes may choose to not register for mine because of my foreign sounding name. Colleagues suggest that this is a good thing as low enrollment means less papers to grade, but personally, I feel judged before they've even seen me in person.

    I have a student whose name is Noe (accent on the e), but told me to call him "Noah" because everyone else does. I will probably continue to call him Noe. Interestingly, on the first day of class, I asked each student to write something about themselves so that I can visually identify them and associate a name to a face, i.e. "I wear horn rimmed glasses." "I have long brown hair." etc. This student wrote "I am the only Hispanic in the class." He was very acutely aware of his race.

  29. I have to admit, I got a chuckle out of the story at the front ("How about I just call you Helen.") but I don't think Brown was being racist. I doubt she was trying to offend anyone with her statement, and she did apologize for it that very same day. It can be hard for public figures because their every move is under scrutiny. I'm sure if it were like that for you you would say or do something that some viewed as offensive at some point; in fact, you already have in this blog, as you are aware.

    There's also the fact that foreign names are hard to pronounce simply because we aren't used to them. That's not racism though, because it would be the same if a white person had an unusual name, first or last.

  30. For me, it's not so much the inability to pronounce my name, it's the immediate assumption that, because of my skin color, my name is "foreign" (it's not) and that I want to be called by a so-called English name (I don't).

    I'll admit, I have a straaaaange first name, but it has absolutely nothing to do with me being Chinese--my parents simply decided that this strange combination of letters would be an appropriate first name for their child. For as long as I can remember, my teachers (who were all white, up until I got to high school), always said, after roll call, "What's your English name?" as if 1) the name they just read ISN'T in English, and 2) just because I'm Chinese with a strange name, I've adopted an English name.

    I'm rather certain that, had I been born white, the question would be "Do you have a nickname?" which was the question always asked to my white classmates with "difficult" (or long) English names.

  31. My boyfriend (who is Arab) has a last name that is totally unpronounceable by almost any non-Arabic speaker. It's not just white people, it's everybody (but, the white people tend to be the ones to not even try, or attempt to immediately anglicize it). His last name begins with a Q (Arabic speakers will know this as the letter qaaf, which is unique the Arabic alphabet) with the second letter being a T. His relatives in Latin America have totally "hispanicized" the name for the same reason...

    Which brings me to my point; although white attitudes are quite possibly the worst, it's not all that uncommon for this to happen in non-white or non-English speaking places. Living in an Arab country, I was almost immediately given an Arab name that everyone called me by - or if they did pronounce my name (Jillian), they wouldn't bother to use the hard J (dj), rather softening the J (like the French J).

    Anyway, I don't mean to detract from the discussion, as I think that the attitude behind white people's behavior when it comes to non-white names is racist. I only meant to mention that it's common elsewhere for names to be changed.

  32. I'm mixed (black/white) and I have one of those Jewish names that Grace mentioned above... and if I had a dollar for every time someone assumed if was "one of those Afrocentric 'made-up' names", LOL.

  33. hey Jillian - Your post raised a lot of questions for me. Why do you think white people have racist attitudes when it comes to foreign-sounding names, but when it comes to other people in other countries struggling with foreign-sounding names they don't have racist attitudes?

    Or is it possible to you that other people in other countries might have racist attitudes too, and that the name thing this post is talking about is common all over the world and not specific to white people at all?

    And what is it that makes you think that white people's racist attitudes are "quite possibly the worst?"

  34. Strange. I never thought pronunciation was a problem of *white* society, but rather *English* society. I live in a large, multicultural Canadian city and have rarely had a problem pronouncing people's names. If I do have a problem pronouncing their name, I tell them (politely) point blank. They are usually quite accommodating and will help me through the pronunciation a few times til I get it right. I feel no guilt or shame about this. I live in a largely English-based society, and when I run across any word (or name) that I can't pronounce, I ask for assistance. When I first starting going to my current dentist, his daughter was amazed that I pronounced his name - Nitzopoulos - correctly, and without hesitation. The fact that I'm white had nothing to do with it.

  35. I am a Taiwanese-Canadian living in Vancouver, Canada, a multicultural city. However, the name issue has always come up. For example, when I was in high school, a Korean classmate of mine was always marked as absent because the teacher didn't want to try to say her name during the roll call. Of course, it's somewhat understandable that the teacher didn't want to embarrass himself, but he could have privately asked her how to pronounce it properly.

    As for me, my parents had all of our names legally changed to anglo names two decades ago, when we first emigrated, but after 9-11, for some reason, our anglo names were then taken away from us because we were supposed to "revert" to our birth names for "security reasons". Now, I'm in name limbo, with everyone knowing me as my anglo name, but all my legal documents showing another name. If I want to change my name back to my anglo name, I'll have to go through paperwork and fork over about $300, not to mention fingerprinting and whatever else.

    It's definitely true, people assume that I can't speak English because of my Taiwanese name. That name has unfortunately become a burden, one with many connotations and stereotypes attached.

  36. What the hell is a "non-white" name? How racist and arrogant is even that statement?

  37. I have a very tribal sounding surname and pretty much EVERYone has trouble pronouncing it. Most of the time they give up, because they're too stupid to realize that it's said exactly as it's spelled, and then refer to me as Victoria or Miss Victoria.

    But it's only white people who assume that it's ok to call me Vicky instead of Victoria. And that name's not foreign - just apparently too long to bother saying every time. I don't think white people do it as a majority, but I do think that "aversion" is a good word to use for how they feel about foreign-sounding names. We rename countries left and right to be pronounceable in English. I guess the people who like to change other people's names or pronounce them any which way hold it in that same regard. Except that they forget they're talking to people, not a land mass.

  38. I was watching the news one morning when the [white] anchorwoman said that a girl named Kavya Shivashankar won the National Spelling Bee. her [white] co-anchor said, "She should've gotten the prize just for spelling her own name." They had a little laugh, I threw up a little, and now I don't watch that station anymore.

  39. I have a hard time with names in general. I also have a hard time with pronunciation. My worry is offending someone by mispronouncing their name. After asking, "how did you say your name again?" twice, I feel that I have already offended the person. "Stupid white woman can't even be bothered to pronounce my name." Well, not exactly. I'm not lazy, not inconsiderate, not rude. Just really inept.

    I feel a bit stuck here, honestly. But I figure people will be less offended if I ask a bunch of times and finally get it right than if I simply don't bother.

