Over two months ago, I moved into Pomona College, unable to contain my excitement to find a new home here in Claremont. Our orientation schedule overflowed with opportunities to meet new people, and I was determined to make the best of each one.
To my pleasant surprise, early conversations strayed far away from the predictable “What’s your major?” or “Which dorm are you in?” and were instead free-flowing and organic. However, as time went on, I began to dislike the early process of introductions. Specifically, I started dreading the most frequent question people asked me:
“By the way, what’s your name?”
As innocuous and necessary as this question was, I couldn’t escape the undue stress it placed on me. Even back home in India, many struggled to pronounce my name, so the idea of introducing myself to non-Desi classmates filled me with uncertainty.
Even with this in mind, I found it unnerving the amount of people who asked if I had an “easier” nickname they could use to address me, even proceeding to create one for me that I didn’t agree to. While this may seem harmless, it implies that non-white-sounding names aren’t worth learning or respecting.
If someone doesn’t introduce themselves using a nickname, or if they don’t offer you the chance to call them one, don’t assume the authority to rename them to something that sounds whiter. Instead, it’s okay to ask for help — I don’t expect every 5C student to be fluent in Tamil. In fact, I truly appreciate those who made the effort to know my name correctly despite being unfamiliar with certain syllables. Still, in some of those moments of repetition I wondered how much easier introductions would be if my name was Jane or Kate.
I’m sure some of my other Desi friends wondered that too, which is why, although they cherish their birth names, they chose to adopt anglicized nicknames for their lives in the United States. This is an experience several non-white communities share. I used to believe it warranted shaming and criticisms of “whitewashing,” but recent experiences in this country have changed my mind.
As much as one’s name reflects the rich and beautiful culture they have grown up in, they’re also an extremely personal facet of one’s individual identity which they have authority to change. This is especially the case considering how heavily one’s name can shape the way they are treated in the United States. Judging the way individuals of color cope with feelings of alienation in white environments is both unnecessary and counterproductive.
I want to emphasize that the choice to adopt a nickname is exactly that — a choice. It must be made by an individual without shame or coercion. The way people choose to identify shouldn’t be up to others to decide. Instead of alienating someone for their “difficult” first name or “whitewashed” nickname, we should address the true problem at hand — Eurocentrism. It is the reason why we equate whiteness to normality, without which both “hard-to-pronounce” names and anglicized nicknames would not exist in the first place.
With this in mind, know that you have full authority over how you express your own identity. No matter how much judgment you face for the name you want to be called, be fearless in your pursuit to ensure people get it right.
Vaidehi Srinivasan is a first-year at Pomona College. She loves fluffy novels, horror movies, combat sports and chocolate chip cookies.