Everyone is normal somewhere.
There were a lot of wonderful speeches at the Academy Awards last night. After a year marred by political turmoil and recent legislation based on fear and bigotry, the general aura of the Oscar ceremony was one of love and inclusion. Even host Jimmy Kimmel took a few shots at POTUS 45 in his opening segment, and the night ended on a bizarre yet ultimately heartwarming note, yet there’s a certain amount of nitpicking to be done over a couple of the jokes during the course of the evening. Only it isn’t nitpicking. Not from the standpoint of the many people bothered by a couple of seemingly harmless jabs at people’s names, jabs that belie a larger cultural problem that those un-attuned to nuances of everyday racism might not pick up on.
Once you’re done rolling your eyes and decrying “the thinkpieces!” let’s have a frank conversation about names and how they’re perceived in the Western world. First and foremost however, the jokes in question:
At the top of the night, shortly after Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar, Jimmy Kimmel began to fixate on his name and how strange it sounded to him, and how he couldn’t possibly give his newborn baby a more “normal” sounding name like Amy. The next time Ali’s name was brought up, it was as a group of unsuspecting tourists were being led into the Dolby Theatre, unaware they were about to became part of Oscar’s 89th birthday. One of the tourists, an Asian American woman named Yulree, became Kimmel’s next designation fixation. The host was taken aback at a name he had likely never heard before. He then turned to her new husband Patrick, and upon learning his name, replied “See, that’s a name.”
To some, this might come off as harmless ribbing, the kind of joke Kimmel would’ve made about anybody regardless of their race or national origin. Some might say any “unusual” name is up for grabs in comedy, though this defense in and of itself helps focus on the problem: the perceived “unusualness” of names that don’t fit Hollywood’s (and America’s) white, western canon.
There’s more than enough good writing about the nature of jokes and their power to include or exclude, so I won’t get into comedy’s nitty-gritties (for that I turn you over to our own Film Crit Hulk and Andrew Todd), but before unpacking these two jokes, both similar and both seemingly improvised in the moment, as many jokes that fall flat at these things tend to be, it’s important to note that Jimmy Kimmel was not trying to be hurtful or racist in any way. Why is it important to note this? Well, for one thing, my pitchfork is neatly stored in my shed. I’m not out for blood despite how much this bothered me. But at the same time, this lack of awareness of the racial and cultural dynamic at play is exactly the problem.
What makes a name normal? Is it the familiarity of the sounds, and the order in which they’re placed? Perhaps. That’s how we usually relate to all forms of language. It’s certainly why someone speaking gibberish is funny, but what makes a name normal in America is also a matter of exposure. Mahershala Ali is no more or less American because of his name. He’s already shortened it from Mahershalalhashbaz, which might be a mouthful for folks who haven’t come across it before, and that’s okay. Nobody’s born with all the knowledge in the world, and folks in the west aren’t usually accustomed to names with more than three syllables, but the problem arises when cultures and people perceived as foreign becomes the butt of the joke – not the subject of the joke, but rather the joke itself, in that their perceived otherness is exotic, or strange, or outside the norm. That is, the norm as dictated by around 5% of the world’s population.
America’s share of the global populace is rather small compared to the likes of India and China, let alone the globe as a whole, but its reach in terms of popular culture and consciousness is unparalleled. People all over the world grow up with America in their living rooms, became America is a nation of cultural export. It is also an immigrant nation, and yet, the cultural exchange is by-and-large a one-way street, wherein the mono and disyllable sobriquets of Anglo-European Biblical names are the ones with the most exposure. Just look at the lead human (from Earth) characters of the top ten grossing films around the world, all which happen to be American. Jake. Jack. Rose. Owen. Claire. Tony. Steve. Bruce. Dominic. Brian. Luke. Harry. Anna. Elsa. You get the picture.
This can, of course, be attributed to the majority white representation in these films (as it should), but regardless of cause, most American movies having names perceived as typically white and western is what decides the names that do or don’t sound “normal.” In comparison, Avatar’s alien characters and their cultures are all African and Native American-inspired, whereas the other human characters are named Grace, Miles, Trudy, Parker and Norm. Even the sole character of Indian origin is named Max. This isn’t to say that we should stop using names we’re familiar with, but it’s that familiarity that’s the central point here, or rather the lack thereof when it comes to names of immigrants and of many people of colour, whose very identities are seen as an oddity.
