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What's in a name? Politics, culture, and identity

Recently, Texas legislator Betty Brown, during House testimony on voter identification, said that voters of Asian descent should adopt names that are "easier for Americans to deal with." Her remarks were immediately condemned by the Texas Democratic Party, which demanded an apology. In response, Brown insisted her comments were only an attempt to overcome problems identifying Asian names for voting purposes.

There has been an overwhelming public response to Brown’s remarks, with many questioning the assumptions of what it means to "accommodate to monolingual English-speakers." Michelle Chen of writes: "In fact, the ‘Americanization’ of names for school registration and licenses could be seen as just that: a direct response to the inability of many native-born to grasp even the most basic phonemic elements of Chinese and other ‘difficult’ languages." 

The controversy has many thinking about cultural and linguistic tolerance and what it means to be identified as American. Randy Cohen of The New York Times writes: "Tolerance – live and let live – is a wise response to things that are morally neutral, that harm no one: variations in diet or dress, musical preferences, ways of observing (or ignoring) the Sabbath. It is particularly estimable in a nation of immigrants like the United States, home to people with diverse ways of life. Here tolerance is a call for civility, for humility, an injunction not to be a hick."

But some would argue that as estimable as tolerance may be in America, many are non-practitioners. On the blog Texas Liberal, Neil Aquino writes: "There’s often a presumption by some that they are the true Americans and that others are somehow alien. Expressions of this presumption can be based on a kind of benign ignorance, or they can take a more malignant form when expressed in an insulting way by an elected official."

But is the presumption of "us" and "them" ever benign? Franklin D. Roosevelt cautioned us to, "Remember, remember always, that all of us are descended from immigrants and revolutionaries." America has often been called a country of immigrants, a melting-pot for the world’s diverse cultures. However, when remarks such as Rep. Brown’s surface, tensions bubble, leaving many to wonder, just who has to melt their cultural identity in order to fit into the pot?

Who gets to decide what’s culturally normal? Do you think most Americans are tolerant of difference? What have been your experiences with cultural norms? Do we have a civic responsibility to be inclusive? Have you experienced intolerance? Is democracy strengthened by diversity? Do you think having a president whose cultural heritage is non-white and who is named Barack Obama will encourage Americans to be more tolerant of difference? Although Rep. Brown apologized in response to the public outcry over her comments, what can be done to foster appreciation of diverse cultures and non-native English speakers? What is the responsibility of public officials, like Brown, to foster a climate of cultural tolerance?

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