  40. I think it is fun and exciting to try to learn new names with different sounds and to learn how to say them correctly. Sometimes I feel like my use of a different accent (for example when I try to speak Japanese or say my Japanese friends names) comes out as imitation (which I suppose it ultimately is) and therefore offensive, but more often than not, I find that people appreciate more the effort than anything else. White people should stop being so boring and think outside of their phonetic box!! :D

  41. What the hell is a "non-white" name? How racist and arrogant is even that statement?

    Are you freakin serious? Hello, there are some names that ARE non-white. If you see someone with a last name of "Kim", then that person will be Asian, or at least part-Asian. (Speaking as someone with the last name Kim.)

  42. Yes. I'm biracial (black and white), my name is Shanda, and white people have spelled and pronounced it incorrectly since I entered public school. It's like 'Rhonda'(a very white name, no?) but with an S. During the last few months of my senior year of high school, I got to where I would just ignore teachers when they pronounced it wrong. Occasionally, it would be 'Shandra' or something similar, but I've also been called Shandrella, Shenaynay (yes, like Martin's alter ego), Shandrika, and other permutations.

    Funny thing is, I had a white girl in some of my high school classes named Chandra. No one had a problem saying HER name incorrectly. And I was cruising the TV for something to watch. I settled on a Comedy Central stand-up show featuring Chonda Pierce. I thought she would be black, but she was white. Wow. Wonder if she ever had problems with her name?

  43. And to agree with Nadra, when I need to give a name for reservations or to pick up my coffee, I either give me last name or my husband's name (Will). So much easier, and I don't have to endure spelling or pronunciation issues. It's in situations like proper introductions or when I have to work or go to school with the same people when I find it very important that they get my name correct. I think it's a big part of respect.

  44. I have lived in pretty diverse neighborhoods all my life and my name (Nichelle) is hard for everyone, poc; white people; phone customer service- though I will admit that most POC snap out of the shock that my name isn't Michelle, or Nicole, or something else a little faster to the point where it is now how I decide who I will bother talking to- the "unslow".

  45. Not one person of any race or nationality outside of my own family has ever properly pronounced my Cajun French last name, nor do they bother to try. This includes France-born native French speakers.

    I don't care anymore, and I have a hard time empathizing with anyone who says this is endemic of racism. It's simply a lack of manners complicated by language. Every person cited in this post for screwing up a Korean, Chinese or Black name would screw mine up, and make the same poor attempts to compensate.

  46. I have to confess, I have the opposite problem. There were a few Korean and Vietnamese kids in my classes when I was growing up who decided to adopt anglicized names, and I could NEVER remember to use their "Americanized" names. I always called them by their Asian names. To this day I don't remember what some of their anglo names are.

  47. What white people don't realize when they call nonwhites by Anglo names is that that's not only a diss on the POC's, but also a diss on white people. Why are these people still in power when (as a whole) they can't even master basic language and pronunciation skills? When they can't even imitate something they just heard?

    I mean, where I'm from, that level of ineptitude is looked down upon. If I were that bad at something, I would surely hide it. I would be embarrassed. But white folks just act like it's normal to not be able to say a few syllables-- because it IS normal for them.

    The interesting thing is that when I was in China, all the students I met there wanted me to call them by an English name. And that was in China. I was like, "I KNOW that's not your name. What's your real name?" And they would be like, "It doesn't matter, you won't be able to pronounce it!"

    I mean, that's a diss on ME. I'd have to be on the level of a five-year-old to be unable to even learn a name. Sure, sometimes I gotta ask a couple times just like anybody unfamiliar with a phonetic structure, but to not even try is lazy AND stupid.

    And now some five-year-old's gonna get on here and say my comment is a diss on HER. Peace out, y'all.

  48. Sometimes names ARE difficult to pronounce. The sounds of one language may not even exist in another, making it impossible for a native speaker to pronounce it right without tongue-twisting. But the important thing is that you TRY. And maybe you might figure it out!

    My name is common, but uncommonly pronounced, and I only correct the people who I care about. And those people who don't figure it out after the first few days knowing me.. I know what to think about them. At least make an effort! If I'm not sure about how to pronounce someone's name, I ask them straight out, "I'm sorry, can you say that again for me?" I just want to make sure I have the names right. I cringe at all the times I went right on mispronouncing people's names, thinking I had it right.

    But I do have to say, when I have kids, their names will probably be names that are easy to pronounce in both India and the US. So Matthew is right out for a boy (the Indian languages I am familiar with do not have the /th/ sound we have in English, and many do not have an /ae/ like in that name), as is Drishti for a girl (Americans can't flip the r or handle the -sht- blend). I don't want my kids to go through the name litmus-test that I've done my whole life, wherever it is we end up living!

  49. As an Arabic speaker, I find the pronunciation of Arabic names by English speakers is endlessly agonizing. Most Arabs don't even bother to correct them, it's such a lost cause.

    But I've also seen it go the opposite direction. Once in Egypt, a guy point-blank refused to acknowledge my sister's name (Madeline), saying he would just call her Mary instead. This habit is obnoxious no matter who does it.

  50. I'm hispanic, but I have a fairly common recognized name (see username). And I've had very little issue with it. My last name is a VERY common Spanish last name that is frequently seen in the media, etc and doesn't quite cause me trouble (in the sense of people having aversion to it, anyway).

    However, I have a professor that continues to irk me regarding names. She's also a high school teacher and constantly remarks how her school is diverse and there are so many "crazy names" in her classes. Our class is nearly 100% white, save for me and another hispanic girl (she also has a fairly common English name) and the professor just loves that our class has "nice, normal names."

    I hold my tongue quite frequently in this class, especially because this woman considers herself to be enlightened and free of racism. Yet the racist drivel I hear from her two days a week says otherwise.

    If I did not need to be so concerned with grades (I'm on a scholarship) I would probably speak up.

  51. Regarding pronunciation, my name is pronounced phonetically (it's a transliteration to English), but this white professor kept insisting on pronouncing my name as if it was written in pinyin. I pronounced my name for her a few times (it sounds exactly like how it is written in English), yet she kept distorting it by assuming pinyin consonants instead of English consonants (and her pinyin was wrong too).

    Her problem is that instead of listening to what I am saying, she just assumes that because my name is non-English, it must be pronounced in some exotic way that requires decryption.

    Like always, I soon gave up trying to get her to pronounce it properly, and let her call me whatever she wanted. I honestly don't have time to play teacher and personally assist every single person I meet on pronouncing my name. (It's not that hard, either, if you are literate in English and assume English pronunciation.)

