Mindy Kaling was recently asked by fans on Twitter how she chose the names Katherine and Spencer for her two children and if she gave them South Asian middle names. Mindy responded with pride that she had named her daughter Katherine Swati Kaling and her son Spencer Avu Kaling. Swati is the name of her mother, who passed away of pancreatic cancer in 2012, and Avu is after her father.
And though it’s common for celebrities to receive intrusive questions from fans, Kaling’s willingness to respond to the comments and inquires that she received about her decision-making process for naming her children suggests that she is both aware of and affected by a larger social context behind those questions.
Kaling is, after all, an essential representation of Indian identity within mainstream popular culture for the South Asian American community; it is empowering to see someone with a shared immigrant background succeeding in the competitive world of comedy and entertainment — especially when the field is known for its exclusivity and minimal acceptance of those who appear as “other.”
And, within her career, she has made a point to showcase characters and storylines that represent the breadth of South Asian American culture. Not only does she bring light to important Indian cultural traditions, but she also does so in a way that expresses the struggle that many bicultural people experience navigating the intersection of South Asian and American identities.
She, of course, is not immune to those struggles. For example. Kaling’s full name is Vera Mindy Chokalingam, which she decided to shorten to Mindy Kaling earlier in her career. Though she had gone by Mindy throughout her upbringing, she specifically shortened her last name to Kaling after having it mispronounced on numerous occasions when starting in standup comedy.
The decision to change one’s name to better assimilate in America can be based in experiences of name-based microaggressions.
This is an unfortunately common occurrence in America, and many people from minority ethnic backgrounds have to go through the psychological process of deciding how they will present their “ethnic” names while operating in society — or if they will change their names completely as a means of acculturating within America.
The decision to change one’s name to better assimilate in America can be based in experiences of name-based microaggressions, defined as name mispronunciations, renaming practices and the diminishment of names of ethnic and religious origin based in majority ethnic figures’ either conscious or subconscious beliefs that non-American names are an inconvenience within Western society. Research has shown that experiencing name-based microaggressions can have a significant effect on the self-esteem, development and mental health of ethnic minorities in both childhood and adulthood.
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I conducted a qualitative study with South Asian Americans to explore their experiences of name-based microaggressions, and participants reported that other people often struggled with the pronunciation, spelling and cultural intricacies of their first and last South Asian names. The most emotionally difficult interactions for South Asian Americans were with people in authoritative positions — particularly classroom teachers and company executives — and introducing themselves became a moment of anxiety and dread. Some participants chose to alter their names to avoid presenting an inconvenience to people in power, while others did so to increase their own comfort in social interactions.
Many people from minority ethnic backgrounds have to go through the psychological process of deciding how they will present their “ethnic” names while operating in society.
Participants in my study also observed other people appearing to be overwhelmed after hearing their names, or reported immediately being asked for a nickname to use instead of their real name. Some participants felt frustration in being asked or assigned a nickname, while others felt relief as it made their assimilation process smoother.
Despite these difficult social moments, it was typical for participants to hold positive feelings about their names due to the uniqueness and pride they carry in their culture, and many felt that not being represented properly in their names was a minor sacrifice to make in order to be accepted as American.
But when it came to their children, participants’ responses were more mixed. For instance, one participant emphasized wanting her son to remember — even if it’s painful — where he come from through his South Asian name. Another participant did not want their own child to carry his last name, due to the negative experiences he had with that name while operating in America.
These are not atypical responses for South Asian Americans. Parents have to weigh various questions when determining whether to give a child an “American” name, including what judgment might come from either culture when making these decisions, and what the risks and benefits are of having an “ethnic” name while operating within America.
Mindy Kaling has done a great deal to break barriers and encourage the presence of South Asians within media; she has also acknowledged modifications of her own presentation of cultural identity in order to acculturate and be accepted in this industry. Knowing that, we can better begin to think about how she chose to carry both forward in order to provide opportunities for her family and children.
Through Kaling’s naming process for each of her children, it is clear that she gave some thought to what it would mean for each of them to hold names of ethnic origin in their lives. And it is likely that Kaling was not unaware that she would receive questions about her children’s names by the South Asian community, given the importance she holds in representing the population.
Beyond idle celebrity gossip, that curiosity may derive from a desire to understand how she holds on to her South Asian traditions despite the pressures she may experience to acculturate to America. If someone of Kaling’s caliber is able to hold on and display her ethnic identity in a meaningful way, it gives other minorities hope that they can live in their identities with pride, display their ethnic names with confidence and know that they can also attain success in America.