Difficult Names and Cultural Erasure

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It begins
with your second last name
gone missing from your mailbox,
school ID, and learner’s permit.
It is hard to explain to your relatives
back on the Island.
Your mother says,
you had it
when you left home,
where is it now?
You cannot claim
to have misplaced
your mother’s surname.

–“Crime in the Barrio” in Call Me María by Judith Ortiz Cofer (via)

“Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

–Warsan Shire

Weeks ago, I was proctoring an exam at my university’s law school. Everyone was stressed but one student was especially frantic. She had claimed a spot in an exam hall based on the first letter of her last name, but the official exam listing had assigned her to a different room. She was disputing it with the head proctor: “My last name is de la Rioja, Rioja, not de la. I should have been assigned to this room, with the R names, not the other room with the D names.” The head proctor was indifferent. “You need to tell the administration to change that.”

Some time ago I was getting dinner with a public school teacher. This person was white, but she worked in predominantly low-income black and Latino neighborhoods. “You would not believe the names!” she commented blithely.

During add/drop period at the beginning of a semester at my university, professors at my graduate school often begin with calling attendance. It should be quick, but it always takes twice as long as it needs to because of professors stumbling–apologetically to be sure–over the names of international students. The Chinese sanguinely provide their American names. Even I generally call my classmates by their “American names” if they provide them, and in Nagaland, I often interacted with people I met through their “Christian names” rather than their given names.

People’s identities are complicated–certain parts of our identities may come to the foreground in interactional certain contexts, sometimes prompting different variations of our names. But the patterns of whose names tend to be changed, and in what ways, by whom, and with what consequences, is clear. Is this a world we want to create–one where cultural backgrounds are erased and given dominant-culture replacements? A world where a supposedly global-minded educational institution does not know how to handle its international students’ last names? A world where certain names are written off as difficult compared to an arbitrary standard?

I say no, and that we all have reflection, self-work, listening, and targeted learning to do to put a stop to this erasure in the domain of one of the most intimate words that an individual possesses–their name.

Photo: “Lady Liberty” by SETH at the Museum of Public Art, LA 

The ideal-real dichotomy and the importance of observation

A screenshot from Y Tu Mamá También, a film where ideals and realities collide dramatically (because I never claimed I don't watch movies).

Whenever discussion turns toward TV, I always make it a point to claim vociferously, “I’ve never heard of that show. I don’t watch TV. As a matter of fact, I haven’t watched TV since middle school. Maybe since I was an infant! Actually, could someone remind me, what is TV?!”

If you were to do a participant observation of my life, you would discover that, in fact, I do watch television shows. Or at least a television show. Specifically, I watch episodes of the sitcom 30 Rock that are available on-demand on Netflix. When I get to the last streamable episode, I start over again at season 1. Additionally, I’ve watched a few scattered TV episodes with friends or family. As such I’ve watched about 50 hours of television in the past year–a number which contradicts my repeated claim that I do not, under any circumstances, watch TV. (Sidenote: the average American watches about two months worth of TV in one year.)

Most people call this contradiction “hypocrisy” or “posing” or “being a hipster.” Anthropologists, being all sciencey and objective-like, call such divergences between word and action the ideal-real dichotomy. Ideal behavior is what people should do or how they should behave in a particular situation. Real behavior is how people actually behave. The prototypical example of the ideal-versus-the-real is traffic lights:

Most people will say that when a light turns yellow, you should slow down. If you actually stand on a street corner and observe traffic when the light turns yellow, however, you will notice people actually speed up instead of slowing down. Slowing down is the ideal behavior in that situation, though speeding up, what actually happens, is the real behavior.

This is why keen observational skills are important. Obviously, we are not all Anthro Department grad students conducting fieldwork for our Masters theses. But in a way we are all participant observers in the mass cultural performance that is life–“all the world’s a stage.” So it pays be a shrewd observer. If you just listen to people’s words you might get trapped in an ideal fabrication and miss out on what’s really going on. After all, most of what’s going on around us is much more significant than a yellow light or a 20-something’s TV habits.