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What’s In a Name?

The names that are ‘hard’ to pronounce are those that spark our collective imagination.

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My full name is Yoon-Sung Choi. In Chinese characters, it means Big Star. My parents reference the significance of my name to me all the time. I’m 41, and to this day, they remind me that I’m meant to shine and do big things in this world. I wasn’t named Big Star for nothing.

And yet, I have dimmed my own light by allowing the different variations of my name to happen over time.

It’s been a few decades now since I’ve gone by ‘Yoon.’ I’ve reasoned that it’s easier for me to have a simple name people can pronounce. 

I never thought too much of it at all until recently. In the education non-profit that I lead, however, we’ve been talking about race, our experiences of racism, how we perpetuate it, and what we’re going to do about it. 

In an all-staff discussion, I shared my own experience about a time when a supervisor referenced ‘chopsticks and karate chops’ to describe me in action; the sentence began with her calling me ‘Yoonie.’ The last part—particularly in light of the other references—didn’t even register as a blip until my colleagues really honed in on the name piece.

And they had a lot to say about it. They shared their own experiences with mispronunciations and re-naming—the shame our kids in class feel when their name is mispronounced during roll call, and conversely, how they felt heard and seen when someone took the time to ask how their name was pronounced. Many shared personal stories about the identity and history they attach to their names. One of my colleagues is uncompromising about her given name and said she never lets people call her anything but ‘Shawness’- no nicknames, no nothing, no thank you. The central question of it all: ‘What right does someone have to call another person anything other than their name?

I have done too little to honor my name. On the weekends, I adopt different personas and names when I order coffee. I felt so tired spelling my name over and over again for baristas. I got tired of the ridiculousness of saying ‘Yoon, spelled like Moon but-with-a-Y.’ I thought it would make things easier for me, when really, I made it easier for them.

But the road to hell is paved with the least resistance.

We owe it to ourselves, to one another, to resist the urge to make things more convenient. Because convenience is only ok if we’re making it convenient for everyone. For whom is it convenient if only certain groups are doing the accommodating, assimilating, and adapting? Which race, sex, or group systemically feels the pressure to find acceptance in order to succeed in society? If we want to better understand where the racism, sexism, or other ‘isms’ lie, let’s look at who’s doing the name-calling and who’s getting the name-changing.

When the now outgoing President deliberately mispronounces incoming Vice-President Kamala Harris’ name, or refers to President Barack Hussein Obama, it’s because he understands that names are critical markers of identity—and he mis-appropriates them to mock and re-signify, rather than to uplift.

Conversely, the ‘Say her Name’ movement makes Breonna Taylor and other women of color killed by police visible by saying their names. How you use a name can either knock down, uplift, or inspire. 

I want to use my name to inspire. We need more unfamiliar names and faces in the public sphere. The ones that are ‘hard’ to pronounce are those that spark our collective imagination about what leaders should look like. In a 2017 study that analyzed the leadership of nonprofits, only 3% was Asian American. Similarly, in Fortune 500 companies, only 2% are Asian CEOs. 

And so, I will no longer do the easy thing. I will do the right thing, and ask others to do the right thing. I will say my name, they will say my name— and they will see me. In doing so, I will shine like the big star my parents named me to be.

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