For all the Ultra serious theory, it must have a correspondent comic component that allows for its easy access, so it then may have substance; which is to say, show its substance.
Here we have it:
Part Two: Systems of Power and Privilege
“Identity is the essential core of who we are as individuals, the conscious experience of the self, inside.”
- (Heyck, p. 401)
I sit down to write this paper as yet another black life has just been taken by police brutality. I cannot help but think about the profound anger that I feel each time I hear about a crime against humanity like this one. I believe it is Genocide. Hegemony. Colonialism. I wonder, in my small but consistent efforts, am I making a difference? I think: yes. But, I cannot let the dominant culture silence my efforts, as I have experienced, because black lives matter and what I do to serve as a bridge and ally to people of color, matters. No matter how small. This is not singularly about me; instead, this is about a collective call to action in which I can positivity contribute towards effecting change. I take responsibility every day, as an individual, for making a difference in even the smallest of ways. Over time, consistent small efforts I believe can enact real and sustainable transformations.
I reflect: what if Alton Sterling’s name was known to the two white officers who held him down and assisted in taking his life, before they shot him? What if they saw him as a human, a father, innocent until proven guilty and not as a threat, a criminal, assumed guilty? Alton Sterling is pictured on a CNN news headline with gold teeth. What if the dominant white culture also wore gold teeth or a grill? Would that have made Alton Sterling seem less “different” (read: threatening) and more like the two white officers, so as to subconsciously enact a deep seeded connection among all of the men thus possibly preventing the irrational reaction from the officers towards Alton Sterling?
Two of the Baton Rouge officers involved in killing Alton Sterling were named Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II. These are two white men who held down a black man, as I myself witnessed in the video, while a third officer (off camera) shot him. What if Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II had used their own names to introduce themselves before they strong armed Alton Sterling? What if they had learned Alton Sterling’s name? A connection could have been made; a possible momentary yet profound diffusion of what was no doubt a highly charged interaction which may have prevented the victim’s death. Just one moment was needed, one human moment to connect and to know the others’ names. I propose that something as small and seemingly insignificant as correctly knowing and saying each other’s names is the start of dismantling racism, marginalization and oppressive practices and thus, transforming society in the United States. If the devil is in the details, why can’t the angels be there, too?
In this paper, I will briefly explore the seemingly insignificant and sometimes invisible details and small acts that influence our perceptions of one another. Specifically, our names as they relate to the power of language and our identity. Language can corrosively influence and bias us; conversely, it can help transform us towards equality and freedom for all. Respect begins with knowing and correctly saying each other’s names and honoring each other’s language of choice.
To continue with the concept of language as power, and being integral to enacting change, I argue that the U.S. is in need of more people of color to transform what is mainstream journalism and media broadcasting. We need to have much more black and Latin@ voices, for example, normalized into all aspects of the media: journalism, production, direction, field reporting, news anchoring, etcetera. I believe that media has become so powerful, that the normalization of people of color into the mainstream (but not altering their voices to comfort the current mainstream) will help to transform language and names. This is necessary for the marginalized groups but also for the dominant group for our media to be representative of language and names which inclusively represent who we are as a country. We all lose out if voices are underrepresented or not heard at all in the ongoing narrative of our society.
In saying our names, we initiate personal voice. In saying another’s name, correctly, we honor the voice and thus the inherent identity of the person we are interacting with. It is a foundational building block for respect. Student voice and the dialogic are based upon this starting point. As a female who grew up as a member of the white middle class, in a predominantly white town and attended white public schools from Kindergarten through twelfth grade, everyone said my name correctly growing up. I did not have to alter my name or question if my name/identity fit in with the others in my school or community.
Once I left the suburban and affluent community I grew up in, I began volunteering in schools that served children of color, specifically Latin@. Many of the teachers and administrators were white. I noticed a phenomenon: the children’s names were being anglicized to suit the adults. Some students, as young as first grade, had changed their names to the “white” version of it. For example, when I met Miguel (his name on my class roster) he introduced himself as Michael. He was six years old. This was in Prunedale, California- a farming community in North Monterey County that is racially divided (whites/Latin@s). The public school system there in the 1990s had de facto apartheid schools, due to the racist construct of how the white people in charge systemically implemented “bilingual” classrooms and programs totally separated from the “English” classrooms (meanwhile in my class we spoke English, too, hence the term “bilingual”). By the end of our time together, Michael had reclaimed his name and went by Miguel again. That was my introduction to the racism and oppression of anglicizing names. I have hundreds of students I could tell the same story about. Insidiously, it begins with something as basic and intimate as one’s name, as early as when they learn how to first write it in school. I have been thinking about the value of names ever since.
This aspect of anglicizing Latino names in school is for the comfort of the dominant white culture. The Chicano political activist and author, Lalo Alcaraz, is well known for his political comics. One comic strip in particular, published in the Bramlett (2012) book Linguistics and the Study of Comics, uses anti-immigration sentiment as a metaphor for the Anglicization of Latino names. His comic strip mirrored a story in the news in 2009. According to Bramlett (2012) the story goes as follows: “Larry Whitten, a 63-year old manager from Texas, was brought in to help a struggling hotel in Taos, New Mexico. In giving his new rules, he forbade his employees to speak Spanish in his presence and he also ‘ordered some to Anglicize their names’. He said that changing the pronunciation of the employee’s first name (formerly pronounced with a Spanish accent) was not racist: I’m not doing it for any other reason than for the satisfaction of my guests, because people calling from all over America don’t know the Spanish accents or the Spanish Culture or Spanish anything.” (p. 87) This is an illustration of when loss of identity (the stripping of one’s name) is done in favor of insuring the comfort of others.
