White Privilege: Texas Lawmaker Suggests Asians Adopt “Easier Names”

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.


  1. In France when you’re asking for citizenship they encourage you actively to adopt a “french” first and lastname…
    If you are asian, african or arab you’re more encouraged than the others…
    And they always propose you a french XVIII century style name…
    If you accept, you’ll have more chance to get your citizenship !

  2. Jenni M.

    Striking example, Bader . . . when we discuss “pressure-cooker” type expectations, this is exactly the kind of thing we mean. In this extreme case, you very ability to access citizenship rights is tied to your willingness to revoke part of your identity.

  3. I’m sorry. It’s just that, after a few misprenounciations, I eventually learn how to pronounce someone’s name as it should be pronounced. Admittedly, I think it’s important to call people by their given names. But who are this ignorant Americans who can’t learn now to pronounce someone else’s name.

    I also think it should be easy to put one’s self in another’s shoes in this case. Imagine someone calling Brown – Brow. Will she not correct them?

  4. Seattle in Texas

    A great post—as always they all are.

    It takes me a few times to get, well, I would say even close to a preferred or correct pronunciation of names and so forth too.

    Wow. Many things come to mind here for me—but to be as brief as possible; only a couple and some my own region. [Speech therapy (often accompanied with “special education”) and full emersion] inherently racist–big up there. I know that with how I was taught to speak, what they say is “proper” English, has inherently handicapped my ability to produce sounds in other languages. Though perhaps has enhanced my ability to pronounce others? Nonetheless the reason this comes to mind is because when we had lived in an area where many people spoke Spanish only and some were bilingual, many folks would speak Spanish only to the children. One day they were teaching my daughter how to say fruits and vegetables—while she could not pronounce “English” words in the proper (on-yee-yion for example) she pronounced it in Spanish perfectly. They emphasized not forcing her to pronounce her “s” in proper English—at least so young—it will interfere with her speaking Spanish. With that, well, I suspect the intolerance for “accents” of any kind up there actually does more harm than good in so many ways for all folks…including with the ability to speak other languages properly particularly later in life? The intolerance of accents is harming also. (yet…they fail to recognize, “we too have accents”!!!) While it may not be so open verbally as it is down here, something similar is definitely implied and enforced in other ways up there in various ways….

    Well it’s to such the degree that they correct even Native English speakers from different areas. A Native Texan told me of how she went to college back in the PNW and she wrote in “Ya’ll” a couple of times in her essay and the professor docked points. She explained it was a word and in the dictionary—the professor simply did not care and held it was inappropriate and told her if she did not want points taken off, then to say “you all”.

    The attitudes with relation to language in the U.S. are definitely racist, classist, and certainly elitist. And if our nation cared in the least about our children learning foreign languages, they would begin during the early years (K-3) rather than in last years. Plus as done in Canada, if we valued and cared about folks learning different languages, they would allow students to complete their entire K-12 education in a different language then speak their native at home…. Okay—enough of the soap box….

    On the remark—it just wasn’t surprising to me. I don’t know if it should have been…but I’m in Texas. In many ways Texas has far outdone the negative pre-conceived stereotypes that I had beforehand…soooo. “Well, well, what do ya know” was kind of my response. But, what is a very nice surprise is the direct response from the TDP on the issue—I think for me, it’s rather the Democrats that bring surprise—their determination and perseverance in taking on the TRP here!!! The TDP for me at least, help fight the negative stereotypes through making it impossible to over-generalize the whole state in various ways.

    I don’t know—such things, whether overtly or covertly implied and enforced are harmful all the way around. The arrogance….

  5. Jenni M.

    Seattle in Texas – your post reminded me of one of the major nativist critiques regarding immigration, so prominant now. One of the most famous neo-nativists, the now departed Samuel Huntington, wrote a scathing critique of Mexican immigration where he railed over the threat such immigrants posed to the White Anglo-Saxon core culture that the U.S. is built on. (Putting aside for a moment, that the WASP-centerdness of the U.S. is *entirely* a product of colonization and exploitation of indigenous people and other groups of color here), one of his main concerns with Mexican immigrants is that second- and third-generation immigrants may be likely to maintain a fluency in both Spanish and English, that fluency in both languages might be “institutionalized” in the Mexican-American community, and that are a result, bilingualism might acquire an increasing “market-value” in certain job arenas, including politics. Of course, to that I say (sarcastically) “Oh no!” – I mean, heaven forbid Americans actually be encouraged to really learn a language other than English, as most people in other countries around the world do – what a disaster biligualism would be! Again, evidence of the normalacy of whites feelings that they should never have to accomodate to any other groups in the U.S. polity.

  6. Seattle in Texas

    Jenni, thank you–ideally, and I say ideally, people of any ethnicity that enters into the U.S. would preserve their language and the future generations would hold on to it with pride. It erodes so quickly and the pressure to assimilate for many is so strong. It also destroys collective memory….

    Bilingualism acquiring a marketable value would be a beautiful thing (as much as I hate thinking in capitalistic terms…so, perhaps more so socially? 🙂 ) . I think targeting the younger years is crucial, for children who speak any language. I am also in favor of having K-12 schools that teach in languages other than English, that students of any language can attend. But I don’t think the U.S. would adopt it 1. Because the U.S. is so racist, well, and has serious nativism issues as you noted and 2. Like other institutions that make their profit at stigmatizing folks at the individual level rather than trying to solve them at the larger levels, public schools profit off of placing students in speech therapy and of course special education…(and probably many other reason). As a result in my opinion, much otherwise prime potential, in this case, for learning foreign languages and culture, is essentially destroyed. The costs? Can’t be measured. But I still think it’s good when people learn later, as later is better than never….

    And on changing the name–nobody should have to change their name. But because of the teasing during the younger years children with “non-American” and/or “non-white” names endure and the discrimination they face later in life? I can understand why some change their names voluntarily. I wouldn’t say it’s right, but just that I can understand. People and institutions can be and are cruel.

    First generation folks from other nations are very kind and patient–far too kind. (not correcting when their name is not pronounced correctly for example) But I think too often that kindness may represent their own pressure to assimilate and avoid discrimination in general and in the everyday life. What the U.S. teaches, a devaluation of the self, ancestry, ethnicity, and culture. Many take on an American nic-name, reduce their name to initials (VJ for example), etc., I think partially for the sake of making it easier for Americans–perhaps also because they do not enjoy hearing their names mispronounced, and so forth. And from what I have seen many are quick to give their children born in the U.S. American names. This is not a nation open to, or friendly to diversity, let alone multiculturalism…. Anyway…just my rambling thoughts….

    A-Dawg, I was not aware it was a common practice in Taiwan. I have heard of it elsewhere. But as I understand it, at least in the other contexts, it’s not out of racist policies and sentiments, as has been the case in the U.S. and France as noted in #1 above. At least as I understand it…. Interesting and important.

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