Ming-Taur to Mary?

Think Progressive posted an update about Republican Rep. (Texas) Betty Brown’s recent (a month ago) comments about Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans changing their names so they are easier to pronounce.

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?” Brown said.

Brown later told [Organization of Chinese Americans representative Ramey] Ko: “Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?”

There are several issues with Rep. Brown’s statements.

1 – Many Asian-Americans already have names with European origins. This is probably more present with second generation Asian-Americans than recent immigrants because many parents realize that their children will be growing up in an American context. However, even though parents may give their children European origin names they also often give their children  names from their cultural language be it Korean, Thai, Cantonese, Mandarin, Hindi etc.

2- She reduces Asian-American to Chinese. There is much to be said about this, but her reductionism is self evident.

3 – She speaks with heavy ethnocentrism.  We have to adjust to one another, building a society is not about assimilation. That was perhaps the mantra of the early 1900’s, but that was tragically flawed. Societies are formed with diversity being honored and acknowledged. Individuals are enhanced by having to learn and understand languages and cultures different than their own. Even something as simple as learning a name is important and can launch individuals in greater cultural understanding.

4 – Rep. Brown ignores the gravity of language as a form of identity. Changing ones name is apart of losing ones cultures. African slaves took European names of slave masters. While Africans did create unique African-American cultures, this was due to oppression, isolation and injustice. Despite this oppression-breed culture, identity is a complex problem with African-Americans and ties to history are often lost partially from adapting the name of a slave master.

This affects those of European American heritage too. I think part of the reason many Whites don’t consider themselves as ethnic is the issue of name changes. Ellis Island, the gateway to America, brought many individuals in this country, but many of them lost their heritage when their names were made easier to pronounce (probably at school/work etc, not actually at Ellis Island). Some White Americans can track their ancestry and they know when and where their names were adapted, but even then I suggest that regardless of whether you know your original name there is something different living life with the name Kent instead of Kantaruk.


There could be more to say about the flaws in her suggestion, but I think it is important to point out that I don’t believe Rep. Brown is racist.

Ignorant? Yes.

I think that she believes this suggestion is being helpful. However, the reality is her “help” is confounded by her naiveté and ignorance. I hope that someone has spoken to Rep. Brown and explained the deep issues with her suggestion. And then I hope she realizes her insensitivity and apologizes – specifically to the Asian-American community.

But I don’t think Rep. Brown is alone. It is easy to not acknowledge language as an important facet of culture. We want people to learn English (interestingly enough even when they already know English but feel more comfortable speaking their native language) and become “American”, but what does that mean? Many of us have had our thoughts about “those people” in the supermarket speaking Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, Polish etc. Perhaps they were not severe ethnocentric thoughts, perhaps it was a sense of minor discomfort, but they were questioning thoughts nonetheless.

Is it “American” to only speak English? Can” American” be defined as a conglomeration of people who speak a number of languages and who have emerged from a variety of backgrounds? Perhaps having a multilingual society is the direction our nation needs to go.

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