Suppressed in Solidarity
– By Sumithri Venketasubramanian| October 21, 2016
Photo Credit: Flickr Commons, lincolnblues.
Sumithri Rekha Venketasubramanian. Soo-mi-three (roll the r, short vowel sounds for the first two syllables) Ray-khaa (aspirate the k a slight bit) Veng-cut-uh-soob-ruh-mun-yun (pretty straightforward). Or Sumi (Soo-mi) for short. Not Sue-mee, keep the vowel sounds short and when articulating the “oo sound”, don’t you dare throw in that thing Australians do when it sounds like there’s the letter r in a word when there really isn’t. That’s my name, and all my life I’ve been teaching people how to say it right.
I grew up in Singapore, where the majority of people are Chinese, so this is the dominant race. I learnt to pronounce Chinese names from a young age, despite not knowing any of the language itself. I did notice though, that many of my friends with beautiful Chinese names adopted Western – specifically Anglo – names upon moving to places like the UK or Australia for their studies. Ong Xin became Blake and Min Chih became Megan. Whilst their friends back home were addressing them by entirely different names, their new friends knew only of their Anglo-monikers.
It’s no secret that we live in a world where certain narratives, languages and people dominate over others. It’s not surprising that people whose names may be “hard to pronounce” adopt names more palatable for their Anglo-peers. Nor is it surprising that some people may choose to go by pronunciations of their names which vary from the one used at home by their parents. Whilst the whitewashing of names is a common phenomenon, it is important not to gloss over it with an uncritical eye.
The issue with this is that certain names have to be altered or swapped for others. Natasha, Jane or Cameron wouldn’t be asked if they had an “English name” they preferred which their teacher could pronounce more easily. It is us, with names you wouldn’t find in Enid Blyton storybooks, who grow up thinking that our names are imperfect or abnormal. From a young age, we are presented with a narrow set of characters described as “typical” – Anglo families on TV shows, Anglo celebrities on magazines. They have the names we grew up learning to pronounce, and the absence of anyone who strays culturally or ethnically is the first lesson for us in what names “should” sound like. When we meet people with names that deviate from this, we attempt to fit them into a linguistic framework that holds Anglo-pronunciation and syllabic emphasis as the norm. My friends and I are testament to the fact that these messages have become so internalized that we are often the ones to initiate the whitewashed name, so as to accommodate the majority.
But the kids with non-Anglo-sounding names shouldn’t be blamed for this, or be expected to demand their names are pronounced right, because all they’re doing is trying to be accepted (read: assimilate) into the dominant culture of the spaces they’re in. It is possible to support one’s agency to make personal choices whilst critiquing the context and system that they are making these choices in. Adults do this too; for the sake of seeming more “professional”. My own parents introduce themselves with a different syllabic emphasis in their names, one which is better suited for the English-speaking tongue. This is a problem because we’re placing certain cultures and, by extension, their voices above others by calling one more professional than another. Although my parents live in Singapore, where the dominant group are Chinese, their work is mostly in English, where Anglo power dynamics are greatly at play. In these contexts, professionalism is synonymous with Anglo-normativity and assimilating into it is the easiest and safest option. Should one attempt to object to such standards, their behaviour or attitudes may be viewed as unprofessional in the workplace, hence undermine their relationship with their superiors and/or colleagues, potentially affecting their position and future opportunities as well.
Even I seem to have fallen into this trap. The overwhelming majority of people in my life call me Sumi, and only my bosses (and my dear Amma when she’s angry) call me Sumithri. I explain this as such: because the latter is only really used in a professional context, I go by the first because otherwise my name feels too formal. But it’s important to acknowledge that even this choice, though entirely conscious on my part, is still coerced. Growing up in Singapore, I was accustomed to the notion that short names easy on the English/Mandarin Chinese-speaking tongue were better, and that if my name were tricky to pronounce in their eyes, the responsibility rested on me to make it less so. I know that most of the Chinese people around me growing up had trouble with the “thr” sound, and that I was asked for a nickname many times when I introduced myself. But the way I have opted to introduce myself is my choice.
