Americanizing Asians: The mental toll of being asked to change your name

Experts criticize a professor recently alleged to have demanded that a Vietnamese student "anglicize" her name.
Laney College in Oakland, Calif.
Laney College in Oakland, Calif.Google maps

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By Kimmy Yam

After a California college professor’s recent demand that a Vietnamese student “anglicize” her name sparked controversy, the Asian American community and other diverse groups are pointing out that it symbolizes larger issues in the education system.

Critics have condemned Laney College mathematics professor Matthew Hubbard’s words to student Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen, calling them “damaging” to students of diverse backgrounds.

In two email exchanges with Nguyen, seen in undated screenshots, Hubbard had not only told the student to Anglicize her name but also likened the name to "f--- boy," adding that if he had “lived in Vietnam and my name in your language sounded like Eat a D---, I would change it to avoid embarrassment both on my part and on the part of the people who had to say it."

The teacher has since been put on leave and college President Tammeil Gilkerson said in a statement last week that the university is investigating. Hubbard apologized for his “two inappropriate emails” on Twitter on Saturday before deleting his account entirely.

“I apologize for my insensitive actions which caused pain and anger to my student, and which have now caused pain and anger to an untold number of people who read my two inappropriate emails on the Internet,” he wrote.

Hubbard told NBC Asian America that a different student decided to Anglicize his Chinese name, prompting the professor to suggest the same to Nguyen. However Hubbard said that there’s a difference between demanding someone Anglicize their name versus someone doing so by their own volition.

"I realize now that he had the right to do that, but I didn't have the right to ask Ms. Nguyen," he said.

Hubbard added: "Of course what I did was wrong. I can apologize, but it doesn't heal the pain that so many people feel."

Scholars note that such demands, which have long been made of ethnic students, shouldn’t be taken lightly. They explained that such behavior is another form of a racial microaggression and seeks to erase a student’s heritage.

“In the case of Matthew Hubbard, he was explicitly racialized, xenophobic, and sexually inappropriate in his interaction with the student,” Rita Kohli, a scholar who co-authored a 2012 study published in Race Ethnicity and Education on names and cultural disrespect in the classroom, said. “He was centering his own cultural and linguistic comfort and understanding over her identity, and as a professor, he was attempting to leverage his power to change who she is.”

Kohli explained that the mispronunciation of names is a natural part of moving through a diverse, multilingual world. Having the tools and skills to know how to pronounce every name correctly the first time is unrealistic, however when mispronunciations and Anglicization of names are steeped in power, or are racially charged, it creates a dangerous issue. They ultimately communicate that the dominant culture is superior and that assimilating is the way to go.

“We live in a world, and an educational system, that is guided by a dominant culture and is racially/culturally hierarchical,” she said. “Thus, when someone in a position of power, an educator for example, changes someone’s name because they find it inconvenient or challenging to their comfort — through that interaction, they are disrespecting, devaluing who that person is.”

Kohli’s study notes that these interactions can potentially prompt those who do not come from the dominant culture to internalize the racism and believe their culture or aspects of their identity are an inconvenience, or even inferior. Subini, an Indian student mentioned in the study, absorbed the racism and her name turned into a source of shame. She recalled how people would often laugh when teachers mispronounced her name and by third grade, she started to go by the name “Lizzie,” based on her middle name Elizabeth. Though she reclaimed her first name years later, the sting still lingers.

“I still dread starting a new job or a new class because I know that the teacher is going to say it wrong and everyone is going to say it wrong as a joke,” she said in the study.

Similarly, another student in the study, Marina, who’s Latina, said the slights she endured caused her to internalize not only a negative perception of herself, but also of her culture and her parents. While her name is properly pronounced with a rolled “r,” over the years, the name took on the English pronunciation “like a boat harbor,” she said. The student remembered wishing she had a more “common” name like Jessica or Vanessa. Moreover, she said, she wished her parents were more “Americanized.”

“The simple act of not rolling the r in her name led to Marina believing that more ‘common’ and more ‘American’ was superior to her Latina/o roots,” the study said.

Essentially, victims of such disrespect can begin to question their place in U.S. society, thus impacting their love for their culture or themselves, the research noted.

“Whether being culturally disrespectful, unaware of their actions, or even just stumbling over a name they had never seen before, the tone set by a teacher about a student’s name was something significant that participants have remembered for many years,” the study reads.

Teachers’ conduct is particularly influential and can also allow for other students to mimic similarly exclusive actions. One South Asian woman included in the study, Nirupama, recalled a time when her biology teacher asked her to pronounce her name slowly, joking he “wouldn’t want to call you ‘Gandhi.” Her classmates, who were of diverse backgrounds themselves, proceeded to call her Gandhi for the rest of the year. The racial tokenization of Nirupama, the study said, resulted in not only a feeling of humiliation but also the encouragement of microaggressions from her own peers.

“It is important to note that despite the fact that her peers were non-white and possibly have encountered racial slights within their own schooling, by following the cues of their teacher, they contributed to her alienation,” the study said.

Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, emphasized that the practice of Asian students changing their names in the western education system emerges from a history of Americanization and assimilation that pins Asian cultures as “strange.” Anglicization of names is a reflection of a long held European bias, she said.

Choy said Americans have sought to depict Asians as “culturally strange” -- from the negative portrayals of Asian hairstyles, like the traditional queue sported by Chinese men, in political cartoons in the Chinese Exclusion Act era, to the display of Igorot, Filipino indigenous rituals at the 1904 World's Fair, for white spectatorship, to even the American tours through Chinatown alleyways.

To ensure students of color learn in spaces that do not harm them, Kohli believes that conversations around the racial literacies and cultural competencies of educators must be raised.

Choy added that names are crucial to a student’s individual, family, and ethnic identity.

“When instructors make the effort to learn students' names, that simple act improves students' learning because it acknowledges their history and presence,” she said.