Expectations About POC Names in Books. Let’s Discuss.

Posted April 17, 2018 by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction in Let's Discuss / 44 Comments

I have to start by pointing out the obvious: As a white woman, my opinion on this subject doesn’t matter all that much. Some people might even say I shouldn’t get to have an opinion on this. But I do, so… I’m giving it… with this little disclaimer that you can take it or leave it as you see fit.

I actually started writing this as a note in my review of Picture Us in the Light, but then it was getting really long, and I thought I’d turn it into its own discussion post.

I happened across a random comment on Goodreads where someone said they wondered if Disney was afraid to use names that sounded too Asian in Picture Us in the Light, since all the characters have American-sounding first names. This seemed like a strange reason to write the book off to me, especially given the fact that the author’s Asian.

I’ll confess that I wondered about the names momentarily when I started reading the book too—but when I gave this a minute’s thought, I realized this is my own sort of backward racism—like I expect Asian people to have Asian names so that they sound Asian enough for me. What’s that all about?

And, in fact, when I thought through my Asian friends, I realized a couple of things:

  • I can easily think of over 20 Asians I know personally who have American-sounding names and only four who have Asian-sounding names.
  • When I think about my K-1 classroom at church, the comparison is even more striking: I’ve probably had hundreds of Asian kiddos come through my classroom in the past seven years (we have a large church, and the area has a relatively high Asian population), and I can only think of three with Asian-sounding names—one of whom had just come to America and didn’t even speak English when she first came to the class. The other two are twins.

The book is set in an area similar to mine (suburban—though definitely more affluent). So why would I be surprised that all of the Asian-American students in the book have American-sounding first names? That really shouldn’t have given me even a moment of pause. The fact that it did shows some sort of innate expectation that isn’t based on reality.

And, of course, look at the author’s name: Kelly Loy Gilbert. Hopefully we aren’t going to start complaining that her name isn’t Asian enough! She’s stated that she based the school in the book to her own school growing up. There’s a high likelihood that the names reflect her experiences as well. So, even if the names didn’t reflect my personal experiences, shouldn’t I assume that Gilbert knows what she’s talking about? I guess I’m saying we should just trust that the author knows her own culture.

And we certainly shouldn’t start throwing accusations at Disney without giving it LOTS of consideration. (I mean, if John Smith had written it, sure we could question Disney’s motives, but that’s not the case here.)

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have all the comments about the names found in Sandhya Menon’s books, When Dimple Met Rishi and From Twinkle, with Love. I remember seeing so much backlash about the names. It seems every time a new book comes out, Sandhya has to write a new thread (or three) on Twitter to remind people that she knows her own cultureThese are names of people in the real world, and she shouldn’t have to defend them.

Now, of course, Sandhya and Kelly’s characters aren’t supposed to reflect every Asian-American or Indian-American person or every Asian-American or Indian-American life-experience (that’s a whole other topic). This is part of the beauty and diversity of life, and we can and should respect that.

POC authors often have a lot of uphill battles—they’re too cultural, they’re not cultural enough, they don’t fit into our stereotypes of what they should be. Names are just one more issue to throw onto the pile threatening to suffocate a POC author before she (or he) even gets started.

I’m learning that I need to check my expectations at the door.

Have you ever found yourself making snap judgments about POC names in books? Does it bother you when people express displeasure (usually on social media) at POC authors’ choice of names? I want to know!


44 responses to “Expectations About POC Names in Books. Let’s Discuss.

  1. I actually had friends whose families took a different approach. The parents gave their children Chinese names, but also used an American “nickname” with teachers and school-age friends. I never asked what their reason(s) were behind the duality, although I always assumed it had to do with avoiding bullying when their kids were little. Just another example of how you can’t always leap to judgment, as a reader or in everyday life 🙂

    JJ @ This Dark Material recently posted: down the tbr hole #16
    • At least two of the characters in the book (Danny’s parents) have Chinese names but they use American names. It’s very possible that there are other characters in the book who do that as well and it just isn’t mentioned—it isn’t part of the story, so it makes sense that it wouldn’t be mentioned.

  2. I don’t think I have ever given this much thought. I guess I figure the author can use whatever names she or he likes. They are the character creator and so therefor can name them. If people don’t want to read a oil based on a name or the character, that is there choice too. I honestly try not to get involved in these battles because I don’t have a side for it. I don’t know if that makes me sound bad but I don’t think I have anything of significance to say. Great discussion post though.

  3. Danielle Hammelef

    One of my really good friends is from Japan and came here for college and married and never returned to live in Japan. Her household is bilingual and her three children’s names are James, Joseph, and Julia. So Asian cultures don’t need to hold onto Asian names to still stay true to who they are.

  4. This is such a good thing to discuss. I think in this push for diversity, sometimes people are going a little too far and unintentionally relying on stereotypes. Yes, it’s great to see more ethnic names in literature and media, but that doesn’t mean someone is INAUTHENTIC because they have a name that doesn’t sound “diverse enough”. People have names for all sorts of reasons, and it doesn’t make them less a part of their culture just because it doesn’t sound traditional.

