#MyNameIs as a Return to Identity Work: #Hashtag Activism in 2020

[I've been compiling a small collection of Tweets using the #MyNameIs hashtag. The following are some preliminary reflections on what I've been finding along the way.]

What does it mean to be "Brown" in 2020? By and large, it seems to mean: putting the question on hold. The Trump administration has been an extremely difficult time for thinking about new and emergent identities, for doing what we might call "identity work": the work of defining emergent communities, finding language, and earning recognition in public life.

For many, the Trump years have been a period of frustration and retrenchment, where the President’s ever-multiplying race-related outrages and insults have left us very little space to think and reflect with any degree of nuance about our relationship to identity. Why does it matter what “Brown” might mean when there’s a pandemic that’s disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx Americans; when there are children in cages; when the President is trying to build a wall on the southern border; when there’s Charlottesville; when he says “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”; when there’s George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many others; when there’s a Muslim immigration ban that’s been upheld by the Supreme Court; when African countries and nations like Haiti are referred to as “Shithole” countries -- and on and on and on? Identity does not feel that important when all of this is going on: what matters is resistance. In times of crisis, allyship comes easily; we can think about terminology and concepts later.

But sometime soon, it may be possible to make some headway with this conversation again. I see the recent hashtag #MyNameIs, which emerged on Twitter about ten days ago, as a fresh start in a long-running series of conversations about emergent Brown identity. As the young folks say, “it gives me life.” We have more work to do here, and I think many of us are ready to start doing that work again.  

#MyNameIs and the Legacy of “#Hashtag Activism”

My thinking here is informed in large part by the recent book by Brooke Foucault Welles, Moya Bailey, and Sarah J. Jackson, #Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice. Welles, Bailey, and Jackson write about how hashtags represent the mobilization of “counterpublics” in the era of social media, arguing, suggesting that the phrase refers to “the strategic ways counterpublic groups and their allies on Twitter employ this shortcut to make political contentions about identity politics that advocate for social change, identity redefinition, and political inclusion.” I see #MyNameIs as fitting perfectly into that model of both identity formation and social and political mobilization.

Backstory: In the scope of things, the #MyNameIs hashtag on Twitter might not be a huge deal.  It emerged shortly after Georgia Senator David Perdue made fun of Senator Kamala Harris’ first name at a rally on Friday, October 16: "Ka-MAL-a, Ka-MAL-a or Kamala, Kamala, Ka-mala, -mala, -mala, I don't know, whatever." The hashtag had a brief spike online over the next few days, before beginning to subside. The most popular tweets with this hashtag have had circulation in what might be thought of as a moderate range for a hashtag of this sort: Likes in the tens of thousands, and Retweets in the thousands. This is relatively modest compared to the hashtags that are considered by the authors of #Hashtag Activism: #MeToo, #SayHerName, and  #BlackLivesMatter. 

For those of us studying U.S. immigrant identities and cultures, the hashtag is a big deal. It is, of course, linked to the prospect of the first South Asian origin person, Kamala Harris, potentially entering the White House as a Vice Presidential candidate. But with that there are a whole host of figures in public life who see themselves as linked to Kamala Harris’ life and story. Many of them are Black and South Asian American, but folks from other backgrounds also appear to see the background and upbringing of Kamala Harris as connected to their own experience. With a substantial number of non-South Asian origin folks, such as Ilhan Omar, Ted Lieu, and Ayanna Pressley, joining the Hashtag with their own Tweets, a broader movement may be in the works. We could think of this broader movement as an emergent Brown identity.

Let’s take a step back and follow the Hashtag as it emerged. The origin point for #MyNameIs appears to be Gautam Raghavan, who first Tweeted a #MyNameIs Hashtag post on Saturday 10/17 around noon. 

My great grandmother’s name was Kamala. Not “Kamala-mala-mala, I don’t know, whatever.”

#MyNameIs Gautam. It means bright light. The kind of bright light a Biden-Harris Administration will represent. And that is why #IWillVote.

Join me & make a plan at http://IWillVote.com. (17k likes; 2.5 k retweets; link)

Raghavan’s post was soon Quote-retweeted by Meena Harris -- Kamala Harris’ niece (and Maya Harris’ daughter). 

#MyNameIs Meenakshi. I'm named after the Hindu goddess, as well as my great great grandmother. I come from a long line of strong women who taught me to be proud of my heritage and to demand respect—especially from racist white men like @sendavidperdue who are threatened by us. (814 replies; 25k likes; 4.6k retweets; link)

Both of these early Tweets establish the theme of the hashtag: that people, presumably with “funny” names that are frequently mispronounced and mocked, affirm the provenance and dignity of their names. The second part of both Meena Harris’s and Gautam Raghavan’s tweets are also oriented towards a political outcome -- rebuking Senator David Perdue and supporting Democrats running for office. And indeed, in this political season, quite a number of the tweets that would follow would also invoke politics -- most, but not all. (My own interest here goes beyond the immediate concerns of the current election.)

