Understanding Name-Based Microaggressions
An Interview with Ranjana Srinivasan, Ph.D.
Posted Sep 29, 2019
What’s in a name? Identity, culture, heritage – names undeniably hold a great deal of meaning. As the social justice movement grows within the field of psychology, one researcher – Ranjana Srinivasan – has focused her research on better understanding how individuals are impacted by name-based microaggressions.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Srinivasan, who holds a doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology from Columbia University and is a practicing psychologist at the Manhattan VA Medical Center as well as an adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research is centered on increasing mental health and multicultural awareness around the clinical needs of the South Asian American population. The focus of this interview was on Dr. Srinivasan’s work with name-based microaggressions. Her insights shed light on an important topic within multicultural psychology and are useful for clinicians, researchers, and educators alike. Take a look at what she had to say.
As the field’s expert on the topic, can you explain what name-based microaggressions are and how they differ from microaggressions more broadly?
Microaggressions describe instances of subtle and indirect racism against marginalized populations. Under this umbrella, name-based microaggressions constitute a specific category of microaggressions that capture the subtle discriminatory comments that minority individuals experience when interacting with others given their first and last names of ethnic origin. Names are prominent identifiers that can often tell the story of one’s ethnicity, cultural background, and familial lineage. There is a tendency for White European names and whiteness in general to be perceived as normative, whereas racial minorities with names of religious and ethnic origins may be seen as an inconvenience. This can result in experiences of discrimination and ostracism. Individuals with racially and ethnically distinct names often experience a mix of pride and discomfort in association with the use of their names. Within my research, I look specifically at the impact of this type of interaction on South Asian Americans with names of ethnic origin. Examples of name-based microaggressions include: assignment of an unwanted nickname, assumptions and biases about an individual based on their name, and teasing from peers and educators due to cultural aspects of a name.
This is such an important and relevant topic to so many people. How did you become interested in the study of name-based microaggressions?
As one of my mentors, Dr. Riddhi Sandil, always says, “research is me-search.” My interest in this topic largely stems from my own experiences growing up in a predominantly White environment as the only person of color within my school. I have strong memories of feeling othered by my classmates due to the color of my skin and the texture of my hair, and my distinct South Asian name brought further attention to my differences. I often was met with laughs from teachers, pauses before saying my name, and comments such as “do you have a nickname?” or “I am never going to be able to get this.” Although many educators were well-meaning, these words carried weight for me. They impacted my sense of belonging within my community and caused me to feel both shame and anger about my South Asian heritage. As early as four years old, my job was to make my White American teachers feel more comfortable, rather than them making time and effort to learn to pronounce my name correctly.
Like most young kids, I had a deep desire to fit in, so I began giving myself nicknames to lessen the burden. As I became older and developed my multicultural competence, I decided to stop trying to make others comfortable at my own expense. I now only go by my full name, and those in my circle who have put in the effort to learn it have easily been able to do so. During my college education, I did notice other South Asians within my community changing the pronunciation of their names or providing a different name to their peers and educators, which caught my attention. While I realize there is an understandable desire for South Asian Americans to adapt and enculturate to the dominant culture, I do not feel that one should have to give up part of their personal identity in order to be seen.
What can your research tell us about how name-based microaggressions affect people in their daily lives?
Participants in this study reported that others in their lives struggled with the pronunciation, spelling, and cultural intricacies of their first and last names. The most difficult interactions where shown to be with people in authoritative positions, particularly classroom teachers and company executives. For those participants, introducing themselves became a moment of anxiety and dread throughout their lives. Some chose to alter their names to avoid presenting an inconvenience to people in power, while others did so to increase their own comfort in social interactions. Participants also observed others at times appearing to be overwhelmed after hearing their names and immediately asking for a nickname to use instead. At times, authority figures immediately assigned them a nickname. During these moments, participants were not asked permission. They did not get to choose their nicknames, and they were assumed to be accepting of their new names. Some participants reported feeling frustration with this process, given the lack of control over how their names were transformed. In contrast, other participants reported feeling appreciative of having a nickname that allowed for easier assimilation to the dominant culture. Participants were also aware of the facial expressions of White teachers and supervisors that demonstrated their discomfort, and they described being teased for their racially- and ethnically-distinct names by both teachers and peers. Given these findings, my research outlines how name-based microaggressions have a presence in the lives of South Asian American individuals in a way that has not previously been captured by psychology literature.
You interviewed a lot of participants to complete your study; could you describe an interview that stands out in your memory?
One interview stands out to me the most, particularly due to his immigration story to the United States and the pride he personally felt to call himself an American citizen. The participant spent a great amount of time reflecting on the efforts his parents made to get him to this country of dreams and possibilities. He particularly emphasized a strong feeling of responsibility to adapt to the dominant culture despite his own difficult interactions with his name. To him, not being represented properly in his name was a minor sacrifice to make in order to be considered an American by others. Many of the participants named coping skills they utilized to detach from the difficulties of their daily name-based microaggressive experiences, and his coping stood out to me because it was based in honor and respect for his parents in getting him to where he is today.
How do you hope your work will impact the daily lives of racial and ethnic minority populations in the United States?
The participants of this study noted that racial and cultural representation within their educational environments was influential in feeling a sense of belongingness within their cultural identity. For participants in White dominant schools, they described putting a great amount of effort into hiding their South Asian culture from their peers and teachers in order to appear more “American.” My hope would be that with increased use and awareness of South Asian names, they can become more normative within the dominant culture and will positively impact South Asian’s sense of belonging within educational settings.
Additionally, participants reported that teachers had a significant influence on how they felt about their names throughout their development. I hope to have this work dispersed to educators working with South Asian students and individuals of various multicultural identities to bring awareness to the impact they have in the room and try to provide a more comfortable teaching environment for students. Teachers have so much power to influence students’ understanding of what is “normal” and what is not, and it would be great to learn that individuals with cultural names are no longer the odd ones out.
In terms of educational policy, I have a vision that adjustments could be made within educational literature and teaching materials to reflect the populations that use them. Currently, textbooks often do not include representation of minority groups. It would be amazing for a South Asian student to actually see their name written within a mathematics word problem. It’s incredible how these seemingly small changes make such a big difference.
Your work offers valuable takeaways for professionals in the mental health field; what would you say are the most pressing?
Based on my research findings, I have some recommended clinical and professional practices for mental health educators and clinicians working with South Asian Americans with racially and ethnically distinct names. I would first ask that students’ and patients’ names be reviewed prior to meeting them for the first time. The more you are exposed to distinct names, the less intimidating they may feel. Participants in my study reported feeling validated when others asked for the correct pronunciation of their names. It is therefore recommended that clinicians and educators ask individuals how their name is pronounced and put their best effort into repeating it back to them as it was said. Recognize that asking for a nickname from your students and/or clients can feel invalidating, as they may feel like an inconvenience to those within the dominant culture. Similarly, ascribing a nickname to a student, or participating in racialized re-naming, can be distressing given the individual’s lack of power in choosing how they will be named. It is recommended that the student or client is given the power to voice how they would like to be referred to in the room. And lastly, I encourage practitioners and teachers within mental health to be aware of racialized and name-based teasing that may occur in the classroom or clinic. In this way, we can work toward being better advocates and creating a different dynamic around these narratives.