I am yet to find detailed, published research which supports my theory of our names being symbolic of our identity and thus, the stripping or altering of one’s name being synonymous with disrespect and colonization in the institution of school specifically. The topic is of much importance to me. Hopefully, I will be able to prepare my thinking as I work towards a dissertation which I am cautiously optimistic could include doing research on names and identity stripping in public schools.
I have years of observational, perception and qualitative data, however, that I propose supports my theory regarding our educational institution’s anglicizing of black and latin@ student names for white teachers and employees comfort. I believe this is another way that dominant culture exercises and maintains power, ever so subtly, over communities of color. Through these micro aggressions, our students and staff of color’s identities are slowly being stripped from them. This not only impacts communities of color, but strips all communities of the richness of our identities and dehumanizes in the process. We all lose.
One very recent experience comes to mind. I was part of a district wide interview committee with two other white female assistant principals, a white male district director of maintenance, a white female administrative assistant to the director, a white male supervisor of maintenance, and a Latino male manager of building engineers and maintenance. We were hiring three new head building engineers (one for my school and two for the other two schools represented by their building APs). All of the ten candidates were people of color; eight spoke predominantly Spanish and asked to have the interview conducted in Spanish. Myself and one other person on the interview committee were bilingual, so we were charged as the translators in addition to taking the required notes for human resources to screen the candidates. I have been serving informally as an educational translator for over twenty years; it is not easy, but I have grown in my ability to be mindful of the group dynamic and to include everyone in spite of a “language barrier” via eye contact, body language, etcetera.
So, our first candidate enters the room. He is a young Latino male. His language of choice is Spanish. Everyone from the district introduces themselves to him. They use his name, which they have read on his application. Assumedly, the administrative assistant has spoken to him on the phone or left him a message using his name. They say his name as Joel (phonetically pronounced: “Jole”). The introductions get to me, and I ask him if he says his name “Jole” or “Ho-el” (as it is phonetically pronounced in Spanish). He says, smiling, “Ho-el”. I translate for the group that he prefers his name to be pronounced “Ho-el”. Curiously enough, no one but me uses this correct pronunciation throughout the nearly hour long interview with Joel. They do say his name, in their anglicized version, on many occasion. I continued to model and even once reminded the group he prefers “Ho-el”. No one called him by his correct name but me the entire duration of the meeting. They all wanted to make sure I told him how much we in Adams 14 value diversity, do not tolerate discrimination based on race or ethnicity, though. It was sadly and disgustingly ironic. All I could do at that moment was make sure Joel knew there was one person who respected his name and identity.
Noteworthy is the proposal by Gloria Anzaldúa that a third ‘identity’ is created through the phenomenon of anglicizing. It is neither a Latin@ nor is it a white identity, but an identity of a cultural blend. Anzaldúa (1987) wrote that being Mexican American “is a state of soul—not of mind, not of citizenship” and that a Latino need not live on the physical border of Mexico and the United States to live on a metaphorical border (p. 84). “Generally speaking, later-generation Latinos face this bicultural reality: their Anglo friends see them foremost as Latinos, never mind how acculturated; they affix their cultural blinders and impose on Latinos their Latinoness—their names, appearance, mannerisms, and choices are perceived to be exotic. At the same time, Latinos’ immigrant friends see them in the opposite way; they affix their cultural blinders and impose on them their Angloness—their names, appearance, mannerisms, and choices are perceived to be Anglicized. Latinos are what Keefe and Padilla (1987) labeled a “Cultural Blend” in that “Both perceptions, as subtle forms of rejection, construe a type of marginality “(Bennett, 1993).
I propose that the institution of public education is so deeply entrenched in white supremacy that it is permitting and perpetuating what Anzaldúa coined as “linguistic terrorism” in her book La Frontera/Borderlands: The New Mestiza. Linguistic terrorism is the stripping of one’s native tongue in the devaluation of their natural language. “Chicanos and other people of color suffer economically for not acculturating. This voluntary (yet forced) alienation makes for psychological conflict, a kind of dual identity–we don’t identify with the Anglo-American cultural values and we don’t totally identify with the Mexican cultural values. We are a synergy of two cultures with various degrees of Mexicanness or Angloness. I have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel like one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one. A veces no soy nada ni nadie. Pero hasta cuando no lo soy, lo soy.” (Anzaldúa, 1987). I believe linguistic terrorism includes the stripping of one’s name, as well.
So what is the answer? My proposal is that we can begin with something as simple as learning and saying each other’s names correctly. In honoring the identity of how someone introduces themselves, we extend an offer of deep respect. In respecting others, we respect ourselves. All of us win.
Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands/La frontera: The new mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.
Bramlett, F. (2012). Linguistics and the study of comics. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Heyck, D. (1994). Barrios and borderlands: cultures of Latinos and Latinas in the United States. New York, NY: Routledge.
Lasorsa, D., Rodriguez, A. (2013). Identity and communication: new agendas in communication. New York, NY: Routledge.