A few prominent South Asian origin figures in politics and journalism on Twitter replied with smart Tweets: 

Preet Bharara

#MyNameIs Preet, which means love.

Anand Girdharadas

#MyNameIs Anand, which means happiness. We will deal with my last name later.

Kal Penn

#MyNameIs Kalpen. I started going by Kal Penn to help me get a job & am more than happy to give @SenDavidPerdue some tips on finding a new one of his own.

Maya Harris (Kamala’s sister)

Scrolling through #MyNameIs at the end of a long day & it’s giving me life.

My name is Maya (magic/illusion) Lakshmi (goddess of beauty & wealth). People mispronounce my names all the time, but you can’t tell me nothin’. I know who I am. Show these folks who we are. #VOTE

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal

#MyNameIs Pramila. It comes from the Sanskrit word “prem” which means love. The name is constantly mispronounced as is my last name. I only mind that when it is done willfully and continuously. Let’s build an inclusive America. Vote #BidenHarris2020. Our vote, our power.

From the list above, Kal Penn’s Tweet stands out -- it reminds one of early 2000s conversations we’ve had about the foreignness of South Asian names going back to the days of Piyush “Bobby” Jindal and the "Macaca" event in a Virginia Governor's race in 2006. By and large the story of that earlier discussion is that many immigrants and their second-generation children find nicknames and simplified pronunciation to make their way easier in diasporic contexts where “Kalpen” is too difficult and foreign-sounding for an actor aspiring to a mainstream career. 

The way a public figure with a difficult name handles that name tells us a lot about their relationship to identity. In the 2008 election season, for instance, there was a clear contrast between the way Bobby Jindal presented himself in public life and the way Barack Obama did. Obama, in early speeches, often self-deprecatingly described himself as a “skinny kid with a funny name,” but he notably did not use his available nickname (“Barry”) when running for public office: he stuck with Barack. And he succeeded. Bobby Jindal, by contrast, seemed to succeed in Louisiana in large part by concealing any traces of “difference" -- beginning with his given name, Piyush -- while all the same pointing to a generic “model minority” immigrant success story as justification for his conservative politics. Even though Barack Obama identifies as Black and has always been known as such, the conversations about his name may be seen as similar because of his father’s Kenyan background. 

That debate links up with other conversations about a gathering new wave of affirmative “Brown” identity, where there is a strong desire not to compromise in the ways the earlier generation might have done. Two figures associated with a new Brown performativity might be Hari Kondabolu and Hasan Minhaj. The latter has even made the assertion of the correct pronunciation of his name an important part of his comedy routines, and confronted prominent TV hosts like Ellen DeGeneres when the latter mispronounced his name in an interview. 

Many of the first people to reply to Meena Harris were of South Asian (and largely Hindu) origin, but as the meme grew it proliferated and changed in some subtle ways. 

Here are some from folks who are not of South Asian origin, but who are clearly ‘getting’ the meme: 

Senator Ted Lieu: 

#MyNameIs Ted W. Lieu. The “W” is short for “Win-Ping” which in Mandarin means Cloud of Peace. 

Also, make sure you vote. And if you are voting by mail, don’t forget the stupid secrecy envelope if your state requires it. (4.9k retweets; 28.8k likes; link)

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley:

#MyNameIs Ayanna Soyini Pressley. My mother, may she rest in power, gave me this name which means beautiful flower in Swahili. She told me I’d make history and the world would learn how to say it right.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar

#MyNameIs Ilham, I prefer Ilhan. I never liked the M sound. It means “Inspiration” in Arabic. My father named me Ilham and inspired me to lead a life of service to others. In his honor I am voting for an inspirational ticket over desperate and maddening one.

Nusheen Ameenuddin 

#MyNameIs Nusheen Ameenuddin. Nusheen is Persian & it means a sweet dream that comes true. Ameenuddin is Urdu/Arabic & it means trustworthy upholder pf the faith. My names mean something important. I will help you pronounce them. It’s easier than you think.

PA State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta:

#MyNameIs Malcolm Kenyatta. My father named me to honor the legacy of two giants in the black diaspora: Malcolm X and Jomo Kenyatta. @sendavidperdue might not care, but my name reminds me everyday the systems of discrimination we must uproot.

I find the Tweets by Congresswomen Pressley and Omar particularly inspiring. Ilhan Omar’s fits especially well: her story of altering her given name slightly to preference (Ilham to Ilhan) resembles a story that many South Asian American people can tell about their uneasiness with the sound of some names in American English. 

(If you’d like to see more examples of the #MyNameIs hashtag, you can do pretty well just by searching Twitter directly. However, for archival purposes I’ve compiled a number of Tweets under the #MyNameIs hashtag here, using the “Twurl” command and the Twitter API.)

