Recently, a friend with a foreign name told me that she was planning to take an American alias. She liked her given name, but she had grown weary of hearing it mispronounced by professors, advisors, classmates and friends. Sometimes, they mispronounced it so badly that she could not recognize it, mangled to the point where it ceased to function as a name. There were more serious consequences, too. Professors were reluctant to call on her in seminars because they could not pronounce her name. She was understanding when they didn’t get it right after a few times. After all, learning an unfamiliar name is not trivially easy. But when they still got it wrong after a whole semester, she felt she had no option but to use an alias.
Her decision stood out in stark contrast to our surroundings. Yale seems pretty welcoming to all things foreign. The cultural houses and student organizations celebrate religious holidays and cultural festivals. The dining halls serve bibimbap and chana masala. Sure, the food doesn’t taste quite authentic, but clearly a genuine effort has been made. By all these prominently visible indicators, Yale is a community committed to incorporating the diverse cultural heritages of its members.
Yet here was my friend, seriously considering exchanging her ethnic name for an American one. Hers is not a difficult name to pronounce: It’s short, simple and phonetic. Even the most challenging names are not prohibitively difficult. Anyone who makes even a small effort to learn them can. In my friend’s case, apparently, too few people did.
Aliases are actually near ubiquitous among people with foreign names. We each have a “Starbucks name,” a convenient American alias that we use for temporary things like ordering a cup of coffee. It saves us the trouble of having to recite the same semiapologetic script explaining our names, from having to trot out the mnemonic devices that make that panicked look subside in a stranger’s face. Sure, it’s degrading to use a Starbucks name, but it’s a minor issue. It’s no tragedy if a stranger whom I interact with for all of five seconds does not know my real name. But what my friend was considering doing was more drastic; she would use her alias permanently.
To many people, a name is more than just a word; it is an expression of their identity. So, when our community gives us no other option but to use an alias, we lose an important connection to our sense of self. It also creates a barrier between us and the rest of the community. If our classmates and friends interact only with a fictitious name, the interpersonal relationships start to seem fictitious too.
It is especially problematic that the names that are lost often belong to people of color. I am not saying that there is any racism involved. This situation does not fit within the traditional racism narrative; learning an unfamiliar name is difficult for supposedly villainous white people and for long-suffering minorities alike. It doesn’t even matter if you have experienced the struggle of having your name mispronounced. No matter how good your intentions are, learning a foreign name is just hard. But even though racism is not the cause, the effects are the same. The community degrades minorities’ identities and erases an important part of their cultural heritage. It causes society to regress toward an American norm. I doubt the people who mispronounce my name do so deliberately to stifle diversity. It’s just that diversity, as it turns out, is inconvenient.
So, the burden is placed on us, the people with the inconvenient names, to do the hard work of making diversity easy. We are forced to choose between alienation from society and alienation from ourselves. We must relinquish or warp our identities just so that our peers are comfortable in their interactions with us. And ultimately, the diversity that our community ends up with is a farce. Sure, we can attend cultural events and eat ethnic food in the dining halls, but if we don’t accept the identities of the people that comprise those cultures, then what is it all for? We’re merely consuming the products of our peers’ cultures, not including the people themselves.
Multiculturalism is inherently uncomfortable. It takes effort from everyone to make a diverse society coherent. But we as a community have no other option if we are truly committed to including everyone. We must learn our peers’ real names because all other attempts to achieve diversity depend on the success of this one.
Kathan Roberts is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .