Some memories of my first few years of education still stick with me. Like in kindergarten, when one of my classmates spilled yogurt all over his binders and I helped him clean up the mess. My teacher, so surprised that a young child could embody selflessness, wrote a note to my parents congratulating them on their daughter’s unsolicited kindness. Or when, in first grade, I answered a certain number of questions in class correctly and was able to pick a prize out of the “treasure chest.” I was so excited. I remember rummaging through the gaudily decorated box, debating whether to choose the pink bunny puppet or the duck one. Decisions, decisions.
I also recall sitting in class, with my two little pigtails (everyone knew I couldn’t get enough of those) and roughly cut bangs, with my hand raised in the air. The teacher looked around the room, saw that my hand was raised to answer the question and proceeded to call my name. No, wait a second. That wasn’t my name. But she was looking at me, waiting for my response now. That wasn’t my name. That was hers. You know, the girl over there with the really short hair? The one who doesn’t look anything like me. In fact, we look completely different except — of course. She’s also an Asian-American girl.
This happened enough that I learned from a young age to be on guard every time a teacher attempted to learn my name in the beginning of the school year. After that, I was always wary, knowing that at any instant I could be mistaken for the other one or two Asian-Americans in my class. Sometimes a teacher would do it once, then correct themselves. Others did it every so often. But many teachers constantly stumbled over my name, as if they were unsure that a girl who wasn’t white could permanently hold onto her own name.
I have had enough formal education to know that forgetting names or accidentally calling one student by another is a frequent occurrence; a normal one, even. But I have also had enough formal education to know that it does not happen as frequently — not even close — to white students.
I learned in a psychology class that a cross-race effect exists: People find it easy to recognize members of their own race, but have difficulty distinguishing between people of different racial groups. But, kindergarten teacher, was it that difficult to remember my name in a classroom with only one other Asian-American student? This isn’t rocket science, and maybe the bitterness I write with is something I’ve harbored for a while now. But it hurt a lot. First grade teacher, did you even stop to think one second before calling me by the other girl’s name? It cannot be just appearance alone, for our physical appearances are astonishingly different. So, what made you say it? It was our race that suddenly made us seem like one, wasn’t it?
When someone calls a young person by the wrong name, they have the power to affect that person far more than they might believe. Young kids’ confidences are low, their selves fragile. When someone takes away a name, they take away self agency. When teachers, or even fellow peers, called me by a different name, suddenly it didn’t matter what my interests were, who my friends were or what I was like. Suddenly, it only mattered that I was part of a race that was not theirs, and they could not take the time or energy to distinguish myself from another.
Names play an extremely important role in defining a person; it’s a reason some people end up changing their names. They don’t feel as if this word — which acts like a self-identifying label — fits them. There are reasons why singers adopt a “stage name.” Many do it to draw attention to an outlandish name, to change their original name from one they consider to be dull and unoriginal or to distance themselves from family relations. Yet these reasons all draw to a common core — names are related to our identity.
When we’re young, all we have is a name. We haven’t developed our selves yet (have we even done so, now, already?). We hold onto our names like prized possessions. Think of how many times we’ve learned to spell it, first in a shaky block print, and then next connecting it through swirls and hurriedly calling it “cursive.” It’s the word our parents yell at us when we’ve messed up and the word that’s used when we’re praised or loved. It’s how we introduce ourselves. It is, to a certain level, our selves. And when I, a kindergartner, was first exposed to the reality that my race spoke for me, that my race was my only defining factor and I could no longer have the simple pleasure of being called my own name, that’s when it hurt.
I never really took the time to think about how this repeated occurrence affected my self. I hadn’t realized how these experiences, starting from a young age and seemingly insignificant at first, had the ability to shape me so powerfully. But maybe the other names I was consistently branded with were the driving factors behind my decision to dye my hair, get those piercings and wear those clothes. Maybe, subconsciously, I was looking for a way to distinguish myself, of hoping every time I raised my hand in class and the teacher went to say my name it would be me.
I write this as someone who grew up in a predominantly white suburb in a well-known school district. Thus, I want to be careful to describe my experiences as those that were gone through by one who has been fortunate to get an education without facing harassment and backlash based on my race. I cannot speak for students who have lived in different socioeconomic backgrounds and have faced the impacts of that. Yet I do not want to devalue my own experiences, for I know others have gone through similar ones. When your idea of a “self” is suddenly stripped at a young age, it leaves you confused, hurt and clueless. Whether we want to believe it or not, names hold immense power. So maybe we should all take a little bit more time to think before we speak.
Gaby Leung is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.