My favorite #MyNameIs post is actually a thread by journalist Asha Rangappa, which I'll post in its entirety below:

#MyNameIs Asha. It means Hope. But that is my middle name. My first name is Renuka (pronounced RAY-noo-Kah) which has a story Renuka was a heavenly nymph, who was married to Jamadagni, someone who was blessed by the Gods because of his devotion. Renuka was also blessed by her devotion, and from that was so powerful she was able to go to the beach and make pots out of sand (so she was the breadwinner)

One day, while at the shore to make her sand pots, she saw another couple, making love. She for a nanosecond thought of their bond. But because she thought of another man for a moment, she lost her purity, as well as her ability to make pots out of sand 3/

When she arrived home, with no pots, her husband, Jamadgani, knew immediately what had happened, and was ENRAGED. He therefore ordered his eldest son to kill him mother (domestic violence, anyone?). He refused (🙌🏾) 4/

Jamadagni then called on his second oldest son, who also refused. And then his third. Who also refused. And then his fourth (no luck). Finally, he called on his fifth son, Parashurama, who obeyed his father without question and executed his mom with an ax 5/ 

Jamadagni was so pleased with Parashurama's obedience -- for obeying his orders without question -- that he offered P a boon (a wish). Parashuarama wished for his mother, and his brothers, to be brought back to life (I forgot to note that J had killed his other sons in fury) 6/ 

Soooo....Renuka was brought back to life, and her spirit multiplied. She is now worshipped in many parts of India Smiling face with open mouth Woman dancing Raising hands 7/ 

Unfortunately, while growing up, my name caused a lot of problems for me. Teachers often skipped my name when calling roll. And when "Ren & Stimpy" got big, I got a lot of teasing. So I started going by Asha in college (my family and HS friends still call me Renuka) 8/ 

That's just a note to say that when people deliberately mispronounce your name, it's incredibly hurtful, and is an example of racism. And also a reason that *some* people might choose to go by their "middle" name. JUST SAYING /END

Asha Rangappa here tells a story about her given name that's informative and detailed, and the turn at the end (Tweet #8) is one that many participants in #MyNameIs describe: a moment where they deliberately decided to change their name, or use a nickname rather than persist with a name that appears to cause too much difficulty for others. 

In some cases, this adoption of an easier nickname or a middle name isn't as obviously an attempt to assimilate as "Piyush" becoming "Bobby" (inspired, apparently, by the character on The Brady Bunch). The author Jhumpa Lahiri, for instance, comes from a Bengali background where most children are assigned a 'familiar name' (a nickname used by family members and close friends) and a formal name (used in public). As she's described in interviews over the years, Lahiri's formal name is actually "Nilanjana"; she opted to use her familiar name "Jhumpa" when she initiated her career as an author. 

My Own #MyNameIs Story

I suppose I might as well end with a brief meditation on my own #MyNameIs story. I tried my hand at Tweeting with this hashtag: 

#MyNameIs Amardeep, which means "eternal light." Most people who know me call me "Deep"; I try to see the light in everyone. We don't all have to like one another, but we all deserve to have our names respected, whether given or chosen.

What I didn't say is this: "Deep" was also my familiar name growing up in a Punjabi household in the Washington, DC area. As a teenager, I never quite liked it, in part because the cognate with the English word "deep" tended to invite jokes ("You're so deep!"). Still, at times -- and I now find this embarrassing -- I played into that laughter. At one point I even did segments for my high school's Video club called "Deep Thoughts," where I made satirical pseudo-philosophical meditations. 

But on the whole, as a young person I came to feel that "Deep" was too personal and intimate: the cultural sense of a pet-name is that it belongs to your family, not the outside world. So as a first-year college student, I decided I would try a change: I introduced myself to everyone in my freshman dorm at Cornell as "Amardeep."  

But something wasn't right. It wasn't just that people I met found my full name difficult. The name just didn't quite feel like me. So, after a few months, I switched back. 

Since then, my name in public and in print has always been Amardeep, but to most nearly everyone in my everyday life I am still "Deep." Jokes or no jokes.

So where are we? Essentially, this: the challenge of navigating a foreign-sounding name in the U.S. is not a trivial one. People have different strategies for dealing with it, and I respect those choices. I respect and am fine with Kalpen Modi becoming Kal Penn, with Renuka Asha Rangappa becoming Asha Rangappa, and with Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri becoming Jhumpa Lahiri. I'm even fine with Piyush Jindal becoming Bobby Jindal, if Bobby feels right.

That said, we clearly have a ways to go in terms of reaching a point where names the non-easy versions of our names are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. America, you have work to do: David Perdue, for one thing, needs to apologize for what he said about the name Kamala. But we ourselves -- immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, have work to do as well, in deciding who we are and how we want to present ourselves.