  52. Sometimes people with hard to pronounce first names don't even give you a chance. I've met several people who, when asked their names, say, "You can just call me..." And when asked, "Well, what is your name?" respond with, "Oh, it's too hard to pronounce. You can just call me..." Of course, I understand why they'd get tired of hearing their names butchered or altered. It's their choice to go by other names. But it makes me a little sad when people respond this way.

  53. I'm still working through the comments, but I wanted to suggest a few concepts here.

    First - it should be up to the individual to determine if they want to Anglicize/Americanize their name. If they don't, then it's up to the people interacting with them to work on learning their proper name.

    My Huguenot name is Anglicized due to a misspelling on an old census form, but people still mispronounce and misspell it. The difference for me is that when I correct people, they always them make an effort to learn it. That rarely happens for people of color. That's called white privilege.

    The point to assimilation should not be to cater to the ways of your new country, but to simply participate in the institutions that makeup that society in a meaningful way (not just the ones preferred by white people). How Justice Sotomayor wants her name pronounced should not be taken as evidence of her assimilation. The simple fact that she is a supreme court justice is evidence of her assimilation.

    The English language is actually quite flexible and should be able to adapt as society changes.

  54. I changed my name when I lived in Brazil and Mozambique because it was too much of an obstacle when meeting people. Heather is a pretty common name in English, but it's really difficult for people who speak Portuguese. My middle name is of Arabic origin, and is even a common name in Portuguese, so it made sense. My life got easier when people could easily call me something, and I didn't mind because Leila is still my name, given to me by my parents. I made a compromise. But then, I didn't feel any outside presssure to do so, it was my own choice and that's a big difference.

  55. I am American with a name that is common in the U.S. and Latin America. The way I pronounce it with my (black) American accent is very different from the way in which Spanish speakers and especially Portuguese speakers pronounce it.I actually have to pronounce it the way the Brazilians do when in Brazil, cause if I don't, they often don't understand me. I try to pronounce folks' names correctly, but honestly, it is a little irritating when folks start tripping when I mispronounce their names. I had a boyfriend from the Congo who would not permit me to use his given name cause he said I said it wrong (he was a bit of an arse anyway). Most people are patient with me and others with regards to name pronunciation and I try to be as well.Going off on people for making mistakes doesn't do anybody any good...

  56. Lover of White PeopleSeptember 22, 2009 at 9:43 AM

    Your scenario is contrived. The idea that it would just so happen happen in your presence when you are such a hater of white people makes your fiction laughable. It did not happen.

    Thanks for lying again. You are either a jew or a more likely just a typical liberal guilter.

  57. this raises a few questions for me, although the ridiculous inappropriateness of some of the examples in the article (and comments) is pretty inarguable.

    what is the correct way to approach a name that is genuinely difficult for you to pronounce? obviously i ought to put forth effort, but at what point is it more rude to ask someone the correct pronunciation (again!) than to do your best attempt, even if that is still incorrect. because both of those situations are awkward and crappy for both people involved. is there an answer to that? i imagine it is highly individual.

    on the other hand, the way people approach my very anglo name has me a little jaded to the importance of "correct."

    my last name is a common english word, but has historically *not* been pronounced that way. it is now, because my whole family just gave up correcting everyone all the time.

    i get constant questions about my first name, which is very, very anglo, but is a "boy's name." people often just assume i said some girl's name that only has the first letter in common (like helen).

    my first name is unpronounceable to all of the spanish-speaking, non-english-speaking people i've met. once i realized that, i started to go by my middle name when traveling in south/central america. even so, my middle name is pronounced entirely differently in spanish than in english. but it never occurred to me to think of it as being pronounced *incorrectly*.

    which makes me wonder why i feel like such an ass when i can't pronounce someone's "non-english" name the same way they do.

  58. Not amused~thoroughly address it in her evaluation form. CC the dean.

    I find it ironic that Taitz (Jewish?) and Krikorian (Armenian) are trying to clown "funny-sounding" names.

  59. Personally, I don't care how you pronounce my name as long as you try to use the name I prefer and don't assume that I want another one.

    Usually, people ask me how to pronounce my name and then ask me to repeat it slowly. No big deal.

  60. I think this may actually be a white ango-american thing because not only do white american have this problem with names but so do english people (invariably the white ones too).

    Most white english people can't cope with (or choose not to learn to) traditional french or belgique names. Like Aurelian, Francois ("did you have trouble growing up with a girl's name?"), Paris, etc...
    It's not the pronunciation thing that appears to get people but more the, "That's unfamiliar and sounds strange". Rather than 'deal with it' most white english people would prefer to use a nickname or to use an anglicized name, "Because it's easier."

    Please note that I have only seen this attitude amoungst the english and german people. Other europeans are more accomodating. Or rather less, "I'm so great you should adapt to me".

  61. blogandshower, I know exactly what you mean. My last name is "Ahmad", and it really is extremely hard for most white people to pronounce it. I tell everyone it's "aMAUD", and leave it at that (I doubt most people realize it's the wrong pronunciation). I admit, I *am* one of those people who tell others that they won't get it right, because I know they can't. But there are those who keep trying, and while they mean well, they should also realize when to back the hell off.

    The first time someone INSISTED on trying to get the pronunciation of my name correctly happened when I was about ten years old. This person was a random supply teacher. She kept failing miserably ("Awkmet? Akhmat? Ekhmud? etc."), and when I tried to just tell her to forget it, she kept pushing me to tell her to say it correctly ("Don't ever let people mis-pronounce your name!"). She held up the class and went at it for 5 straight minutes before finally giving up and apologizing for not getting it right -- but not before I was red in the face and in tears from the sheer humiliation of being singled out so horribly like that.

    That was only the first time, but let me tell you, the humiliation never gets old when they do it so publicly like that. It's only recently that I've managed to tell people to let it go if they can't say it right. It's just too much of a bother.

    At least my first name is relatively easy to pronounce for people who don't automatically assume it MUST sound "foreign". So my first name is usually pronounced correctly. My siblings aren't as lucky, and most of them introduce themselves with the bastardized version that they've grown up hearing. But still, I do get people every now and then saying it's too hard, and trying to Anglicize it.

