Learn Our Names

We’re in our second month of 1L. By now, the Law Library has become our new home, caffeine and free pizza fuel our bodies, and we’ve all gone through the five stages of grief. And by now, almost everyone has been personally victimized by the supposedly random Cold Call. 

So why is it that some of my classmates still carry a sense of alienation in the classroom?

The first week of school, one of my professors painstakingly struggled through a name pronunciation before giving up and joking, “I guess that’s the first and last time I call on you.” People laughed. To most of our classmates, I’m sure this incident wasn’t a big deal. They chuckled along with the professor, then probably forgot about it by the next cold call, not a second thought given to this well-intended yet problematic attempt at comic relief. 

But as I glanced around the room, I met the eyes of other students of color. I could tell that there was a mutual understanding—this clear microaggression had triggered a feeling we all knew with aching familiarity. A feeling of hotness—a prickling sense of embarrassment and shame mixed with exasperation and invalidation. Of course, we knew that the professor had no malicious intent or meant any harm. But to us, the professor’s comment hadn’t just been a joke. It was a reminder of the underlying alienation and otherness we were conditioned to feel our whole lives. 

The ironic thing is, the professor was actually close to pronouncing the student’s name correctly. If you take the time to sound it out, the name is pronounced exactly how it’s spelled. The problem isn’t the name—the problem is the attitude of fear and dismissal that students and faculty alike have towards “ethnic” names, and the distasteful joke that often follows in order to make light of the situation—as what happened that day in the classroom.  

Growing up, I was one of the only Asian students at my school. But I didn’t feel “Asian.” I just felt normal. I spent so much time pretending I wasn’t Asian that I would actually forget I was—and I hated being reminded. I dreaded days in elementary school when we had a substitute teacher, because that meant attendance would be called from the official roster. When the teacher paused from reading out a stream of names and her brow wrinkled, that was always my cue to shoot up my hand and blurt, “I’m here! But I go by Rosa!” I didn’t want to sit through the agony of the teacher “trying” to pronounce my name as 30 kids turned to stare at me like I was something… exotic

“What’s your real name?” my peers would ask after class.

“Rosa,” I’d reply, fully knowing what was coming next. 

“No, but what’s your Asian name? Like your Chinese name?”

“My Korean name… is Kyung Min.” 

I would then watch their eyes widen as they tried to repeat the name back to me, somehow making it sound more foreign and laborious than the simple two syllables I had just said. Apparently deciding that getting half of the first syllable was probably good enough, they would then give up, sheepishly claiming that it was “too hard” to pronounce. 

In 6th grade, my parents finally agreed to let me legally change my name to Rosa. Maybe they were thinking in a more futuristic sense than I was at the time—after all, name discrimination on resumes is still well and alive (https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/minorities-who-whiten-job-resumes-get-more-interviews). Maybe my dad understood where I was coming from and sympathized; he went by BJ to his colleagues—short for ‘Byong Jun.’ In any case, I was ecstatic when my dad got back from the DMV. Gone were the days ‘Kyungmin’ would appear on school rosters, medical forms, and official documents. From now on, my legal name was Rosa. I felt like a new person, as if this burden of shame and self-consciousness I had carried all my life had finally been lifted… until my dad nonchalantly told me that Kyungmin was now my middle name. I was mortified. I didn’t want Kyungmin to be any part of my name, period. But before I could even voice my protests, he shut them down. “Kyungmin is a part of you,” he said with finality. “It is still a part of your identity. It is your name.”

As a child, the first thing we ever learn about ourselves is our names. It’s how we first introduce ourselves; it’s often the first thing a person knows about us; it’s the first thing employers see on a resume. Names hold significance. From birth, our names give us our first sense of identity. Shying away from a name not only invalidates the name, but that invalidation also transfers into a person’s identity—their culture, their background, their personhood. This dismissal or avoidance of a name inadvertently sends the message that there is an automatic otherness about that person, and you don’t want to take the time to get over your fear to learn that scary-looking name. It makes the person feel atypical, foreign, alienated, and embarrassed. From there stems a feeling of shame—shame of that culture, background, and identity. 

It wasn’t until college that I was able to fully explore what being Asian American meant to me and embrace that part of my identity. Looking back now, I’m so grateful and relieved that my dad kept Kyungmin in my legal name. Now, the only shame I feel is at the possibility that he could have taken it out of my name altogether, at my own urging. Recently, a friend of mine—a finance major—asked what I thought about his changing his name to Sebastian, since he’s “entering the corporate world” and “Sebastian looks more appealing than Seokhyun to hiring committees.” I imagine the twinge of sadness and indignance that I felt was how my dad must have felt when I begged him to change my given name at 11 years old. I told my friend, “Seokhyun is your name. They should learn it.”

It is inarguable that Law is a predominantly white institution. During this past month, I’ve spoken with other students of color who have also voiced their experiences with microaggressions in and out of the classroom. Many do not feel comfortable or included in the conversation. Friends have told me that they want to get cold-called on (a desire I personally can’t relate to), but professors rarely do—many think that professors are afraid of butchering names, and therefore avoid calling on them altogether. Others have noticed that when students have “ethnic” names, professors refer to those students as “my friend over here” or another associative nickname, but never address them by their actual names. These students have gone too long carrying this burden in American education; they feel shut out of the conversation, rendered invisible by both instructors and fellow peers in the classroom. These students pay the same amount of tuition to sit in the classroom, learn the material, and participate in the discussion. They deserve the same amount of visibility, the same feeling of inclusion, and the same opportunity to speak and be heard. 

Last month, I had the opportunity to listen to a panel of attorneys of color speak about diversity and inclusion in the field of law. One attorney at a BigLaw firm said, “We need to make sure that we get a seat at the big table so that when decisions are made, our voices are heard.” At the time, this greatly resonated with me. I realize now, however, that there’s one thing wrong with this statement. It is not enough to be offered a seat at the table. A seating invitation should be the baseline. We don’t want to just sit in on the conversation—we want to be a part of it. That starts in the classroom. It’s time for students and faculty to facilitate these spaces, and that begins with something as simple as normalizing our names. We certainly shouldn’t have to change our names so that they look more appealing or sound more comfortable on your tongue.

My philosophy is this:

If you can learn to say a full string of legal jargon in Latin, you can surely learn to say our names.

Rosa Kim is a 1L and new Impact blogger. She can be reached at kimeot@bc.edu.

2 thoughts on “Learn Our Names

  1. Pingback: A Look Back at an “Impactful” 2019 | BC Law: Impact

  2. Pingback: What Was Your Name Again? | BC Law: Impact

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