March 3, 2020

YAO | Call Me By My Name

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When my professor called me Julia for the third straight time during office hours, I could only laugh. My classmate was less amused. “Ridiculous!” she exclaimed after we’d left. “Julia wasn’t even here,” she exclaimed. Touched by her righteous indignation on my behalf, I was quick to assure her that this was a common occurrence. Nothing to lose sleep about.

In seventh grade, I learned to answer to the names of Linda and Susie in addition to my own. Linda and I both identified as females who wore glasses. The similarities ended there. Susie was a student in the year above mine. She didn’t have glasses.

During the second week of my first year in high school, my algebra teacher pulled me aside to ask if I was the identical twin of Jenny, a girl she taught in the period after mine. Our last names weren’t even in the same half of the alphabet, and Jenny was about four inches taller.

Since arriving at Cornell seven months ago, ready to carve out my own space in the world, I’ve become Julia, Rika and Wang Yi.

I could fill a page with scenarios like these. Why have I been tied to so many other names? Why have I been saddled with every persona except my own? My friend jokes that it’s our Secret Asian Superpower, applicable without warning in almost any situation. We adopt the characteristics of those around us. We can transform into anyone … just as long as they look East or Southeast Asian as well. This superpower equates to invisibility. And to be honest, I’d rather have the ability to shoot fire from my hands.

Like that friend — and most other Asians I know — I tend to brush off these microaggressions. Sometimes I laugh due to the sheer absurdity of the situation, but I mostly laugh because the alternative is admitting that these interactions hurt. I turn to jokes to shield myself from accusations of oversensitivity from a society that prioritizes thick skin at all costs. However, I’ve come to realize that these dismissals of my identity should never be treated as inconsequential faux pas –– they reinforce the same rhetoric that has pervaded our narrative for decades.

Asians are interchangeable. Invisible. Docile. Emotionless. Forgettable.

Asians are the model minority. A lump sum of replaceable tools used to justify the racism of other minority groups while still subject to widespread discrimination and xenophobia.

An act seemingly so simple as mixing up two people of the same race can lead to damaging consequences. In the midst of the Coronavirus epidemic, it’s especially critical to consider how such microaggressions serve only to demean. The sweeping generalizations that I’ve heard thrown around campus exhibit the implicit racial biases about the Asian community that our society typically attempts to mask. But nothing can stay hidden forever. When “safety” justifies prejudice, it cements our collective role as scapegoats and aliens. As fear prevails, Asians cease to exist as separate entities to the American public.

The United States touts its regard for diversity, yet too often it fails to warrant such pride. Our society shuts down open conversations before they have time to grow, choosing instead to succumb to the ease of baseless assumptions. Within each intentional stereotype lies the claim that Asians are not worth considering beyond our black hair and brown eyes.

Thus, a name is never just a name. Names represent individuality. They reinforce our sense of self. We take our names and redefine them to fit our unique characteristics. We use our names as proof of our humanity. My name encapsulates my experiences more than any other word I could use to describe myself. My name — my value as a human being — is worth the extra three seconds it would take you to recognize me for who I am.

Allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is Katherine Yao. Or Katie, if you’d prefer. I’m not Linda, Jenny, Julia, Rika or Wang Yi. And I’m sure as hell not Susie. Each one of us has a story worth standing on its own, and the least you can do is differentiate between them. So start by calling me by my name, and I’ll be sure to call you by yours.


Katherine Yao is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Wednesday this semester.