  62. (Part 2)

    The difficulty and/or aversion that people have with a particular individual's name doesn't bother me as when they have trouble with a peoples' name. Examples: (1) Iraq, or even "aROCK" for people who can't say the throated "q", not 'EYE-RACK'; (2) "Cheelay", or "Sheelay", not "Chili"

    And of course, "Muslims" and "Islam", which seems especially foreignized by the western media outlets. Believe it or not, it's actually NOT that hard to pronounce! But the special emphasis people give in trying to foreignize it really bothers me. I swear, sometimes the way people say "Muslim" on t.v. reminds me of the excellent Rex Harrington in My Fair Lady when he says, "Yes, as the girl very properly says, "Go'aaaannnhhhhh" --- complete with accompanying facial expressions. Classic.

    It could be worse - at least it's not Moslems, or Muhammadens any more. Usually.

    For those of you interested in the actual pronunciation:

    MUSLIM -- Incorrectly pronounced like "muslin" with an "m" at the end. Correct pronunciation of the word is "Mus" like "wuss/Puss [in boots]" and "lim" like "limb/whim/swim/etc" with the emphasis is on the first syllable. MUSlim.

    ISLAM - Incorrectly pronounced as "IS LOM" - sounding a lot like "is mom ..." Correct pronunciation is "is" like "this/hiss/miss/etc." and "lam" like "lamb/swam/jam/etc.", with the emphasis on the second syllable --- isLAM.

    Recap: Muslim, like "WUSS-limb". Islam, like "this LAMB"

    Yay! That wasn't so hard after all -- it's got English rhyming equivalents and everything! =)

  63. I find this pretty Racist. I have a "white" Scandinavian name, and a lot of Americans (of all colors) often mispronounce it or call me a similar Anglicized name.

    It is not about white vs. black. It's about small minded people who can't bother to try to learn a new name.

  64. Growing up, I used to get mad when people like teachers or church folks mispronounced my name, which is Deleasa. Once you start to know a person, learn how to say the name correctly. If I'm meeting you and probably won't see you again, I don't care as much. Phonetically it's DeeLisa or D'Lisa. In later years, I would get more offended when it's mispelled, which to me is more important especially if it's on documents, church programs, or anything that other people can see. Today I can laugh off mispronunciations and it's acutally a conversation starter. I'm black with an Italian-derived name. It's unique, although I am beginning to find a few with the same spelling. Recently, I found an Italian family on the East Coast with that surname, which is interestng. I would have a problem with somebody asking if they could call me something else other than the name I told them.

    @PF: Your name is my middle name. That tends to surprise folks as well. So they get doubly surprised over both names.

  65. Hmmm, Echo, I'm not sure I agree with you on the 'proper' pronunciation of peoples' names. If they're speaking English, isn't it understandable that they pronounce country names and names of religions, which have become part of the English vocabulary, using an English pronunciation? If we follow your argument, then we'll have to start saying 'Nihon' for Japan, 'Zhong guo' for China (complete with the tones), 'Singapura' for Singapore, etc.

    And China and Japan will have to start trying to pronounce 'United States of America' in English instead, for example, 'Amerika gasshuukoku' (translation of 'united states' in Japanese)...

  66. @scrupulous

    Are you sure that the reason Germans and English have trouble with French names might not be that German and English, are not Romance languages, unlike French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, etc? So is it really surprising that speakers of Germanic languages have more trouble with Romance pronunciation than speakers of other Romance languages do? Of course, it could also be down to English speakers lack of interest in learning other languages.


    But "is lam" (rhyming with is jam) is one of the two common English pronunciations of Islam, That's how many people pronounce it already. I've never heard anyone pronounce it 'is lom'. Perhaps that's the US pronunciation?

    However, many people, including most Muslims I've heard (and on-line dictionaries, and the BBC) say it with a long a sound - Is lahm. Are they wrong then?

    Does it make sense to speak of the 'correct' pronunciation? Presumably we can't be sure how pronunciation of Arabic might have evolved over the centuries.

    Eye-rack does make me wince, but that's because its so American and I feel guilty that its just anti-American snobbery on my part.

  67. My son says Anglo names are pretty much uncommon in his 7th grade class. The name 'Ashley' got a chuckle on the first day. I don't know why his name didn't since his entire name is Anglo (done sub-consciously but, sigh of relief when I realized I did him a favor). My name, Eunice, is an old fashioned name you won't find many black people with. I believe it's Germanic in origin and it's pronounced whatever way anyone feels like pronouncing it at any given day or time, usually U-nees (incorrect).

  68. My name is Erika, just Erika, but it was still butchered in school. I don't want to know what kinds of things my other friends went through with their more "ethnic" sounding names.

    But nowadays it seems like more people in the 'states are giving their kids "unusual" names so perhaps it will be hard for any of us to pronounce each others' names in a few years :P

  69. I onced worked in a hospital and shared my office with a maternity nurse who would often almost be in tears about the names moms were giving their newborns (mostly Black). Why would a young woman name her newborn daughter "Eunique" or "Precious", "Diamond" or "Imani" ?

  70. Hmm. I have a south Asian name that is not *particularly* difficult to pronounce. It is fairly phonetic, but some combinations of letters are simply not accessed by the English-fluent tongue. I find that I often introduce myself using an "Anglicized" version of my name using English sounds, and then reintroduce my name using typical Indian syllables. It usually forgoes the "but how do you *really* say it?" questions =P.

    One very popular example of changing names to get jobs is the story of a Mr. Kal Penn, the actor who had a role in House, M.D, as well as the Harold and Kumar movies. His original name is Kalpen Modi, but I read he had trouble getting job offers until he anglicized it to Kal Penn on a suggestion by a friend.


  71. i have to jump in as devil's advocate here. 1) when i took foreign language class in high school - in california, no less - we had to adopt names in that language for the very reason you are writing this article. people cannot wrap their tongues around foreign names.
    some of us were very fortunate to have exposure to foreign language at home and therefore have a gift in memorizing and pronouncing multiple languages. these pathways are formed early in language development. people who don't have this have what i've heard called a "flat tongue."
    that being said, the woman who suggested another name for hae sook in a very overbearing manner could be racist or could simply have a flat tongue and too much pride to admit it. sometimes it's best to assume good intentions and move on.
    2) i have trouble remembering everyone's name anglo or no, i've undoubtely had people assume i'm racist because of that.
    3) we have entire tribes in this country named by the government in anglicized form or often names given to them by ancient enemies. are we now fighting this one name at a time? cool.

