Learn my name: confronting overt and subtle racism

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When my parents came to this country 19 years ago, carrying me in a baby carriage and my older sister in a stroller, one of their first tasks was to write down our names in English for the first time. From what they tell me, they briefly considered giving my sister and me “American” names, like Michael and Katie or Brian and Megan, but for one reason or another they ultimately decided on translating our given Korean names phonetically. So 근호 became Geunho and 선영 became Sunyoung, and I’m sure my parents thought little of it for the next few years. 

But as anyone with an ethnic-sounding name can attest to, it can very quickly become a point of contention for young children. One of my earliest, and perhaps most vivid, memories from elementary school comes from the first day of Kindergarten during roll call: 

“Tyler?” 

“Here!” 

“Rebecca?” 

“Here!” 

“Uh…I’m definitely gonna butcher this one…Jew-en-hoe?” 

This exchange and its slight variations, the subsequent burst of laughter from the class around me and the deep embarrassment I felt at having such a different name were things I came to simultaneously accept and dread every first day of school and every substitute teacher appearance. 

More impactful, though, was that a lot of teachers never seemed too interested in learning my name, regardless of pronunciation. Maybe the gargantuan effort of putting together two syllables in a way they never had before was too much for them, or maybe they just didn’t want to embarrass me more by mispronouncing it again. Regardless of the reason, it was painfully obvious when teachers would vaguely point in my direction when I raised my hand, after calling on every other student by name.  

I can only imagine now how my parents felt when I came to them in middle school, when I had six new teachers a year mispronounce my name instead of just one, and asked them if I could change the name they had given me because I wanted it to sound more “normal.” I wanted teachers to know me as more than just that kid with the funny name, and to give me the validation of recognition that everyone else received. 

Eventually, slowly, I learned to take pride in my name and the heritage that comes with it. And looking back, I feel disappointed at the teachers who made me want to change it – disappointed that they didn’t bother asking me the correct way to pronounce my name, and disappointed that they made me feel like Geunho was any less important to remember than Ryan or Tom or Ben. 

My experience is certainly not unique, and it extends beyond the classroom. For example, everyone has heard of the studies and statistics that show that people with ethnic-sounding names are less likely to be called back for job interviews. “Whitened” resumes of the same caliber are taken more seriously, but it’s difficult to imagine the majority of cases involve an overtly racist hiring manager throwing out any and all nonwhite applicants. Rather, it’s a consequence of experiences like mine: ethnic-sounding names are forgotten or laughed at, so people fail to associate them with any type of American identity and further open the door to the subtler, they’re-different-from-us internal bias that we all possess to some degree. It’s part of the reason why so many nonwhite and foreign-born students go by “Americanized” names different from the ones they were born with. We look different, so maybe changing our names takes us a step closer to becoming an equal American. 

But it is not equality. Our names are reminders of where we come from and what our families have endured to come to this country, and they are a fundamental part of our identities. We are every bit as American as the immigrants who got here 400 years ago on wooden ships, and we deserve to have our names preserved without suffering the ridiculous consequences of both overt and subtle racism.  

At Williams, I ask that professors, administrators and students make a change to combat this. I can’t help but feel angry every time a professor whose office hours I’ve been to every week greets everyone else by name but can only nod and smile in my direction when I appear at their door. It may not seem important, and it’s a small step, but take an extra second to ask how our names are pronounced, and make an effort to remember them in the same way you would any other name that you’ve heard before. 

It’s simple – but certainly not trivial. Learn my name. 

Geunho Kye ’20 is a mathematics and chemistry major from Pleasanton, Calif.