When I was younger I thought it a bit unseemly for Indians to have Anglicized names like "Sam Patel" or "Ken Singh." Who's that guy trying to fool? It felt like a nomenclatural comb over.
In time, I got over it. The fact is, names like that aren't all that common in the desi community in the first place, and probably have/had their utility among certain segments, eg., business people making inroads in rural America and the like (and of course, politicians). It's not like Jewish America, where there are a whole lot of people whose Eastern European surnames were shortened back on Ellis Island.
Which is why the Betty Brown furor seems so anachronistic. Brown is a Republican member of the Texas state legislature, and during a legislative hearing on voter ID standards, she said a couple things that have gotten her in trouble. Scroll to 3:23 of this clip for the money quote.
She was addressing Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans. Ko's point, which he made repeatedly--and which I ask him about, lower down--was that many Asian American immigrants have problems in this country because they often have two sets of IDs: one that lists, say, their original, Chinese-sounding name (transliterated into English) and another that has an Anglicized name (like Ken). This causes problems when they go to vote.
But Brown wasn't really listening:
“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?” Brown said.
Brown later told Ko: “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 could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?”
The issue was politicized before Brown even made her comments because Texas Republicans want to prevent voter fraud and Democrats say the actual occurrence of voter fraud is negligible, and that this is just a veiled attempt at suppressing votes from minorities, who tend to vote for Democrats.
But her remarks have taken the issue in a whole 'nother direction. She's received press in the San Francisco Chronicle, UPI, the UK's Telegraph. There's now a really fun "Betty Brown Name Generator"--I plugged in "Arun" and was told my new name is Roy "Chicken and Dumplings" Brown. If you try Shivashankara Venkataraghavan you get Billy-Ray "Golden Corral" Brown.
The issue has become a Democratic talking point. Yesterday I got an email from the office of John Liu, a New York City councilman who has himself received loads of coverage for demanding either an apology or a resignation from Brown. From his letter to Brown:
Considering certain people as second-class citizens who don’t necessarily “fit” into a particular gender, race, sexuality or socioeconomic status is perhaps an America of the past. Here in the
21st century, Americans are proud of the advancement we have made in ensuring equal opportunities for all people, regardless of background. Judge us not by our names, but by the content of our character and civic participation.
Your disappointing comments today were not only offensive and out-of touch, but indeed “un-American” by contradicting everything our country stands for. Perhaps it would indeed behoove the great State of Texas to boast of a legislature with honorable elected officials
who are not obstacles toward equal opportunity and democratic participation.
Brown has said she was not making a racially-motivated statement and was merely trying to solve the problem of voter identification that Ramey Ko was addressing. She also said she reached out to Ko to apologize "if I had offended him" - but that he hadn't returned her call.
But I did hear back from Ko, within a few minutes, after I reached out to him through Facebook. I was a little uncertain as to whether Brown's comments had been pulled out of context, in part because she's white and Texan and older and Republican. But Ko thinks the press coverage has been accurate, and that Brown was not trying to address the actual issue.
"I was a little shocked on the inside," he told me over the phone yesterday. "It was kind of a surreal experience. Wait, did she really say that?"
He also said he was "taken aback when she referred to 'you and your citizens.'"
"Her claim now is that she was trying to find a way to make transliteration easier. I'm not sure how that would happen. It's transliteration that's problematic, not the way it happens. To me the first 3 questions she asks, she uses phrases like 'change your name.'"
So what was Ko there for?
"The overall effort for which I was testifying is opposition to pending Republican-sponsored legislation in the Texas Legislature to require photo ID to vote, along the lines of laws passed in Indiana, Georgia, and Florida. Republicans claim the bill is necessary to stop voter fraud, even though almost no proven cases of voter impersonation have been documented, and such legislation would do nothing to address other proven methods of voter fraud, such as mail-in ballots. In reality, the bill creates significant barriers to voting for the poor, elderly, minorities, and people with disabilities and will suppress turnout among these groups. Voters in these groups are less likely to have photo ID and face significant barriers to obtaining ID."
Additionally, he said Asian Americans are already 8% less likely than their white counterparts in several surveyed states to have photo ID:
- "The expense and time required to obtain an ID is especially problematic for naturalized citizens. Approximately half of the Asian American population in the US is foreign-born, a higher proportion than any other ethnic group. Even if Photo IDs were provided for free, obtaining documents such as naturalization certificates.to obtain the ID requires a great deal of time and expense. Naturalization certificates cost $380 and can take up to a year to receive."
- "Photo ID requirements give poll workers an enormous degree of discretion at polling places, which can be particularly problematic for naturalized Asian Americans who may have limited experience with the legalese surrounding ID laws. The law raises the risk of communication difficulties that will ultimately deny Asian Americans the right to vote. Numerous studies have already shown that even in states that don't require Photo ID, Asian Americans were asked to show ID by poll workers more often than whites, which frequently resulted in misunderstandings that prevented legally eligible voters from casting a ballot."
- "In 2008, there were numerous cases of Asian American voters being denied the right to vote in states with voter ID laws because of name-matching problems. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other names are not written with the English alphabet and have multiple parts. When Asian Americans transliterate these names for documentation and IDs, there are frequent inconsistencies, either because the person has refined the spelling over time or because errors are made in transcription by workers unfamiliar with Asian names. These can range from incorrect hyphenation to switched letters to combining of two parts of the name or incorrectly separating one part of the name. Many Asian Americans also adopt "American" names for daily use, so sometimes they will have different names for different purposes. For example, my cousin's passport and Social Security card use her transliterated Chinese name, but she is Kathy on her drivers license."