  72. Hey macon d, good post. No stories to tell or share. But I was just wondering: Are there any white men with the first name Jerome?

    That's been bothering me for a while now. All the guys named Jerome are all Black. But then I found out that my favorite NFL QB, Brett Favre's middle name is Lorenzo and now I'm really confused. A white man from Mississippi with the name Lorenzo?

  73. I think it's more "non-English" names than "non-white ones".

    Hardly anyone's ever gotten my (Italian) last name right on the first try (if they see it, they can't pronounce it. If they hear it, they can't spell it).

  74. I never thought it was a big deal when people butchered my name or didn't even try, I just assumed they were idiots (I know that's bad). Many times I would get the "oh why didn't you tell me I was saying your name wrong" when they hear others pronounce it correctly but it's never a deal breaker for me, I simply don't care. As long as loved ones and the people I care about get it right I am good.

    I wouldn't call it white ignorance or racism, it happens everywhere. Some people know the right thing to do is to call the other person whatever they wish, this includes getting the name right if they take the time to go over it with you. Others are jackasses who don't care enough to know that "giving" you a name thats easy for them is not cool. Why would you waste time with an individual like that?

  75. Are there any white men with the first name Jerome?

    There was one in my class at school. Also Jerry Seinfeld.

  76. @BrownImani

    Why would a parent name their child Charity or Pearl? Also Imani is a Swahili name, what is wrong with that?

    Inherently, all names are "made up" - why is Eunique worse than Angus which means unique strength?

  77. When I was in grad school for library science I made a friend happy by showing her the 3 pages just on how to use Malaysian names in the LCSH cataloging rules. Lists of common last and first names. Details by culture for when the mothers and fathers names are used. We were required to learn it even if we would never catalog. Because it matters. How do you look someone up if you have their name wrong or their name is entered incorrectly.

  78. I'm Anglo, with a German first name, and a Scots last name. An unexamined heretofore bit of privilege: people often ask about my name, how to pronounce it, where it comes from, and they almost always say "that's so pretty." Where people are pronouncing it based on reading it they get it wrong usually, making it more American. If I bother to correct them, they are extremely apologetic, even though it's an easy mistake to make.

    Thanks for the head's up. Always good to note another way to not offend people.

  79. @RiPPa

    There's the writer Jerome K. Jerome.

    On the downside, he's long dead. On the upside, he presumably counts twice!

  80. I'm curious. Was the same type of study done in Japan, or Idia, or any other nations? Is this strickly a "white" American trait, or do people in Korea have an aversion to non-Korean names and give prefrencial treatment to people with Korean names when it comes to jobs, etc?

  81. I can't believe no one has mentioned the effects of colonialism in this discussion. If you conquer a place, you "get to" re-name it (to the winner goes the spoils). Why not the people too - as a group and individuals? Slaves were given "Christian" names, servants in colonies were re-named... Re-naming someone else for your convienence is born of arrogance and dominance.

    A Korean-American friend of mine told me about how her mother and her cohort were all "given" (aka "forced to take") English names by the religious group that relocated them to North America for training as nurses. My friend and her brother were both named with Korean first names and English middle names, but instructed to use their middle names for school. My friend was struggling with a desire to re-claim her Korean name when we were all in grad school together, and it was clear that she felt great tension between the urge to be "polite" to white people (and her parents' desire for her to assimilate) versus the urge to honor her heritage.

  82. There is only one proper response to such a request:

    Only if I can call you Feces.

  83. BrownImani,

    Please educate yourself: The name Imani is actually African in origin, and means faith, or belief. It's better to not be ignorant.

  84. 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.

    well i mean after the fervor of the revolutionary war subsided, the states, but more so the south, developed this kind of collective sentiment i guess that the declaration of independence and the all mean were created equal reference was meant to apply to white americans only since blacks were nothing more than chattel property. i think a lot of that has endured unfortunately, even in the 21st.

  85. North Americans in general are like that, not just whites. I've had my (Eastern European) mispronounced by people of all races, maybe only Asians do it with a lower frequency. I blame the (notorious) American lack of culture and poor education system. Being stupid seems to be cool here.

  86. Wow, Macon, this was really well-written, and resonates with my experiences and observations. If someone is so racist they don't want hire you based on your name, you really would not want to work for them.

    As for that woman, Margaret, who took it upon herself to rename an Asian woman who was a perfect stranger, like many racists, she needs a lesson in basic manners. I don't know why so many of them forget BASIC MANNERS when dealing with people from other backgrounds. It makes them look so bad.

    The possibility of prejudice did not deter me from giving my son a non-traditional first name. I love a lot of African American names, especially for the boys. Many of those names sound strong, perhaps as an unconscious reminder that he'll need to be strong to get through life, and that's it's okay to be black.

    I've heard pf three whites in my life who gave their kids black-sounding names. Progress always makes me smile, because no matter what your race or religion, you know that you're truly free when you can name your child whatever you want and feel fine about it.

  87. I work in a large university where the undergraduate student body is about 25% latino. Because of this, I have frequently suggested that all faculty should be at least competent at pronouncing latino names. It is simply incredible how much resistance this inspires. Many white people hate, hate, hate the idea that they are responsible for mastering "hard" names like "Sanchez," and "Velasquez." And these are supposed intellectuals!

  88. also, the well-meaning author of this article cites the example of Sonia Sotomayor, naming her as non-white.
    this standard and the creation of the "hispanic" race, whatever that means, is something you only see in the USA.
    when you sign up for immigration services anywhere else, you sometimes have to answer the colour of your skin for identification purposes. (white, black, etc.) but the US is probably the only country where otherwise white people have to sign "hispanic", as a lesser kind of honorary white.
    think for example Christina Aguilera. when she visits the UK, she checks the little box that reads "white", and so do I.
    the "hispanic" moniker is the invention of Lyndon Johnson, and was only implemented into full force by Ronald Reagan.
    there's no such thing as a "hispanic" race, it's only a tool for segregationism, it doesn't have empirical support other than "potentially dangerous people who speak spanish, no matter the colour of their skins".
    it bugs me to no end when even well-meaning people like the author of the article fall into the same trap of reagan-era newspeak.

  89. RiPPa: Jérôme is the french form of Hieronymus (latin/greek). The spanish form is Gerónimo. So there are lots of white Jérôme in France/Belgium/Switzerland (at least in the french-speaking parts).

