Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

February 20, 2011

On brown names

Filed under: Culture,Names — Razib Khan @ 1:43 pm

I am not good with names, period. Recently I met a young Indian American woman who had a “difficult” first name. Late in the day she asked if I could say her name. Let’s just put into the public record that I swapped some syllables…. Now, I admitted to her I just wasn’t good with “brown names.” She found this totally incomprehensible and was obviously a little irritated, wondering how I could have a problem with brown names (the implication being that I’m brown, ergo….). To some extent I had to be on this person’s good side, so I wasn’t going to get into an argument on this point. But, since I do have a blog, I’ll throw out some immediate thoughts that came to mind:

1) 1.3 billion people live in South Asia. The cultural and linguistic distance between a Bengali and a Tamil is on the order of that between a Finn and a Spaniard. The two are both recognizably South Asian and European, respectively, but they’re very different. Not to outsiders of course; white is white, and brown is brown, when you’re neither. But I feel that some Indian Americans have internalized this perception of relative uniformity, in part due to the existence of a unitary Indian nation-state which subsumes a lot of cultural diversity. I have particular difficulties with South Indian names, which makes total sense since the linguistic distance is the greatest in that direction.

2) I find the brown American pride in having distinctive and difficult names somewhat perverse. It isn’t a big deal, but the main issue people have is lack of familiarity. Alexander is not a fundamentally “easier” name than Amit, but Alexander is much more common in the West. As Amit, or Muhammed, become more common their “difficulty” will abate. But for my own children I don’t see a point in having a culturally distinctive name. They’ll be half-brown, and that’s that. It’s a personal choice, and people should be flexible. I don’t begrudge brownz with rare names (in the West) their choices. My own isn’t quite familiar to most, though it is tractable in a syllabic sense. But neither do I think it is especially terrible if brownz give their children “Western” names. Cultures and self-identities evolve. My Hindu ancestors had different names before their became Muslim. Many Indian Christians after independence gave their children more “Indian” first names. Such is the way of the world.

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