In 1973, my father emigrated from India to New York City with an engineering degree and a name that seemed complicated to the American ear. He was offered his first job on the condition that “Ratnaswamy” would become “Sam,” a name that followed him throughout his entire career. According to him, it was the 1970s, he didn’t have a choice, and he was grateful to get a job.
Clearly much has changed since then, but perhaps not as much as we’d like to think. Not long after the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee crowned Indian American co-champions on May 28, a seemingly harmless joke began to circulate online. Unable to touch the spelling prowess of Vanya Shivashankar, Gokul Venkatachalam, and other talented finalists, observers like Todd Dewey of the Las Vegas Review-Journal remarked, “Luckily, the kids didn’t have to spell each other’s last names.” That non-Anglo-Saxon names are still an acceptable point of ridicule underscores the dynamics of whiteness that still pervade our culture.
Unfamiliar names can even be viewed as threatening. Also in May, in a comment to a New York Times editorial on racism in Baltimore, tenured Duke University Professor Jerry Hough argued that African American students should take a cue from Asian American students who each have “a very simple old American first name.” In contrasting these American names to Black names he finds “strange” and “new,” Hough furthered the pernicious racism that finds fault with any names, languages, and cultures that disrupt the uniformity of whiteness in America.
What these examples speak to is our society’s confused, superficial understanding of race and diversity, and how this confusion underscores racial privilege. Achieving real, inclusive diversity is not just about accepting and celebrating difference. It’s also about confronting racialized power.
A good way to start is by thinking about cultural difference substantially, not simply in terms of how it fits other agendas. For example, anthropologists have studied how given names today are linked to the names of clans, places of origin, religious affiliations, and lines of descent. They can also reference historical and political struggles—such as African names chosen by African American parents to reference a historical legacy of slavery and the reclaiming of cultures denied.
Above all, a name is a birthright, given to a child by a parent in a moment of hope and promise. It should never be modified for the convenience or debased for the amusement of a majority, but rather respected as an important social and cultural marker.
In my ethnographic research on American advertising, diversity is often code for anything that is non-white—silent talent who are ethnically ambiguous and the preferred representation of difference. But real diversity should be less focused on celebrating ethnic difference and more attuned to acknowledging whiteness and the power it holds in institutional spaces.
A case-in-point is American higher education, which encourages ethnic diversity through affirmative action but never at the cost of threatening a white student majority. Originally instituted by President Kennedy to build minority attendance, affirmative action ensures that underrepresented groups who may be disadvantaged along lines of race, class, or gender are considered alongside advantaged white male applicants. But despite excellent intentions and results, affirmative action has in effect introduced a quota system in which maintaining a white majority has never come into question.
Indeed, just last month more than 60 Asian American groups brought civil rights charges against Harvard University for allegedly using different standards to assess Asian American applicants. The plaintiffs, which included the National Federation of Indian Americans and the Asian Americans for Political Advancement, argue that Harvard’s application process violates the 14th Amendment and has led to a drop in Asian American representation there.
In response, Harvard called its admissions procedures “fully lawful” and further noted that the rise from 17.6 percent to more than 21 percent in Asian American students was proof of their strong recruitment of Asian Americans. In other words, if qualified students are being denied admission simply because they are Asian American, it seems that the real issue at hand is that elite universities are primarily concerned with remaining predominantly white.
As a university professor, I see and participate in institutional efforts to address inclusion through curricular and social means on campus. Often these well-intentioned initiatives fall short because they focus on understanding difference without addressing power. Real inclusion can only happen when there is a disruption and acknowledgment that universities, like other American institutions, are white spaces invested in maintaining whiteness.
And of course, barriers in higher education can have lifelong impacts. In May, an Ascend Foundation study found that while Asian Americans represent more than a quarter of tech professionals in Silicon Valley, they are dramatically underrepresented among executives. This “Asian effect,” the study concludes, is more than three times as powerful as the “glass ceiling” of gender exclusion.
Examples like these are not coincidences, but the predictable side-effects of a society that has yet to confront the complex intersection of race and power. While the United States is fast approaching “majority minority” status, real diversity will only come from interrogating the power of whiteness in institutional spaces.
Real diversity is not only about learning how to say unfamiliar names or assuring the public that 21 percent of a particular minority group is more than enough. As someone who has had to help people learn how to pronounce her name on an almost daily basis, I can confirm that I remain willing to do that labor. It is worth it to me to have people say it correctly, and I have deep respect for people who learn to say it.
Everyone deserves that respect and should not be judged as not having an interest in assimilating because they haven’t Anglicized their name. It is time to once again expand the idea of what counts as American, and names are an excellent place to start. Say names you don’t know how to say and learn from your mistakes. It is a small but definitive step toward making diversity actually mean something for people who embody it.