by Sonny Nguyen
My name is Sonny. If you are reading this, in English, from almost any country in the world, you probably know that name. Maybe you don’t know me, maybe you don’t know anyone in real life by that name, but you know that Sonny is a name. You know how to read it, you know how to pronounce it, you can even probably spell it a few different ways.
My name is Sonny.
So please, someone out there in the vast collective genius that is the internet, please explain to me why a white person saw my name tag the other day and asked me how to pronounce it.
I get this question often enough that I shouldn’t have been as confused as I was. She watched me raise an eyebrow and look around for an exit. “Is it pronounced like Sony?” she asked, pronouncing it like the Playstation company.
“No…” I hesitated. I had already been written up a few times for sassing customers. They always started it, though. I promise.
“So, it’s Sonny.” She seemed a little disappointed.
“Yes, just like every other time you’ve seen these letters in this particular arrangement.”
An awkward pause.
“Oh.” She didn’t look offended, just confused. “Is that your –” She put her hands up in front of her and pushed them from her stomach towards me as she arched her back. For a second, I thought she had given up on English communication and moved into interpretive dance. “Like, is that your name from when you were, you know, born?”
Oh. She was birthing. That weird body thing was her birthing me. Wait, did she think I didn’t know what the word bornwould mean if she hadn’t done that? Did she think I didn’t know English?
“Yes. I… I have to go.”
This happens a lot. The name thing. The interpretive dance-communication thing happens a lot too, but not as much as the name thing. So let’s get this settled. Sonny is pronounced like Sonny. It is not pronounced Sony, Sawn-yuh, Sawnee or Sone-yee. It’s actually really easy. Sonny.
So why do white people constantly try to do the most with my name? Well, basically, it’s because the melanocytes in the basal layer of my epidermis are much more active than theirs. Even more basically, it’s because I’m brown.
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And let’s face it. White people love policing the names of people of color. My first name is too boring and standard to be the given name of any Asian person. At the same time, white folks make jokes about names like Quvenzhané, Rinko, and North West (quick side note: that is the best celebrity baby name ever), and there have been a few studies that show how hard it is to find jobs and even housing when you have a perceived ethnic name.
So what is it that white people want us to do? They want us to have easy to pronounce names that they’re familiar with, but they want us to have secret identities. They want to hear our fantastic, rolling, clicking, tonal names when they ask for them, and only when they ask for them.
They don’t want to have to call us by the same names our parents call us. They also don’t want us to have the same names they would. White people are notoriously bad at sharing – even names. They want to know that folks of color are different and exotic and special, but willing to assimilate.
Make no mistake, white people. My name is not an attempt at assimilation. My name is an act of resistance. My name is exactly what it seems on someone who does not seem how they should seem. My name is a logic puzzle for backwards-racists. My name is simple, yet apparently perplexing.
My name is Sonny.
It’s pronounced like Sonny.
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