THE SANTA CLARA
September 26, 2013
A student like me feels a strange sense of dread every new school year. No, it’s not because I still haven’t bought my textbooks, and no, it’s not because I’m terrified of the course load for the quarter — though both of these things are definitely true.
My fear comes from something much simpler. Something so simple, it embarrasses me a little to admit: roll call.
Every quarter, new professors line up to butcher my name because it’s not the easiest to pronounce. I then have to correct them, sheepishly smile and look a little apologetic for having a slightly less Anglicized given name.
As an Indian girl, I definitely got off easy compared to some of my other classmates who have more complicated names. At least most professors and new acquaintances get within the ballpark on their first try.
I could live with that, but it’s the basic concept behind having an ethnic-sounding name that worries me. In the long run, while having a name can have personal meaning relating to family, culture or tradition, the underlying purpose of a name is utilitarian in nature: It’s a label.
And if my label doesn’t work — that is, if the society I live in has difficulty using my label to address me — I’m going to have a hard time. In fact, it can be quite detrimental while searching for a job in my frighteningly near future. According to a 2004 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, “whiter” names tend to receive 50 percent more responses for interviews.
Try as we might, we don’t live in a colorblind world. Whether it’s something as innocuous as trying to avoid the awkward situation where an interviewer has to guess a pronunciation of a difficult name, or something as judgmental as thinking someone from a less-Western background just might not get the job done as well, there are definite consequences to growing up with such a defining label.
Ethnic-sounding names also often end up being the butt of many jokes, or even worse, the subject of public hostility.
A few weeks ago, the story of a Hawaiian woman named Janice Keihanaikukauakahihuliheekahaunaele went public nationwide because her 35-character last name wouldn’t fit on her driver’s license. The courts told her to change her name to fit the standards. Impressively, the attention brought to the case merited a change in the law, allowing more characters to be printed on the card.
However, I was more outraged by the reaction from lesser-known media outlets, like a local radio station that played a mocking parody recording of the court case, shaming the woman for having a name that was “not normal.” Sure, it was a name that came from her heritage, a name that she cared for personally, but no, it wasn’t “normal” enough for an Anglicized America.
Also, just recently, the story of the new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, the first Indian-American to win the contest, faced a wave of public resentment from Twitter users who refused to accept that a woman with a heritage that wasn’t their idea of a true “American” could win such a contest. If she had the same skin tone, but a more Westernized name, it’s unlikely the backlash would have been as fierce.
It’s time we realize that America is no longer a country full of Johns and Jennifers. In fact, it would be foolish to assume it ever was. A melting pot country like this has an influx of many different kinds of cultures, and hence, many different kinds of names. And so, I move that we try to be more understanding in accepting them.
In order to progress, we all need to stop being embarrassed about not knowing how to pronounce someone’s name or having to correct someone for any mispronunciations. If we can be more open about asking instead of avoiding, we can be more inclusive of others.
So next time you encounter a name that isn’t the easiest to pronounce, don’t let social stigma ruin your conversation with a potential new friend. Actively try to say their name the best you can and ask them to correct you if you’re wrong.
As for me, this quarter during roll call, I’ll proudly and loudly put up my hand when my name comes around to say, “Here! And it’s pronounced Vi-SHAH-kha JOH-shi.” And I won’t feel any shame in making that statement.
Vishakha Joshi is a junior mathematics major and managing editor of The Santa Clara.