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From the Executive Director: The Power of Names

By October 22, 2020 November 13th, 2020 No Comments

David Inoue

It’s a story nearly all of us who have non-European names share. My experience was in seventh grade, when one of my new teachers, while going down the roster list of students in the class, had trouble saying “Inoue.” Giving up, and subbing in her own pronunciation, I became “Ooey-Ooey” for the next two years of middle school. All I could do was laugh it off along with everyone else who thought it was funny.

When my wife and I were determining names for our children, I wondered if we were making a mistake in giving them Japanese given names.

I obviously did not want them to have the same experience I had.

Yet, there is a power in naming, and we wanted our children to be proud of their Asian heritage. Their Japanese given names also have meaning to their shared Chinese heritage.

At their Chinese language immersion school, their Chinese names were not made up like so many of their classmates, but are based upon the Chinese characters of their given Japanese names.

In the past week, I have seen many other stories of people’s names flood the Internet in the wake of Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) badly and likely intentionally mispronouncing colleague Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-Calif.) name.

Some share similar stories of mispronunciation, others loudly proclaiming the meaning and importance of their names. It is evident that my children will not be immune to potential mockery of their names, even decades after my own experience.

When considering the power of names, I recall my Sunday school classes where we learned that the early Jews did not give God a specific name, as God referred to Himself as “I am who I am,” and various “words” were used to refer to God without assigning a name.

On the other hand, it was common practice for slaves to be stripped of their birth given names and either remain nameless property or assigned new names by their owners. Different but clear examples of the power of naming, or not naming.

In just a few years, we have seen a revolution in the understanding of how we use pronouns to refer to one another. As we recognize the diversity of gender identity, we must also adapt the pronouns we use to refer to one another.

In all honesty, this is a change that should be welcomed by all.

I appreciate the elimination of the uncertainty of whether the “Chris” that I am communicating over email with might be he, she or they.

And broadly, JACL has recognized the power of naming with the Power of Words educational campaign. We recognize the importance of how we call things, that Japanese Americans were not “nonaliens” but “American citizens.”

Even our recommended use of the term “American concentration camps” was not without concern because we also understand the power of the term concentration camp, which is inextricably linked to the Nazi death camps of the same era.

Some deride this recognition of the value of language as political correctness gone wild. They ask, “Why can’t we just do things the way we always have.” Past false pretenses of politeness have been the demand that minorities, LGBTQ+ people, women and people with non-European names simply accept that they did not conform to the majority norms, and to conform.

Sen. Perdue wanted to show his disdain and disrespect for Sen. Harris. But he clearly awoke something else that is much bigger and more powerful. It was an opportunity for so many to proclaim that we take pride in who we are, what pronouns we choose to use, how we describe our experiences and what we name ourselves and our children.

Anyone who refuses to recognize these fundamental characteristics of us as individuals, fails to recognize us as people, and we will not allow that to happen anymore.

David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.