Putting The ‘I’ In Immigrant: Marches against AAPI Hate revive the power behind names, the need to say them and say them correctly

This is a graphic design of the word “opinion” in a speech bubble. The background is purple and there are various shapes surrounding the speech bubble.

To hear your name repeated back to you, in its correct pronunciation, is one of the simplest, yet most powerful, forms of acknowledgment. It is an indication of effort on the speaker’s part to respect and recognize who you are. 

In the wake of the tragedy of the Atlanta shootings on March 16, the Asian American women — whose lives were prematurely taken in a senseless act of violence — were not even afforded the basic dignity of being remembered in the media by their full names, much less their correct pronunciations.

It may not have been intentional for many news outlets, but the lack of research and consultation with cultural leaders was seen throughout communities as deliberate. To remember these women, the extra step — to recognize them as human beings and acknowledge who they are, their culture included — is not such a difficult thing to ask. 

Last week, Portland protesters standing in solidarity against the rise in AAPI hate rallied behind the phrase, “Learn our names.” This is after major news networks such as the Washington Post released initial details of the Atlanta spa shooting victims with abridged names in print, later amending their publication after facing public scrutiny. The names of the victims were shortened according to American naming customs — this being the common practice of including first name, middle initial and last name. 

It is altogether understandable how this happened, but the ‘why’ should be of concern to us all.

Arguably, it has become second nature for the majority, if not all, of the American public to acknowledge a name or a culture so long as it requires little effort on our part. I have seen it, I have experienced it, and truly, my story is one of privilege because of where I come from. 

I went to high school in the San Gabriel Valley in a neighborhood that was predominantly Asian American. That being the case, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard classmates and close friends of mine forego their given name and adopt a new one for the sake of everyone around them. This is a personal decision that I cannot rightly speak to, but as someone who holds a Eurocentric name, it is my responsibility — as it is the responsibility of countless others — to free this decision from the influence of peer pressure or assimilationist attitudes. 

In my own story, I was given two first names, as is the custom in the Philippines. This tradition stems from the desire to honor the mother’s maiden name by giving it as a middle name, and that was exactly what my parents intended when they named me. 

My name is Spanish due to the colonization of the Philippines, and, in the culture of Southern California, it has never presented me with any problems. At most, it is subjectively seen as an inconvenience for government agencies when I fill out official documents, but I still count myself as privileged. 

I don’t always like the fact that my name comes with complications, but if I were to choose, I would still honor my mom’s maiden name because of its meaning.

In any situation, the space and dialogue of our culture needs to be accepting and empowering of everyone’s given names. 

Names are sacred, and they should be treated as such. Taking the time and making an effort to learn how other cultures name their children and pronounce their names is not one that American society and American media naturally acknowledges. It requires effort, but it is a necessary undertaking to address this microaggression that many cultural communities decry. 

There is power in a name and speaking it. This is not a phenomenon that applies only to AAPI communities, but it has long since been a rallying point for so many other marginalized groups. 

The power behind speaking a name was emphasized by Kimberle Crenshaw in an effort to seek justice by speaking the names of the women and girls who have been victims of police brutality, whose stories remained buried by the media. The call to “say her name” and now “say their names” is a cry to continue seeking justice for those who have been altogether slighted by the justice system. 

As a member of the AAPI community, I stand in solidarity with the African American community, advocating for individuals like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain and Ahmaud Arbery, among many others whose names should be spoken.  

The movements to Stop AAPI Hate and to emphasize that Black Lives Matter are not dissimilar in their emphasis that names hold power. Speaking a name becomes an opportunity to bring attention to issues that need to be addressed. 

The great danger of this microaggression lays with the “othering” language of those that deliberately choose to mispronounce, misname and demonstrate a shameless disregard for other cultures. This was the case for those that sought to discredit the platform of the current presidential administration; on the campaign trail of the latest presidential election, former senator David Perdue expressed his genuine indifference for learning how to pronounce Vice President Kamala Harris’ name. This blatant disregard for educating oneself is insensitive to marginalized communities. It can be harmful, too, by exacerbating the same feelings of xenophobia that have contributed to the rise in hate crimes against these groups. 

It is not the same as the barista getting your name wrong at Starbucks; for these marginalized communities, it is a matter of finally being acknowledged and embraced by the world around them. For the privileged, who cannot know the depth of this wound, it is our collective responsibility to acknowledge our past complicity and to do something about it. The resources are out there and in a time when the world is at our fingertips, it simply cannot be too much of an ask. 

Noelle Natividad is a sophomore writing about the immigrant experience in America. Her column, “Putting The ‘I’ In Immigrant,” runs every other Friday.