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Commentary: Those Asian names - Why is Ko any less American than Kowalski?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 10, 2009 - During testimony in the Texas House of Representatives about voter identification, a legislator suggested that Asian-Americans should adopt names that are "easier for Americans to deal with." Rep. Betty Brown suggested that "Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese -- I understand it's a rather difficult language -- do you think it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt names that we could deal with more readily here?"

She went on to say that it would "make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes."

Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans, had previously attempted to explain that following that suggestion often causes problems at the polls for Asian voters. They often have an official name and then adopt an Americanized name, which appears as a conflict when presenting documentation to vote.

Basically, many Asian-Americans have attempted to assimilate and take on American names, already doing what Rep. Brown appears to be suggesting. So, what's the big deal?

The common acts referred to by Ko and Brown speak to larger dynamics in American culture. As Americans, we have a history of trying to assimilate people. Or to be clear, we have a history of deculturalizing people, and the costs to both parties are often high.

Assimilation is an attempt to blend into dominant culture. Acculturation is the broader process of adjusting to a new culture. A person outside of mainstream culture might be pressured to acculturate by the mere dynamics of a society, and assimilation is simply one possible outcome.

When assimilation is forced onto people and they are no longer allowed to maintain their culture or are systematically punished for practicing their culture, that process is deculturalization.

Our country has a sordid history when it comes to Asian-Americans. In 1790, we excluded Asians from naturalized citizenship. In 1853, Chinese were banned from testifying in courts, and in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Law banned all Chinese workers from the U.S. These laws were rescinded in 1943 and 1952, but that was only after Japanese (including native-born citizens) were held in internment camps from 1941-1945. It was not until 1965 that discrimination against Asian immigrants ended with the Immigration Act.

We have not sent a clear message about recognizing, let alone valuing, our Asian-American brothers and sisters. Historically, Asians have not had the luxury to be bicultural, another possible outcome of acculturation. A person who is bicultural is competent in their original and host cultures. Asian-Americans have been pushed to attempt to assimilate to avoid discrimination. And even that act did not save some from internment.

No wonder some Asians feel compelled to appease mainstream America and adopt "easier" names. With such a history of exclusion, it would make sense that some might try to make themselves seem less "Asian" and more "American." Requiring Asian-American voters to accommodate poll workers is minor compared to past burdens placed on them.

What struck me most when reading Rep. Brown's statements was the reference to Chinese Americans as citizens of the Organization of Chinese Americans rather than the United States. Rep. Brown speaks to Ko and refers to "your citizens." Yet aren't his citizens American citizens? The verbal distinction, which was most likely unintentional, seems blatantly indicative of all the years we have been pressuring Asians to assimilate yet still not allowing full acceptance into the club.

In many ways the history of Asian-Americans has been one of extremes. There were times when they were outlawed and times when they were held up as model minorities. Both positions perpetuate the stereotype of Asian Americans as accommodating mainstream America and leave little opportunity for biculturalism. The full spectrum of Asian-Americans has yet to be acknowledged. Even in our use of the umbrella term "Asian-American" so much is missed and glossed over.

Perhaps that is why I was heartened to see the appointment of Actor Kal Penn as part of the Obama administration to reach out to Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders and the arts. This is a high-level position dedicated to Asian groups that was not created in response to an incident. It's a start.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

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