In their classic 1967 treatise, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton critically observed a characteristic common to societies built around racial supremacy:
Whenever a number of persons within a society have enjoyed for a considerable period of time certain opportunities for getting wealth, for exercising power and authority, and for successfully claiming prestige and social deference, there is a strong tendency for these people to feel that these benefits are theirs ‘by right.’
They were, of course, referring to the tendency of whites within the U.S. to experience the many privileges they derive from their structural position in the racial order as totally normal, proper and customary. As with so many of their keen analyses, this observation has, unfortunately, stood the test of time, as evidenced by a recent situation involving a North Texas legislator.
During recent House testimony, Texas State Representative Betty Brown (R-Terrell) suggested that Asian-American voters should adopt names that “are easier for Americans to deal with.” As reported in Thursday’s Houston Chronicle, the exchange occurred between the clueless Brown and Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans who was offering testimony to the House Elections Committee on Asian American voters issues.
Ko testified that people of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean descent often face problems when voting or with other forms of identification because they may have a legal transliterated name in addition to a common English name that is used on their driver’s license or school registrations.
While ensuring that all citizens have access to one of the most basic rights of citizenship – the right to vote – has always occupied a central goal in civil rights efforts, apparently Rep. Brown thought the solution for Asian Americans was as simple as changing one’s name (as Shakespeare said, what’s in a name, anyway?). Speaking to Ko, Brown urged:
Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese – I understand it’s a rather difficult language – do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” She added later, “Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you adopt a name . . . that’s easier for Americans to deal with?”
While many whites will defend Brown’s comments as a simple attempt to resolve an identification problem, her suggestions show the normality of white privilege highlighted so well by Ture and Hamilton.
White people often assume that the privilege to live in a world made for their use and enjoyment – where racial “others” must adjust to their ways and where they never need reciprocate to ensure the basic human dignities of such others, even when they are supposed to belong to the same polity; and where they possess the right to denigrate and strip away the culture of others, for their own gain, ease, or just pleasure – is theirs “by right.” It is only in this kind of racialized context, where an elected representative can so cavalierly suggest to citizens that they shed their very name for an “easier” (and thus, obviously “better” one), the way someone might discard an old pair of shoes and pick out a new pair.
In this context it is quite possible that Rep. Brown, her supporters, and many fellow whites believe in the “sincere fiction” that her comments were not racially motivated. Because whiteness is so centered in our society, whites regard the concession of others toward whiteness as totally reasonable, without considering the damage of their pressure-cooker expectations on individuals and communities of color.
Rep. Brown’s comments are also highly offensive in reinforcing the pernicious stereotype of Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners.” By referring to Ko as “you and your citizens,” and suggesting that such individuals adopt names “easier for Americans to deal with” (both my emphases), Brown implies that such individuals stand outside the American polity, that they are not like Brown, that they are not “her” citizens, and that they are not Americans. She is thinking out of the white racial frame that assumes “Americans” do not include Asian Americans, who have no trouble with Asian names. This is a problem well-demonstrated in interviews with 43 Asian Americans analyzed recently by Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin; there Asian Americans report much discrimination by whites who do not see them as real Americans, but as foreign.
We wonder if Brown or her supporters would find such suggestions reasonable if the “old” shoe were on the other foot. How many parents dream of the names they will impart to their newborns while they wait those long nine months? How many children receive the cherished gift of a name handed down from a beloved relative, or in honor or some folk hero, or through a revered cultural practice? How many people carry such names in pride? And what special significance does a name have for an immigrant struggling to make their place in what should be the multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy of the U.S.?
Surely, our fellow citizens deserve better than to be asked to just toss this piece of their identity away for the “ease” of white people who can’t be bothered to learn a few new syllables, expand their cultural repertoire, and make a place at the national table for all.