Monday afternoon, as I was leaving my office to come pick up my son, I came across an article about comments posted to a New York Times discussion board by a Duke political science professor, Jerry Hough. As part of his lengthy comments attempting to reject the article’s analysis of the racial dynamic in Baltimore, Hough wrote,
“I am a professor at Duke University. Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration. The amount of Asian-white dating is enormous and so surely will be the intermarriage. Black-white dating is almost nonexistent because of the ostracism by blacks of anyone who dates a white state [sic]. King helped them overcome. The blacks followed Malcolm X.”
As a student affairs professional and an educator, I was upset to read such an offensive comment from a seasoned scholar who is supposedly an expert in the area of political science no less. As a mother of a multiracial baby, I was painfully reminded of the suffocatingly limiting view the dominant narrative has already imposed on my son’s and other minority youth’s identity development.
Hough’s comments, while unsubstantiated by statistic on APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American) communities, reflect a popular strategy to justify condemning other minority groups for their failures to “integrate” and “live up to the American dream” and denying the systemic economic and social injustice against minorities. During the unfolding of the recent racial events, I have seen many slightly different varieties of the same argument, “Look at the Asians. They are all successful now because they kept their heads down and worked doubly hard. See, everyone can achieve the American dream. Your people are (enter social/economic problems) because you are just inherently (enter negative personal/cultural attributes).” Even sadder for me is to see some of my Asian friends/relatives implicitly or explicitly agree with that narrative. Hough’s comments and similar arguments perpetuate two of the most pervasive and insidious stereotypes of the APIDA community: “model minority” and “honorary White.”
The underlying assumption of these stereotypes is that in order to become “successful” in the US, minority groups need to assimilate to the mainstream culture’s values and be less (enter group’s name). I have seen this dynamic played out among different minority student groups where the Asian students would say things like “advocacy and activism for racial/discrimination issues is the Black and Mexican students’ thing” and that “my family thinks being involved in student leaderships are useless for my future life success, only academics matter.”
In addition to being used to pitch minorities group against one another to benefit the oppressors, these stereotypes can also be detrimental for the young APIDA children’s identity development. When your identity is mainly framed by conforming to or defying racial stereotypes, your experience is, at least to the dominant mainstream society, stripped off of the sophistication, complexity, and richness that usually comes with such an extraordinary and important developmental task.
According to Hough’s logic in the comments, if an Asian American has “a very simple old American first name,” it can only mean one thing, “a desire for integration.” It can’t be that there might be a more sentimental/historically significant meaning behind the names. My son has a very typical American name, Leo Vincent Tyler. And here is the story behind it. My husband and I got married when he was in his 40s. We had a tough time having a kid. So when we finally had a baby, it was a huge deal for us. We picked our son’s name to honor my husband’s grandfather who was one of the very few people he actually admired. His grandfather, Leo Tyler, was a WWII veteran who put himself through college after the war and became a well-respected and loved community leader figure in his hometown. And to think that all this historical and sentimental meaning of my son’s name will likely be reduced to just “an Asian’s effort to integrate” is a constant reminder for me of the uphill battle and the narrow narrative that minority individuals are having to navigate and negotiate every step of the way to build a positive self-identity that will validate and celebrate our roots as well as our current lived experiences. I wonder how many people will actually ask “Leo, what is the story behind your name?” instead of brushing it off as, “Leo, your name is so easy to say. Cool!”
Originally posted on Anh T. T. Le Blog