  90. I happen to be a Polish-American with an Anglo name, so I personally never got my name mangled, but I could never get anyone to pronounce my mother's name correctly -- Jadwiga, and her last names were a nightmare as well, simply because when said in English, they sound like the phrase "cruel berries". And forget about any accent marks in your name, although this is as much a technical issue as it is a result of people not wanting to bothers themselves with the minutiae of non-English orthographies.

    Another thing is how difficult it is to explain to Americans that Polish surnames often have a male and female version, and that while a man's name may end in -ski, his daughter's name will end in -ska but remain the same name. I can't describe how cringe-inducing it is to see women forced to used the male form of their name.

  91. If white people want us to change our names to English or white names in their country, they should change their names to Korean names if they go to Korea, or Japanese names if they go to Japan. It's not like English names are any easier to learn for Asian people.

    You find that if a white person can fluently speak an Asian language, say Japanese, people get excited and act as if the person is a genius, but no one is really surprised when an Asian can speak English. Funny that.

  92. I once jokingly told a white co-worker that the best way to remember my name (Ubaka) was that it sounded like "Chewbacca". I said this because he was struggling with a simple 3-syllable name in the first place and had declared to me that it would be a tough one to remember. Big mistake. Next day at work, he called me "Chewie".

  93. Well. My last name is a common English word and is pronounced that way, but people always hesitate, then mangle it. I have never understood why English-speaking people never get it right. True, it's not common as a name, but still. It's on the order of seeing the name "Combs" and pronouncing it to rhyme with "bombs." Why would you do that? Luckily, when I correct people on the pronunciation, it usually sticks.

    My first name is more problematic. For some reason, corrections often don't stick, but at this point, I've given up. In one-off situations, I'll answer to Karen, Kerri, Karla, whatever. Basically, a hesitant audible pause followed by the "k" sound is enough to get me to pipe up with "that's me." Oh, and spelling it correctly is apparently impossible. (I rarely get the common homophone you'd expect.)

    One thing I can say is that nobody says my first name quite like my mom! Possibly not even me. She grew up in our (English-speaking) native country and still has the barest hint of an accent (I don't), and somehow... that's the way it's supposed to sound.

  94. I find this quite typical with some White people. They usually want to monopolise everything....typical me, me, me mentality.

    There is always this thing about pronouncing a different sounding name the way they want it to be pronounced.

    Now, Hae Sook as a name is so unusual and unique, that only a dummy would not be able to pronounce it.

    Even kids in Kindergarten can pronounce that name.

    If I were Hae Sook, I would have just ignored Margaret. No point trying to reason with unreasonable and stupid people.

  95. I'm white and have an unusual name that to some people 'sounds black.' I have been told plenty of times that people expected me to be black when they met me or have heard comments like 'with a name like that, you should be black.' It's always so subtle that I don't know exactly how to call people on it...They're not *necessarily* saying something racist, but something about it really bothers me, and I can't figure out why. And I don't think it's the same as if you have a really unusual gaelic name because of the culture and attitude people have around 'black names'. They're not respected in the larger white culture like 'other' unique names are.

    I also have a friend of a friend that is Rasheed and has similarly been told things like 'you don't look like a Rasheed'. It's these kinds of things that really bother me because I don't have a response.

    I have wondered, too -- what people have assumed on resumes about name.

  96. Part of my comments must have gotten deleted. I know what Imani, & Eunique & Precious are all about! My question was rhetorical & I was emphasizing the white nurse's frustration & lack of understanding of the naming of Black children.

  97. A person's name, despite what the grand narrative we are taught today, is not a marker of said individual's, individuality. A name is a marker of your class, socioeconomic status, parent's origins, and yes, race. While it's true that not many people named "Lashondra Jackson" are hired by companies when compared with similar "white" resumes, it is ALSO true that people with the names "bobby-sue", "heidi", "candi", "winter's destiny", or other similarly contrived "white" names are not likely to be hired by these companies either.

    The reason that "white people" you reference do not discuss, lampoon, or display derision to these people in public is that they do not fraternize in public. In private both groups, high and low-class whites ridicule each other, I promise you this. Bobby-Joe and Tammi-Sue watch NASCAR, drink Mountain Dew and Bud Light, whereas "Peter Humboldt IV, and Eleanor Rosenblatt (not anglo but assimilated into it) swill wine, champagne and watch cartoons of gay french men doing pratfalls. Is one drunk activity better than the other? I have no clue, both have their merits. However, the real issue here is that black folks from the high class generally do not name their children "lashondra", "ratasha", "lahonda" or any other affected name such as that.

    I went to a very expensive, prestigious, and well known liberal arts school. My black friends were named "Jordan", "Matt", "Ethan", "Trey", and other names that are either "white", or ambiguously "owned" by both races. There were a few more unusual names but those were generally owned by people who were first generation Americans - and they did not have a "la", "ra", or other suffix on the front of their respective names.

    Not all white people are the same, or created equal. Why you people assume that all black people are of the same class, or caste, and any noticing of that difference is racist (not a class issue as it is) I don't know. It seems to be indicative of the "race creep" that has sept into American culture since the 1950s.

    Not all problems are racial.

    As for oriental names (oh my Gosh I used that dirty word that's only been delegitimized because of ONE book written in the 1970s, with no long term history of denigration focused around that word as with the n-word - repression of oriental countries was based on mainly economic and evolutionary assumptions, not on a "hateful word"), there are issues with that but again, the subject is more complex than you people make it out to be.

    While you lambast others for being racists you generalize about whites, orientals, blacks, in ways that make you yourselves so generalizing as to be racist - this is quite amusing.

    What is NOT amusing is that I must sign this anonymously in order to prevent future employers or educational institutions for avoiding me for discussing race.

