“Non-Western” and “Western” names deserve equal respect


I first saw South Asian American political commentator and comedian Hasan Minhaj on “The Daily Show” as a senior correspondent in 2014. He introduced himself then as “has-AHN min-AJ.” When he said his name on his own Net ix special, “Hasan Min- haj: Homecoming King,” he pronounced it “HUS-un.” Now, four years later, when I watch his Net ix show, “Patriot Act,” he says “I’m HUS-un meen-AAJ,” which is the actual pronunciation of his name.

While this change in pronunciation was probably unnoticed by many viewers, it stood out to me because I have had a similar experience. Many people with names that are not traditionally American have to decide how they are going to introduce themselves in the U.S. I believe it was clever of Minhaj to gradually change the way he said his name as he became more successful in the entertainment industry.

When I was younger, I introduced myself to my peers the way Minhaj did: with an Americanized pronunciation, “PER-nah.” It was easier than asking people to pronounce my name the way it is pronounced in Hindi, “PRAIR-nah.” When I came to Mount Holyoke, many peers went by different — and more Western — names than what was written on the class roster,too. One of these people was Katrina Luo ’20.
“My Chinese name [is] really hard to pronounce, and many professors [and] students here are [...] highly aware of cultural values, so they feel bad if they mispronounce your name,” Luo said. “I don’t want them to feel bad and [my] Western name is easier for people to remember.” She said that she justified changing her name because her American name made her feel more assimilated into American culture. Luo does what many people do to be more accepted, socially and professionally, much like Minhaj and myself.

Over time, I felt like I was not being true to myself using the ‘American’ pronunciation of my name. I identified with the Hindi pronunciation more than the convenient Western one. In college, I started asking professors and peers to pronounce my name correctly. Xiaoying Zhang ’21 had a similar experience; when she first came to the U.S., she used an American name, but she decided to go back to her original name because she did not identify with the Western one. “I want people to recognize my Chinese name and feel comfortable with it, since I don’t like the situation when my original name appears and nobody knows who that is,” Zhang said. “[It] makes me feel like two separate individuals in the States and back home.” Although it is usually more challenging for people to pronounce Zhang’s name, she is able to feel more authentically herself when she uses her Chinese name.

Even though I now ask my peers and professors to call me by my correctly pronounced name, I do not do this initially in a professional setting, like a job in- terview. I want to make it easier for the other person — who is going to determine whether or not I have a job — to like me.

According to Professor of Sociology Eleanor Townsley, “Changing a name is typically associated with changing a status, or more precisely, changing position in social relationships.” Not only do people tend to adjust their names when their social positions are more precarious — as I would in a job interview — they may actually need to do so to get ahead. Accord- ing to a study by Harvard Business School, those who “whiten [their] job resumes” are more likely to get job interviews. “Whitening” could include “[changing] foreign-sounding names to something American- sounding” and “[‘Americanizing’] their interests by adding activities that are common in white Western culture.” According to the study, even companies that are looking to diversify their workplace often fall into these traps of preferring “Americanized” applicants because of their subconscious biases.

Though it’s not ideal, I think ‘Americanizing’ your name can actually be a clever way of getting your foot in the door. Once you do have the job, even if it was from having a “whitened” resume, you can disprove people’s assumptions and misconceptions based on stereotypes. Remember the way Minhaj gradually changed the way he introduced himself. At first, he was on someone else’s show and had a lower social status, so he had to assimilate to be accepted. But once he got his own show and had a higher social status, he was able to be more authentic by saying his name as “HUS-un.” Now he has influence and a platform, and can challenge the stereotypes and assumptions of his audience from a place of relative safety.

Changing or adjusting your name based on context makes sense, and that is why I still change my name’s pronunciation depending on where I am. Even though people from different cultural backgrounds unfortunately have no choice but to assimilate into American culture in order to succeed, it is still important to learn to say people’s names the way they want them to be said.