I’m lucky that I can shorten my name to Sid rather than having to teach westerners the four possible pronunciations of “dh” in Hindi before helping them develop the muscle memory to use the correct one, though my Chinese classmates in the US weren’t as lucky. Huanglizi and Difei became Stephanie and Peter, and while these were technically out of choice (or rather “encouraged” by the international guidance counselor), the alternative, in my experience, is having white western folks ask you your name and then dismiss it as too difficult to pronounce after a couple of attempts. Like the culture at large, the onus was never on American instructors or students to learn our names, and we were forced to strip away important parts of our identities.
And so we return to Mahershala and Yulree, and their supposedly more palatable counterparts, Amy and Patrick; the former set of names being the outliers, the latter being the norm. Once again, the dynamic of familiarity isn’t a problem in and of itself, though there’s certainly a lot to be desired in terms of an immigrant culture that would rather force others to assimilate than truly embrace diversity. The problem is that this unfamiliarity is the punchline. Not Jimmy Kimmel’s unfamiliarity due to ignorance, mind you, but rather the perceived abnormality or exoticism of the names in question, a perspective that is comes from a limited, geo-centric worldview wherein any name that doesn’t fit America’s Amy/Patrick/Jimmy canon is worthy of derision.
Name-centric comedy is hardly a new line of fire, nor is it something that has or should be abandoned. Non-white names become the butt of jokes in Key & Peele’s American Football sketches, though it’s not hard to see how their varied caricatures come from a place of familiarity, in addition to the fact that the increasing absurdity isn’t focused on any one person’s actual name. Except Benedict Cumberbatch, of course. That is, until the first sketch circles all the way back around to the lone white character, Dan Smith.
By then, the absurdity is re-directed to the perceived normalcy of the final name in question. The punch line is us looking for a punch line. In addition, the introduction of each team is always broken up by white commentators for whom these bizarre names (Morse Code? Fudge?? God???) are completely and totally normal. In fact, their second East/West College Bowl sketch also has a throwback to “Substitute Teacher,” in which the perceived racial norm of names and our familiarity to them is turned on its head.
It’s safe to say that Key & Peele have an awareness of the racial dynamics at play when it comes to making fun of people’s names. In the case of Jimmy Kimmel however, it merely boils down to “these are non-white/foreign sounding names I’m unfamiliar with.” Lest it sound like I’m using this as an opportunity to dump all over Kimmel, I actually thought he did a pretty good job as host all things considered. These were well-intentioned ad-libbed jokes I’m sure, but the nature of liberal racism is such that it usually sits alongside good intentions, thus making it harder to call out without us looking like the bad guy. But whatever the intent, the result is still years of daily microagressions that continue to push one to societal peripheries. From names, to attire, to food, to accents, no individual instance of being racially or culturally “othered” is enough to break someone in isolation, but you know what they say about straws and camels, and even white culture at its most well-meaning has a tendency to ignore the straws until they’ve been pointed out ad nauseam.
The white barometer for strangeness has been broken for some time, and it often includes traits associated with people of colour. From the entire genre of ancient temple alien-fantasy (which has its roots in colonists being unable to fathom how indigenous tribes built such structures!), to the Predators having dreadlocks, to Scar being both the only evil and only dark-skinned lion (the evil/effeminate dynamic is a whole other can of worms), to a more recent example that stands out to me based on my miserable experience watching it, How To Train Your Dragon 2, an otherwise great film wherein the only non-white face is the mysterious villain, whose appearance is “based on people from the Mediterranean and northern Africa.” Children’s animation is hard-coded with this stuff, and I’ve even had otherwise lovely people whose prejudice was subonscious tell me certain South Asian actors wouldn’t even need to change their names were they cast in Star Wars because their names sound alien enough.
If that isn’t emblematic of the problem, I’m not sure what is.
Western cinema and stories will (and should) continue to draw influence from wherever they see fit, but like in the case of Kimmel’s name jokes, the inherent “weirdness” of foreign or non-white cultures as long-standing tradition ultimately goes against the inclusive agenda these same people seem to be keen on. The continued valuation of one perspective above all else – that built on the structures of white and western supremacy in all their forms – is one that inherently pushes other people away, and even the most well-intentioned won’t be able to affect the broader culture the way they hope to so long as they continue to see the very identities of non-white, non-western people as the exotic, or the other, or the joke.
We should all try and be a little better at this if we can…
…that said, I think it’s about time I give people the benefit of doubt when it comes to pronouncing my first and last names. The linked audio would be the first time in about five years that I’ve opened up to letting people in the west give it a shot. It usually leads to a lot of embarrassment and awkard interaction; we don’t all speak the same language and we don’t have the same experiences, but sharing our identities, who we are as a people, needs to start somewhere. Even if it’s just a name.