The Desirable American Name

When did it become the norm for an American to forget about his identity?

01/03/2017 08:04 am ET | Updated Jan 04, 2017

No Hillary or Trump supporter can deny the shock that accompanied the 2016 presidential election results. Pre-election polls predicted an 85% chance of Clinton winning. Yet, she lost. The shock that followed the results transformed, in part, into pleas for help. Leaders declared a public health crisis—in Illinois alone, calls to crises and suicide hotlines increased by 200% within a mere week of the presidential election results. The election has prompted a resurge of pre-existing fears. With children assuming election rhetoric as permission to bully immigrants, among other vulnerable communities, these fears are now absolutely justified.

Last year, my immigrant classmates expressed the need to escape from the primary indicator of their foreigner status—their names. In chemistry class, my teacher called each student by their attendance roster names. A couple of students flinched whenever they heard their names — totally foreign, totally mispronounced, totally “un-American.” Despite their insistence on being called by American names, my teacher stuck to his roster. The students complained to their classmates until dismayed faces reached the teacher’s attention. To quell their discontent, our teacher allotted one lecture to his students to let them explain whether they embraced their American names outside of school. The conclusion was unanimous—their American names followed them the instant they left their homes.

Don’t get me wrong. It makes sense to eschew any chance of getting targeted by adopting an American name. Mispronunciation, even if unintentional, can hurt. So can the subsequent snickering of students. Much worse, however, is the fact that names will bear repercussions beyond the classroom. According to a study conducted by economists at the University of Chicago and Harvard, resumes with more white-sounding names receive significantly more callbacks. Life is undeniably easier with an American name. It limits identity to assumptions about the American type—the kind that prevent an employer from doing a double-take upon evaluating resumes.

Though they cling to their American names like their lives depend on them, my classmates did not undergo legal changes to their names. Why? The demanding process is probably part of the answer. Legally changing a first name requires petitioning to convince a judge that the change is in one’s “best interest.” It seems that the definition of one’s best interest entails getting treated as an American, as opposed to a second-class citizen. For Rodrigo Saldago, changing his name to Alexander Valentine reflects a choice he believes lies in his best interest. After years as an immigrant, the American name fits his new status as an American citizen. He wants people to see him for who he has become. He argues that his name should not define him. But it does. And that is properly why he changed his name.

The problem with adopting a new name is the trivializing of the old, as the immigrant mutes a foreign identity. When people call immigrants by American names, they hear foreign silence, American noise. Foreigners support American identity by upholding American names and deny their immigrant status in denying original names, as though their foreign roots do not represent them. But when did it become the norm for an American to forget about his identity beyond the Atlantic shores and the waters of the Pacific?

The problem with a name change, legal or not, isn’t integration. The desire to acquire American citizenship in order to avoid the consequences of Trump’s coming policies makes perfect sense. We fear Trump, call hotlines, and declare health crises, all because we unanimously agree upon our desire to remain in America.

The problem with a name change is denying that integration happened in the first place. Historically-speaking, all Americans bear ancestry from elsewhere, save indigenous people of the Americas. And so, I wish that my classmates would not wince at the sound of their names but rather correct pronunciation errors.

One need not an American name to feel American, though foreign roots deserve their own recognition. It’s a privilege to live in America as a foreigner – you contribute to the diversity that enriches this country. Your original name reinforces both your own roots and what makes America great. If a foreign name prompts you to worry about differential treatment on account of ethnic-related motives, do not assume that changing your name will alter others’ perception of your ethnicity.

I am not suggesting that immigrants must avoid name changes at all costs. Sacrificing personal identity might serve as a survival tactic amid a reawakening of racist tendencies prompted by Trump’s victory. Feeling like a target, however, only encourages targeting. Myself an immigrant, I suggest we alter our mindsets—let us learn not to survive but to live; let us celebrate not one but multiple identities; and let us reaffirm our roots with our names, as we brave the American world.

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