  5. Great – and important topic! I don’t think I really give POC characters names a lot of thought, because their last name tends to fit the “culture” – like Danny’s in Picture Us in the Light. I know Sandhya is always having to make threads about her character’s names, so yeah, it always seems like it’s too cultural, or not cultural enough, and it’s like – come on! Just enjoy the story! And anyway, these are actually POC writing these stories – so you should definitely not be worrying so much about what they name their characters.


  6. This is a great topic and one that, of course, I’m going to weigh in on. I agree with you. There are not many Asians that I know who grew up here in the US and have Asian names. In fact, my Korean SIL who was born in Korea and lives here now changed her name legally when she married my brother. My other Korean SIL (lol, I know! How does this happen?) was born in Korea but adopted as a baby and she has a very Caucasian name. I’m writing a new series where the Japanese-Brazilians have, of course, Brazilian first names. And like Sandhya Menon, I make sure that the names of my characters born and raised in Japan have Japanese names, though I often hear complaints from readers that these names are hard to remember or pronounce. I have since realized that this is a battle I can’t win, so I just do my thing. 🙂

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    • I guess some people are just really sensitive to names since it’s part of how we identify with a character. I think that character names are so personal for each author, though. I’m glad you’ve figured out that you just need to do your own thing and not worry too much about complaints since you’d probably get them no matter what you do!

  7. Jen

    Such a fabulous topic! It almost feels like people are going to judge regardless of what others do, ya know? And I don’t ever get that. Personally I have a lot of people in my family that are Korean…..my Great Uncle met my Great Aunt when he was stationed in Korea back in the Vietnam War and brought her home when he came back stateside. While her name is Sang Ae, their kids and grand kids all have names like James, David, Faith etc. I also have a lot of friends who’s parent’s parents came from the Philippines and the majority of their kids and grand kids have what I would consider American names. But then in my husbands family, who came from Italy in the late 1800s, all have very strong Italian names. Personally I don’t ever take into consideration if a name reflects a nationality. The only thing I ever take into consideration is I whether I like a name or not. But that’s just me. Wonderful topic, Nicole!

    • Right—there are some families who stick to names that match their ethnicities and some that don’t. For some reason, it seems like the typical Asian-American family uses American sounding first names (that’s a generalization, of course), while some other ethnicities don’t seem to do that as much. (For instance, most of the Indian people I know have Indian sounding names). Either way, why judge? I just hate that some people might miss out on a great book because of a misconception someone puts out there about names.

  8. I get so frustrated when people want to argue with an #OwnVoices personal experience. Even if you share their culture, you didn’t live their lives. So, many things shape someone’s experience. Oh, and for the person who made the Twitter comment, my daughter’s father is a first generation American of Chinese descent, and his first name is Peter. Not all Asian people give their kids Asian names.

  9. To be honest, I don’t really pay that much attention to names of characters period. As long as they have a name, I’m good lol. But I have seen some of the stuff on Twitter about people complaining about Dimple and Twinkle. And you’re right, it does seem like people complain no matter what and have too many expectations, oftentimes expectations that aren’t even correct or realistic. Which is weird cuz I’ve literally read multiple books in which one of the character’s names was a number? And I don’t see people complaining about that. But yeah, it is just another battle for POC authors.

    Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight recently posted: Bookish Musings: Top 5 Strangest Book Reviews I’ve Written (2)
  10. What a great discussion post! I would have never even thought about this. As I live in a country where we basically don’t have Asian people (or a lot of other cultures living among us), it’s not something that would have come up for me. So it’s definitely cool to ponder this. That’s right, there shouldn’t be any expectations about such things. And I guess it makes sense – part of living in another country is taking a part of the culture into your household.

    My sister’s children are kids of two immigrants in America, and she chose Lithuanian names for them. Or rather, one of the names is a Spanish name with a Lithuanian ending (hard to explain xD) I always wonder what people think of their names, cause they are not traditional or very typical.

  11. I think that the most awful part of this is that #ownvoices authors are being attacked no matter what choice they make, and that is VERY telling of a much larger problem. Like you said, some people are pissed that Kelly chose “American” sounding names (whatever that even means tbh) and then people are saying crap to Sandhya about names being Indian! What even?!

    Here’s an example of why this is ridiculous: My name is Shannon. I am 0% Irish. It’s just a freaking NAME. My parents liked it and threw it on me. It means nothing, it says nothing about me as a person, etc. Just like my parents just liked my name, maybe Kelly and Sandhya just liked those names! Maybe there was cultural significance to them, who knows! The point is, how often to white authors have to justify their naming choices? Basically never. But here we are, seeing two WOC having to write Twitter threads in defense of their choices, and it’s so completely not okay.

    Very thought provoking post, Nicole!!

  12. Oh yes definitely agree. I think we white people need to just sit down when it comes to critique POC culture. Really! When an author is #ownvoice, then there’s really zilch we need to say about how they chose to portray their own culture. And I hate how readers come after those POC authors on twitter (I’ve even been seeing it happen on my timeline) like the AUTHORS need to justify they know their OWN culture.