  98. I completely agree! My take on why Asian people adopt American names with link to you!

  99. Hi!, I agree, is part of general culture to know and try to say names in its correct form, no matter how hard it may be at first, also some people in the U.S.considere SPANISH LASTNAMES are NON-WHITE names, and that is a big mistake, Spain is an european country which colonized the modern LATIN-AMERICA, and some of this Spaniards mixed with the native "american" indigenous population, some others don't. to see this visit Mexico, and will see a lot of white people using Spanish Lastnames, cause Spanish is an European lenguague a Romance lenguage, sister of French, Italian and Portuguese, Spain were part of the Roman Empire, Emperor JUSTINIANO or intellectual SENECA were from "hispania" (as the Roman called) I believe even in the Gladiatot movie Maximus (Russell Crowe) was called "the spaniard" cause he was from this part of the Roman Empire, that is why Spain is a LATIN country just like FRANCE or ITALY, but LATIN, not LATIN-AMERICAN, dont make this confution bigger (latin=europe, america=indigenous population) so the mixed, and as a slang we call "latin" to latinamericans, see the difference?) and obviously the Spaniards colonizers impose its NAMING CUSTOMS to the "local" population in America. just like the English did with the slaves they brought from Africa, an Afro-American with Williams as Lastname is product of that European Political History, and that doesnt mean the Afro-American is English, or Williams is a NON-WHITE lastname, nor English is an African Lenguage. well the same happens with Spanish Lastnames, there are WHITE PEOPLE in LATIN AMERICA, and of course in SPAIN with Spanish Lastnames, as well as the descendents of the indigenous population there, some of them who have stablish legal or iligal in the U.S. so the SPANISH and ENGLISH LASTNAME does not assure a white people or avoid. it is just the result of the politics of European Powers during thier Colonial Times in America.
    That must to be understand, and non-white people shuldnt change thier lastnames just for the lazyness of their new countrymen, as well as Alot of Spaniards,from Spain or Latin America (descendents from Spanish Colonial population) white european (wich look just like french people) start to changing thier lastnames in order to not be confused with non-white Latin-Hispanic people in the U.S. to avoid being "lock" in some stereotype. and as they look europeans cause they are genetically speaking, changing thier spanish lastname they can easily mix between white americans.
    And that Should Not be happening, that is the response to a racist and ignorant idea of white americans to believe the U.S. is the center of the world. KNow the differences to learn from them, but to make people to change thier culture, just because we white americans are so ignorants and racist to understand this, and make an effort to pronounce thier name or lastname as it is, what about thier freedom of using thier own names without being discriminated? we are the land of the free...right?...Washington is an English Lastname, also it is use by Afro-American and also by Native-Americans, so? the lastname does not decided your background. thanks for reading.

  100. You're the real racistsFebruary 4, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    It's not a "white" thing to alter names so they are easier to pronounce in your culture, and to suggest that is ignorant. You use the example of a Korean girl with an unfamiliar name and people's attempt to change it to one more familiar- I lived in Korea for two years and never met a Korean who tried to "properly" pronounce my name. They alter it so that it's easier for them to say- I never considered this racist because I understood that saying my name was difficult for them and had no problem with them attempting to make it easier. My name is Thomas and they would change it to Ta Ma Su, with three syllables, which is easier for them. It was an attempt to make my name into something more familiar for them, so they'd be more comfortable with it- and I never had a problem with that. Attempting to familiarize things from outside the typical range of your cultural experience to something within it is not racist, it is in fact an attempt to bring people closer to you. If you think of the example of white people who would go amongst certain indigenous cultures, say Cherokee, and are then given a Cherokee name, they where it as a badge of honor, an indication that they have been accepted. Reverse the situation, its white people being racist. I think seeing your culture as so different from others that it must be held to this higher, all accepting all understanding standard, is the real racist viewpoint.

  101. I can understand that people can not pronounce some names. Different first languanges will develop people's ability to pronounce some syllables. Maybe someone is just gifted in pronounciation. It's hard to be perfect. I'd prefer trying to say it to giving a new name to others.

    In my point of view, white people have more preconceived ideas than Asian people.Just like in the story, Hae was given a name Helen, which was just a name for the American easy to pronounce. I don't think it's a good idea. Multiculture has developed lots of languages. We should accept it but not avoid this problem.
    I've watched some Japanese TV shows before. Occasionally there will be some guests come from other countires. Unless the guests have a Japanese name, Japanese just say their name. I have to say that Japanese are not really good at pronounce English names, but they tired.

    "Using a person's actual, correctly pronounced name acknowledges his or her individual humanity." I totally agree with it. To say someone's name correctly is a way showing that you respect him or her. However, it depends. But usually being yourself is better.

  102. I am from Asia, and my name is Xingyi Mou. Last summer, I went San Deigo attend an English program. The teacher there called me “Xingyi”, however, these two symbols do not available in English. Sometimes, they asked me for my English name, but I want them to call my actual name even though it is difficult to pronounce. Furthermore, I think my name is part of the culture of the country I born with. So that I didn’t tell them, and they call me “Xingyi” until now although the pronunciation is a little bit wrong.

  103. I’m from China, and my name is Siyu Tian. I know it’s hard to call my name because its syllable is hard to pronounce for Americans and other foreigners. Unlike English names, Chinese names are usually easy for Chinese people to call. They are made up of special words and have different meanings. It’s really different from the letters of the English alphabet. I had problems with people when they can’t pronounce my name in the right way. But I really don’t matter if they tried to call my Chinese name in a wrong way; in fact, I’d really appreciate if they can call me Siyu. I didn’t want to choose an English name and use it when I’m studying in America. When I was in England, my father created a name for me to use at school. It sounds like “see you,” but it’s based on my Chinese name. I really liked it and decided to use it in America. It’s a representative of both my Chinese name and my English name; therefor I take it really improtant.
    I talked with my home stay family about this problem. It’s can be inconvenient for us to use our Chinese name here in America. But changing our names isn’t a good way to solve this problem. Our name are mostly given by our families, and we take it seriously. A name can be really improtant to us, it’a a symbol for our family, our culture and ourselves. My home stay family also agreed with my opinion, she said years ago, her family had to change their family name for some situation. Her mother came from another country, and they had their special family name which people here think it’s difficult and sounds weird. So they had to change it, and now they almost forgot their actual name; furthermore, they even can’t spell it correctly now.
    It seems a big problem and there must be a way for us to solve this, but it needs time and thoughts. I hope people can respect us by the way we like, we don’t mind if you can exactly call us our actual name, we do understand the barrier among cultures and countries. Respecting us by the way we hope you respect can be a great pleasure for us!

