America Fears Your Non-Anglicized Name
In the last few days, a much needed swell of attention has been paid to Israel’s ethnic profiling at airports — several young Arab American women were denied entry and abused because their names were Arab. But Israel isn’t the only self-proclaimed democracy in the world that ethnically profiles visitors to its holy land — the leader, some would argue, remains the good ol’ United States.
Yes, many of us whose names are not Anglo-Saxon have for some time now begrudgingly stomached the overt bigotry involved in American air travel. The “random” checks are now, for many of us, an amusing opportunity to create a scene at the airport. (“This agent is obsessed with groping my boobs — I want to speak to the manager, NOW!”) And the insulting questions at customs have become an intellectual challenge in hassle-free repartee.
But the fact remains that the land built on the backs of immigrants and slaves has changed very little since its glory days of fighting the tyranny of British royalty: the American establishment’s primary bigotry was and is based on the superficialities of physical appearance and names.
Yes, it is your name, more than anything these days, that terrifies the American government and its various security branches. Though this is far from new in America. A hundred years ago when the huddled masses passed through the gates at Ellis Island, they were very quick to realize the biggest problem they had in the eyes of the American government. It wasn’t the lice, or the fact that they had very little cash in their pockets. For many of them, it was their names. Marscherellis became Marshalls. Lewenbergs became Lewises. And Schweinheims became Shawns. Though some people like to deny it, the Ellis Island name change is not a myth.
Anglo-Saxon names are superior. No matter if the immigrants were Christian, with white skin tones — maybe even light-colored hair and blue eyes. The name was the problem if it wasn’t a common one in the British Isles — the land that allegedly oppressed the early Americans. The land whose royalty they despised, we’ve been told. Recent bald-faced coverage of the Queen’s Royal Jubilee across mainstream American media, would, of course, belie that ancient history, just weeks ahead of America’s celebration of Independence from the British. Interestingly, even the British royals anglicized their name: Windsor sounds so much more English than Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and draws less attention to the fact that the royalty of England is in fact German.
What is in a name?, poets have queried for time immemorial. According to the U.S. government, there’s an outsiderness, a foreignness, an un-Americanness that is a threat to the Anglo-Saxon foundations of a nation that for centuries has held its motley population together under the pretense that they are all American.
But not all Americans are equal. Not all Americans are American.
Community after community has learned that the hard way. The slaves learned it with a whip — one of the first steps in depleting their personhood was taking possession of their names. Toby Waller was once Kunta Kinte before he was purchased by a slaveholder, assigned a first name and branded with his owner’s last name. You are owned because you landed on these shores, this said.
Flash forward to the Ellis Island days — officials at the gates had license to change names at their discretion. But when they did to decide to change someone’s name, their discretion involved shortening and outright assigning names and last names to sound or simply be of British origin.
Those immigrants whose names weren’t changed felt the pressure to make the change themselves not long after. Jewish American historians in particular have noted the strong impression that many Jewish Americans had from early on that their names had to be anglicized in order to make a life in America. Just look at the history of Hollywood’s early days.
And today, with America’s new immigrants — the Middle Easterners and South Asians — many of whom left their homelands because of U.S. wars and proxy wars there — have also picked up on Step One of simplifying life in America. That explains the Michaels and Bobs in Tehrangeles (formerly Mohammads and Babaks) and the growing number of Indian Americans running for political office who’ve not only completely anglicized their names, but in some cases have anglicized their religions — they’ve converted to Protestantism for a chance at power. They know the deal. And it works.
The kingmakers in American politics like minorities who discard their identities for the sake of power and profit. They take notice of them. Just look at how far Bobby Jindal made it before he outright soiled himself in the early days of the Obama administration with statements and speeches that put mediocrity and idiocy to shame. He had been positioned as the Republican dark man to contrast the Democratic one who’d just won. Republicans were baffled at how Barack Hussein Obama had beaten the formula, even as Bobby (birth name: Piyush) had followed the name rule and failed. (But frankly, most Americans are baffled still.)
Some terrorists even figured out the name problem: remember the shoe bomber? Richard Reid was useful because despite looking decidedly un-Anglo-Saxon, his name safely passed through security checks going as far as allowing him to get on a plane with a bomb on his person. Don’t for a minute think that Abdullah Ibn Arabi would have been so quick to board that plane. And don’t forget David Headley, the Pakistani American implicated in the Mumbai bombings whose “ordinary” name actually delayed U.S. intelligence officers from making theterrorism connection sooner. He was born Daood Sayed Gilani.
An encyclopedia can be written on the name-ism in America. It was interesting to learn of the young Arab American women who had to travel all the way to Israel to learn what most Arab Americans have learned right here at home: a foreign name is a liability. But the thing is, it’s also a middle finger to the establishment, a defiance of long-held efforts to assimilate every element of immigrants’ lives. If you really care about fixing America, or simply don’t want to totally lose yourself just to become American, take an easy step toward change: Don’t anglicize your name.
This article originally appearedon the Huffington Post on June 5, 2012.
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