    Plus it makes no sense to hate on an author for naming their character Dimple…we all handled Katniss?!? Plus, omg, a famous YA character is literally CALLED FOUR. So that makes it feel like racism to hate on the POC names instead of confusion??

    Loved reading this. ??

    • I do think that maybe the person on Goodreads just threw it out there as a random comment (as her Goodreads “review”) without thinking about how other people might be affected by it. (And I noticed when I went back that a few people commented on it and pointed out that the American-sounding names are actually pretty accurate in that area, so I hope she’s been set straight.) I just worry that when someone carelessly makes a comment like that and then people start “liking” it, it turns into a thing—I’d hate for people to miss out on a great book because they have this impression that Disney was being racist based on a random comment on someone’s Goodreads review.

      It also made me take a hard look at my own brief wondering about the names. I got over that quickly and realized my bias, but it does give me insight into an innate expectation I didn’t even know I had. Gave me a bit of food for thought!

  13. I totally agree with you on this! When people are writing about their own culture, it’s not for other people to say that they haven’t represented it right. The author is surely basing it on their own experience, and maybe that will be different to someone else’s experience, but that doesn’t mean that the author is somehow ‘wrong’.
    Plus I think it’s completely up to the author what they want to name their characters anyway, and they shouldn’t really have to defend their decisions.
    Great post! 🙂

    • Right. The author based the setting of her book on her own community growing up, so that gives her choices even more credence (not that she needs to justify it). I just think it’s sad if some people don’t read the book based on a complaint that Disney is whitewashing character names when I’m doubting that’s what happened at all.

  14. Interesting discussion! I don’t think about the names in books unless I can’t pronounce them. Most of the Asian-Americans who I know in real life have names that are common in America. One of my best friends in middle school is Asian, and her name is Lizzy. I think it’s impossible for writers to win at the diversity thing. No matter what a writer does, someone is going to complain.

  15. It’s definitely something individual for families (and I say that as someone who is POC). Some names are widespread through books and movies, and just like religious texts. For instance, I am Arab American, but my name is Hebrew. My family named me after someone’s college friend. So, to me, I often just assumed that the names in books are kind of a personal choice for the author. The way I imagine it, the characters appear with their names with them. I’d rather give authors a comfortable space where they can name characters anything they want, regardless of what some people think people of color’s names should sound like.

  16. I saw the renewed complaints about the names in Sandhya Menon’s books and got annoyed again. All it took was a quick Google to see they were actually really popular Indian names. I wouldn’t have even felt the need to do that if I hadn’t seen people complaining about them. I definitely think people can be way too swift to judge books as soon as they see that there is a diverse cast of characters. I think we all need to recognise each book is individual and we need to stop thinking in stereotypes.

    • Yes, it seems that we all want to jump to conclusions without actually giving authors (and publishers!) the benefit of the doubt. That doesn’t mean we can’t wonder momentarily about a name or a detail (we’re human after all), but I’m always frustrated when people complain about something they don’t completely understand—especially when they do it in a way that might keep others from reading a book based on their snap judgments!

  17. We have a large Asian Population in my city, and my son was in all AP and IB classes in high school, so seeing that about 75% of the students in those classes were Asian, he has a lot of Asian friends. This post made me sit and think and I would say with his friends it’s about 50/50. So, anyone who was having a problem with the American sounding names was dead wrong. Great discussion post!

  18. This is such a great discussion Nicole. Koreans and Chinese who come to America even just for a few years for work or school many times take an American nickname because Americans can’t seem to remember how to pronounce their names properly. Asians in general (this includes Indians since they are from Asia too) seem to WANT to fit it… they adopt some Americanisms. I really appreciate this fact! Not all cultures do this. Actually I think either sorts of names are cool. I love Asian ones and American ones… it kind of tells me what kind of cultural exposure they are at as characters. <3

  19. I’ve never thought much into the names of POC characters in books. I know, from my culture, that a lot of Filipinos have American soundings names but their nicknames are different. Then, in Indian, barely any of us there have American names! I know people who nickname themselves something that the West can easily pronounce.

    • I’ve noticed that too. Actually, you saying that points out a glaring error in my post. When I was talking about the Asian people I know, I was specifically thinking of East Asians or Southeast Asians (because this is what most people I know refer to as “Asian” where I live), BUT I should have differentiated between that and South Asians (most people where I live refer to South Asians as “Indian”). Most Indian people I know have Indian names (sometimes with an American-sounding nickname, but not as often). So there’s a definite cultural difference there that should probably have been clarified. Sorry to have misspoken!

  20. Very interesting post Nicole! Funny I had never thought about it much and coincidentally yesterday I ran into a hispanic friend’s review that said…
    “So the name of the protagonist is Javier.
    Because if it is Mexican, of course his name is Javier.”
    I’ll have to pay more attention now

  21. Great post! I saw some of the ignorant comments about Sandhya Menon’s books on Goodreads. I think what you said about authors knowing their own culture is spot on.

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