In this country, the dominant group are not Anglo, English-speaking people. As a result, my parents’ workplace experience in Singapore may be different to people’s experiences in Anglo-dominated countries like Australia, since it was perfectly fine for Chinese people to keep their names as they were, and everybody else had to put in the effort to learn how to say them. This is an added level of complexity, where the dominant group is not necessarily Anglo or Western, but where the legacy of British colonialism and the power held by Chinese people following decolonization come into play. Power dynamics can play out within circles of colour as well; it is not just a “white vs. non-white” equation.
Even within these “non-white” circles, language displays and perpetuates power. When discussing cultural oppression, we often simplify the identities involved, into a binary – white people and people of colour. Given the dominance of whiteness in spheres of power – a remnant of colonialism and Western imperialism – we run the risk of falling into the trap of not acknowledging and addressing oppression between and within circles of colour. “People of colour” is not a homogenous group, and even we can be racist – and yes, even we can appropriate culture. Take Gandhi, hailed as the liberator of India from British rule: he made many racist remarks during his time as a lawyer in South Africa, and believed that in the colour hierarchy, South Asians were superior to Black People.
I must have been a pre-teen when I first heard the word “bindi”. I initially thought it was just okra, like in bhindi masala, rather than the religious or ornamental dot between the eyes. I was wrong- it was used to refer to what I grew up calling “pottu”, which is the term most South Indians use. When it became apparent to me that most people in the world referred to it as bindi, I realised my language wasn’t as valued as others. So I started calling it bindi too, except when I was around people who I knew referred to it as pottu. I found myself succumbing to the terms of the dominant language within South Asian circles: Hindi.
The term “henna” is derived from Arabic. As the practice has historically been found in cultures from North Africa all the way through to South Asia, it’s expected that there be many names for it in the different languages spoken through these regions. In South Asia, you would likely hear the Sanskrit-derived term “mehndi” instead. In fact, I grew up calling it “maruthani”. But most people are more likely to understand henna than any of the other names for it, so this is the term we use.
People of colour share the everyday struggle of living in a white world and this solidarity is important in uplifting non-white identities and stories. Non-black people of colour have stood with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, on the basis of a common persecution by authorities or being subordinated by institutional means. However, it is important to do so without taking space away from other people of colour in our effort to show support for one another. The balance between fighting white supremacy by banding together and resisting the dominance of certain communities over others among people of colour is a struggle, but one that needs to be endured.
Everybody has the agency to decide how their names are pronounced; it is the people around them who should strive to learn how to say them right, even if it’s a long and painful process. The words we use when speaking about things display how certain languages or ethnicities may have more power within a space, and it is important to listen and embrace the diversity that exists without suppressing certain narratives in favour of others. It is important to challenge the idea of the “default” dominant language and ethnicity, so that those of us who don’t fit into that are treated and embraced as just as important to society as those who do. This breaks down the idea that there is a central, core group in society who are the standard by which everyone should compare themselves to, and assimilate towards. For those of us who are in a position to demand that others learn of these nuances in language – it’s important to assert the importance of our voices and tongues, and resist whitewashing, even in small ways such as this. And for everybody else – especially if you are perpetuating these dynamics – listen and learn; not everything is going to be simple and fit into what you know, but it’s imperative to respect and allow all cultures to take up the space they deserve yet is often taken away from them. Whether it’s language or whether it’s names, the way that we speak tells a story of oppression and of dominance, of power and of resistance.
Sumithri loves stars, clouds and exploring the intersections of identity labels. She believes that advocacy and social movements need to move away from their dominant white-Western narratives in favour of embracing and uplifting lesser-heard voices. Constantly learning and unlearning, she enjoys having conversations with people and discussing how culture and identity shape the way we see the world and why we do what we do.