Yesterday, I read what is honestly the dumbest thing I have read in many years. A man on Twitter began arguing that English learners should not be allowed to choose their own “English names” because it is racist.
That’s right. A white man is telling people of colour that they do not have the right to make their own choices because it is racist. #irony
His logic was this: Choosing your own English name is internalised racism. He said a lot of other really, really racist stuff under the classically ironic banner of anti-racism. It was literally the stupidest thing I’ve read in years and it actually gave me a minor panic attack to see that a person could be so mind-blowingly ignorant.
However, it raised an interesting question that I thought I would write about today.
Should ESL Students Pick Their Own Names?
Long ago, I felt that it was a bit ridiculous for English learners to choose an English name. My rationale was admittedly similar to the Twitter troll above. I felt that it was for the benefit of the ESL teacher that students were forced to pick names. In fact, I still think that is wrong. No one should be forced to pick a new name for the benefit of anyone else.
Another ridiculous element was the fact that most of them picked non-English names. In China, half of my students had Japanese names and in Korea they wanted Russian and Italian ones! How would this help them learn English?
What I realised was that picking their name was a really important element of self-expression. In many Asian cultures, young people are denied the right to choose important things in their life – education, friends, romantic partners, etc. These are all chosen by their parents.
Under such circumstances, many of my students loved the freedom to choose a name and some of them would change that name each year. It was an outlet for their personality. It was important to their identity.
Some students, of course, did not want to change their name. It would be insane of me to force them, and so I would use their Chinese name to refer to them.
For these reasons and more, it is objectively and irrefutably wrong to claim that it is racist for Asian students to pick English names.