Betty Brown's Bad Lesson for Marketers

Legislator Asks Asian Americans to Change Their Names

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Bill Imada Bill Imada
There are days when I think I've heard everything.

Then there are days like last Tuesday, when an elected official says something that just floors me.

U.S. Rep. Betty Brown of Texas thought she was being helpful by suggesting that Asian Americans like me change their names so that it will be easier to identify us when we exercise our right to vote. Congresswoman Brown said during a House of Representatives hearing that voters of Asian heritage should adopt names that are "easier for Americans to deal with."

All of this happened when Ramsey Ko of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a national civil-rights and advocacy organization, testified before the House Elections Committee saying that people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent (among others) often have difficulty voting because their legal forms of identification often carry their transliterated name as well as a commonly used English name. These adopted English names are often found on an Asian person's driver's license, school registration card or another form of identification, while formal voter rolls may use their true Asian name.

Congresswoman Brown went on to say that it would be too difficult to learn a foreign language such as Chinese so it would "behoove [Ko] and [Asian-American] citizens to adopt a name that [poll workers] could deal with more readily here."

And to make matters even worse, the congresswoman admonished Mr. Ko by saying, "Can't you see that this is something that 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 that's easier for Americans to deal with?"

Now imagine for a moment if this congresswoman asked Latinos in America to change their names for the convenience of other Americans. Or if we told President Barack Obama that his name was too difficult to pronounce so he should consider changing it to Barry O'Brien. Even worse, just imagine telling Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and Hu Jintao of China at the recent G20 Summit that their names just didn't work well for average Americans; hence, they should change them to Dennis Meadows and Howard Jingle. We'd have a diplomatic row.

Our names are part of our identity as people and connect us to our culture, our roots and our heritage. Asking Asian Americans to change their names for the sake of convenience is like asking us to change the color of our skin, where we were born, or the parents who brought us into the world. It's simply absurd -- not to mention insensitive to a whole community of people.

Unfortunately, in the world of advertising, immigrants and individuals with foreign names have to deal with this type of bias everyday. You see ads that cast Asians and Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners who are never quite American enough to play leading roles. These roles and images often place Asian Americans as kung fu masters, exotic sex kittens or shady villains. And often these roles poke fun at foreign accents or use supposedly funny names that are stereotypically ethnic.

Surely there are examples of how other Americans and immigrants have anglicized their names to make it easier for them to adjust to living in America, but that was commonplace decades ago. Today our world is more accepting of diversity, and we should embrace and accept that we do have differences. And the distinctiveness of our names is one of them.

Asking someone to change his name and identity isn't what Mr. Ko expected or even wanted. Instead, he wanted our government to recognize and understand that our process for allowing people to exercise their right to vote in this country may need to be reviewed and even changed so that more people will have that opportunity.

Congresswoman Brown, who has since apologized, is wrong to suggest that Asian Americans should change their names to simplify the process of voting and voter identification. Instead, our government should work on making it easier for American citizens of all ethnicities to vote.

Our government should lead by example, portraying our diverse communities with dignity and respect. It doesn't surprise me a bit when the advertising industry fails to provide the roles and opportunities for Asians and Asian Americans that are accorded to other actors and performers. If our government officials aren't leading the way, who will?

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