  104. My name is Longyuan Tang. I come from China. Right now, I am studying in the United States. Since I have been in the US, I have felt embarrassed by my name sometimes because some people cannot pronounce my name. For example, I have a friend who comes from Vietnam. She could not pronounce my first name, even she tried many times. Even worse, she bit her tongue. At that moment, both of us felt embarrassed. Therefore, she calls me Tang because it is easier to pronounce. Frankly speaking, I am grateful to her because she regards my name. This behavior stands for one thing that she respects me. I think it is very important because the foundation of relationship is mutual respect. In order to avoid confusion, some people suggested me to simplify my name or use an English name. It might be a good idea to avoid confusion, but I do not want to change my original name. The first reason is that the words are arranged in the different order have different meaning. In the same way, different pronunciations of the words stand for different meanings. Therefore, if I simplify my name, it means my name write differently and spell differently. Finally, my name is totally changed. Maybe it is easier to understand in English. However, the name cannot stand for me. In short, this name loses its meaning. For another, most our names are given by elder people. If I change our name casual, it is discourteous. In addition, I think my original name can remind me that who I am, and where I am from. For these reasons, I want other people call my original name, even they might not pronounce my name very well.

  105. I could not deny that some other countries' names are difficult to pronounce. But, I think every single name has its own meaning. It represents its own culture and history.

    I think it is a fair treatment for the foreigners that they could be called their own names by the native people. The foreigners could feel they are accepted by this country.

    Furthermore, in my mind, the US is the biggest multicultural country. There is a really big combination of so many countries and cultures. I think white people as the most native citizens, they should try to get use to call those multicultural names correctly. I think that is one way to make this multicultural country more harmonious.

  106. I agree with you, and just as you said, “It is really not that difficult.” We all should try to learn how to pronounce other races’ name. It is a very good chance to practice our pronunciation ability. It is a multicultural world. If we do not learn more about pronunciation and meaning of the other languages’ name, we probably will meet a lot of “strangers” name one day. Now, especially in the Europe and America, there are many the floating people. We learn more new names from other races are a good step or beginning to try to build friendly relations with them. I think it is also a kind of respect and accept about the existence of their culture. My name is also hard to read for a lot of foreign friends and some of them when I first to tell them my name they are very happy to learn it, although they are not good at pronouncing it. Sometimes, even I already tell them my nick name, they also prefer to learn my full name. It makes me feel very happy, and I am very willing to teach how to pronounce my name.

  107. Just Ash for short, pleaseJanuary 19, 2012 at 2:34 PM

    I'm white, but I have Northern European last name. It has been butchered to the point that I just don't correct the speaker. The error has nothing to do with the color of the speaker's skin. Names that we have never encountered are difficult.

    But when someone doesn't at least make an effort to learn your name, it is so isolating. My first name is Ashlynn. It seems simple, but I get a lot of blank looks or worse, I become an Ashley, Ashton, Ashland or any other variation. Ashley bothers me the most because the end sounds are so very different. I am completely immune to it. I almost don't notice it until a friend corrects the person.

    Macon, please, don't assume that every little glitch in our name wiring is exclusive to people of color. A lot of the errors in behavior you point out are universal, not exclusive to white people. Isn't scrutinizing only skin color a racist thing to do? Grouping every white person into one ethnic background is a terribly naive, as well.

    1. This is a really awesome thread.

      My first name is Swedish, very common in German-speaking and Scandinavian countries, and common enough in English-speaking countries that I've occasionally had others with my name at my workplace or in my classes in school. I'm U.S. raised of German and Swedish origin, so my family and I have always said it like a German or Scando would, but sometimes I'll say it here and people will be like "what? OH, you mean [U.S. pronunciation of my name]!"

      Like, they actually are correcting my on how to say my name.

      The opposite is intriguing too. I met someone (U.S.-born) with the last name DiCicco, who said it "Da Sicko." Now, I'm a firm believer that you say the name the way the owner of it does, but I thought it was really odd that when people assumed the original Italian pronunciation or something similar to it, this person wouldn't acknowledge it at all in their correction ("oh, but my family says it Da Sicko") and would be like "what? no, it's Da Sicko, not Dee Chee Ko or whatever the hell way you butchered it."

  108. I agree with you that sometimes white people just can't be bothered to learn a name that sounds 'foreign' to them.

    But I also agree with what Kelly said, that if you keep asking someone how their name is pronounced they might get offended by that. That happens a lot in Britain, where people worry about seeming impolite by constantly asking someone to repeat themselves. There seems to be an unwritten rule that you can only ask someone to repeat themselves 2-3 times without seeming rude or ignorant.

    However, even when people are willing to try and learn a foreign name, the differences between languages often mean it gets butchered. I'm doing an English degree at the moment, and part of what I've studied is how language is acquired in the first place. As a baby, everyone has the potential to learn any language and make any sound that language requires. But, as you learn your native language, you lose the ability to make sounds outside your own language, and so you have difficulty pronouncing words in another language because your brain isn't automatically wired to make those sounds. Languages similar to your own don't really cause problems - so English-speaking people can easily learn French/Spanish, and Mandarin-speaking people can easily learn Cantonese etc - but when you try to learn a language with unfamiliar sounds (say a Chinese speaker learning English or vice-versa) it can be extremely difficult to get pronunciation right.

    I'm an English woman and my boyfriend is Chinese, so I'm trying to learn Cantonese so I can speak to his older relatives who don't speak much English. I struggle a lot with pronunciation as the sounds are very unfamiliar to me because I didn't encounter them as a child. His older relatives struggle with their English pronunciation too, because they learned it when they were older and didn't hear the sounds as children. He, on the other hand, can speak both English and Cantonese perfectly because he learned both at a young age, before he lost the ability to learn new sounds. I wish I'd learned Chinese at a young age, but my school was terrible and didn't seem to think learning another language was important (which might further explain why British people are so bad at pronunciation!).

    So I agree with you that sometimes people are just being rude and not bothering, but sometimes people are trying really hard to pronounce things properly, but struggle because the sounds are unfamiliar to them.

  109. My name isn't hard to pronounce, yet people still have the urge to add syllables into it or to give me a nickname. (It's 2 syllables! TWO!)

    My last name is Li, and the first time someone actually mispronounced it, I was so stunned that I didn't even bother to correct them. I mean, how sheltered from other cultures you must be if you can't even pronounce (one of) the most common last(s) name in the world. I live in freaking Toronto, we're proud of our "multiculturalness". Never in my life have I heard someone say it as "Lai" before that one white lady.

  110. I think there is a difference between "white" names and "English" names. I am French with a French name that is difficult for most people to pronounce (and yes, they do drop or ignore it and call me by something else); but I am still "white".

  111. I have an unusual ethnic type name (not my choice) so I Americanized it to Richie, or Dick. Much easier for everyone, mostly myself. No shame in Americanizing my name. And yes, my kids got regular American names. I Say go with Jack, Bob, or something easy...


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