Why we must stop playing the name-shame game

After a professor asked a Vietnamese student at my college to "anglicize" her name, she bravely spoke out against the pressure to assimilate to whiteness.

I want you to try it. Try and imagine what it is like to have an authority figure tell you to change your name just because he thinks it sounds offensive in English. Never mind that your name carries legacy or that it has shaped your identity since birth.

Would you do it?

This name-shaming game has been going on for a long time, and it recently reared its ugly head where I work — at Laney College.

Last week, a Vietnamese American student, Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen, was told by her white male instructor to “anglicize” her name because, to him, it sounded like an insult in English. (Apparently, he did not realize the name means “happiness blessing.”)

Rather than deny her identity to satisfy the instructor’s sensibilities, this 19-year-old student rejected his demand and bravely reported the incident to me and other administrators. Within hours, the instructor was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

Now, I already know his excuse. We all do. The name-shame game always plays out like this. The authority figure paternalistically declares that he is only making the suggestion to help the student fit in and make her life easier without the burden of a “funny” name.

I know this excuse, because I have lived through it myself.

Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, I attended public schools where I was taught that China was impoverished and backward. I endured the insults about how Chinese Americans were exotic prostitutes, opium addicts, kung fu fighters or gang members. And, as an American-born boy attending Jean Parker Elementary School, I was pressured to abandon my Chinese name (Lei Ji Wei) in favor of “David” — all part of the price paid for assimilating into the dominant culture.

In San Francisco, our diversity is our strength. During these past few weeks, we have seen diverse peoples from all corners of the United States marching for social justice and equality. American society is engaged in a historic, transformative moment — looking in the mirror and asking difficult questions about white privilege and structural racism.

What does change actually look like?

Change first requires a willingness to understand the real pain that racism inflicts — because it affects us all differently. We need to understand what it truly means to walk in the shoes of people who have dissimilar backgrounds, different identities and disparate cultures.

Every small step taken to resist the racism and discrimination in our midst represents progress. Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen demonstrated true courage in standing up for herself and her community.

Her act of defiance inspires me to call out the name-shame game, and it calls upon all of us to work to bury it forever.

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.