My Norwegian name tends to stump people. The only ones that have ever recognized it from the gate are, to no one’s surprise, fellow Scandinavians and other Western Europeans. The responses I’ve heard to assumptions about who I am behind it range from it sounding Asian to definitively “male.” Sometimes people think it’s made up. To Americans, it’s ambiguous.
But what if my name was Rei Don? Ray’Donna? La Reida? Do those variations wave a familiar flag, something one can ethnically identify? If you could put a face to those names, would it include my fair skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes?
When doing research for this piece, I wanted to understand why we are so blind to what an “ethnic-sounding” name really is and why we only associate it with anyone who isn’t a WASP. I had to remind myself that “ethnic” does not actually mean “not-white” even though that is the way we read and use the word in a white-dominant world.
In the end, the answer is beyond obvious, but something I’ve never had to experience: assimilation.
The differences in making the decision of how and when an ethnic name is given to a child is an example of inherited privilege when that family is WASP. Assimilation, whether forced or “voluntary” influences every other immigrated group. Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic published this piece last year about the complications and consequences on whether an immigrant family chooses to Americanize their names or not. What we would think of as Americanizing names simply whitens them; by now, no one should have to explain that a true American name would belong to Native Americans, and those names categorically do not belong to white people.
This is much less about a random unknown white woman assuming the role of Captain Obvious, though, and more about how long it took me to understand that even with my own complicated name that my issues with it stemmed from my own sense of white superiority and some things I do now to subvert the harmful presumptions about what an “ethnic-sounding” name is.
There’s a type of racism that occurs only when all present company is white. I’ve never quite been able to name it, though I’m sure it has one. It’s implied and presumed that everyone is “in” but never outright announced.
Most often, I experienced it at job interviews in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The interviewer — almost always white, male, and at least fifteen years my senior — would squint at my resume.
“Thanks for coming, ah… Ree… Rye — ”
“Ray-din. Like reindeer.” Most often, I wouldn’t fault people for this one. My name is highly unusual in the United States and it doesn’t mean they didn’t Google me, but it does mean they definitely haven’t checked references.
If their eyes lit up and they grinned, I’d play along with a smile and say “Yes, like the Mortal Kombat character; no, I wasn’t named after him.” While that reaction is not nearly as original as men seem to think it is (every single one believes they are the first to tell me about it) it did inform me that they are at least minimally open-minded.
However, if they continued to fumble over both syllables and stammer, I already knew what was coming next: the conversation about how they didn’t expect me to be an English-speaking American and wanted to tell me that but knew they couldn’t say it outright.
At this point, I take it over and rush out in what feels like a single breath: my name is Norwegian; it’s very old; yes both first and last names; yes I know what it means and no I don’t feel like explaining it; my grandmother chose it for me; no you may not shorten it.
It frustrated me for years. I was a white person interviewing with white people in the whitest states in the upper Midwest! Almost all of us had some Scandinavian heritage! I knew I was not the first person with the -rud suffix they’d met; I could name at least three other families off the top of my head. Why didn’t they recognize the origins of my name? Of course I spoke English fluently; did they not read the cover letter and resume?
It took me a long time to identify and confront the racism that fueled my indignation. I wasn’t upset they didn’t recognize my name; I was bothered they didn’t presume I was white.
The reaction people have to my name is wildly different from the stories I’ve read involving people of color with an ethnic name. My name is often called “traditional” and my parents are commended for choosing it. People are genuinely curious about it and offer unsolicited compliments, never once considering that I did not name myself.
It’s never called “exotic,” even though it is by definition. People not only work harder to pronounce and spell it correctly but they make sure to show me their efforts. I’ve seen the opposite happen and often much worse when friends of color introduce their own traditional names that are new to an American ear.
White parents don’t have to worry about the resumes and apartment applications of their Svens and Bjorns ending up in the trashcan. There are no risks to signaling their whiteness from the outset. My parents chose my name simply because they could and it’s what they liked. They weren’t trying to make a statement, tell a story, or maintain a link to a dying or stolen culture. Of my entire paternal family, I am the only one with a traditionally Norwegian name. They did it because they could. That’s it.
During my last years in Minnesota, I managed a comedy club. A local comic named Kjell Bjorgen sometimes graced our stage. When he showed up to emcee or do a feature, we would commiserate backstage over the burden of our names.
His bit about his name perfectly illustrates the type of privilege I’m talking about here.
All parents should be able to name their children however they wish, but the fact of the matter is that only people like me are afforded that freedom. White people get to have all the Meaghynns and Peighsleas without consequence.
I love my name. I dislike the awkward conversation that comes with it. However, it’s a minor inconvenience considering that reactions to my name are universally positive, even if their curiosity is rooted in systemic racism and xenophobia that by design cannot harm me. I know that many of my friends who are not white and also bear uncommon names cannot say the same.
I am just one person. I can only speak from my experience. I can’t assume any authority on the question that I do expect white people with Americanized white names to have: well, what do we do when we meet someone with an ethnic name?
What I can say is that from my personal experience, I prefer people to ignore it. Let me choose to reveal its story to you or to have the energy and time for that conversation. Make sure you can pronounce and spell it and we’ll work on the rest later. My name is profoundly important to me and my identity; but you only see it as a novelty.
When I meet others with culturally-traditional names, I simply ask them how to pronounce it correctly and make sure I do so. I try to avoid complimenting it at the outset; just because I like someone’s name does not mean they are attached to it. I have several friends (both with common and ethnic names alike) that despise their given name and have reasons for not changing it.
If I am moved to offer an unsolicited compliment, I avoid adjectives like “exotic” or “creative” and choose words about its power or impression. I’ll use “striking” or simply “great.” But most often, since I’m in the same club of having to constantly explain my name but have the box suite, I just commiserate and go on with the business at hand.
I’ll close with this quote from Uzo Aduba, when asked if she ever considered changing her name for Hollywood. Her response deserves the bite in full:
“When I started as an actor? No, and I’ll tell you why. I had already gone through that. My family is from Nigeria, and my full name is Uzoamaka, which means ‘The road is good.’ Quick lesson: My tribe is Igbo, and you name your kid something that tells your history and hopefully predicts your future. So anyway, in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Nobody can pronounce it.’ Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.’”