I wrote not long ago about an Alexandria man who took offense whenever anyone asked him "what kind of a name" Frank Shema was. Shema saw a bigot hiding behind every such question. But dozens of readers saw benign curiosity.
"I failed to understand...Mr. Shema's antagonism toward people who asked him what kind of a name his was," writes Jeanne Theodora Crandall Broulik of Chevy Chase.
"Names are fascinating. And to most people. Nor is this curiosity based on a desire to humiliate or degrade. Rather, it pricks up people's ears to hear a different-sounding given or surname. I know that it does mine.
"Simply because of this kindly curiosity, I have learned that most people are proud of their names, and pleased to tell whatever they know of their ethnic origins."
Rather than refuse to answer, Shema "should seize every opportunity to lecture those who ask him about his roots, rather than to consider them 'thoughtless' or 'offensive,'" argues Val Choslowsky.
Some of us don't carry a stereotyping bone in our bodies. "I'm the one who knew someone named Greenberg for two years before it occurred to me that he might be of Jewish extraction," writes Rick Ellrod of Vienna.
And many readers with multi-ethnic names wear them like badges. Here's how Patricia Csilla Maloney of Northwest described it:
"I have great fun with my middle name (which is the Hungarian equivalent of Stella, by the way) and gleefully anticipate the reaction of people when they are first confronted by it.
"It is unique, therefore interesting, and in my opinion prettier than the English version. Using it is one way I have of publicly celebrating a part of my ethnic background that I do not often have a chance to otherwise celebrate and which I am proud of. . . .
"It may or may not be anyone else's business where my name originated, but I'm glad they were interested enough to ask."
Delighted as I am at all the cheerful curiosity that's abroad in the land, I can't help but nod knowingly at a letter from J. M. White Jr. of Upper Marlboro.
"My name is White," he writes, "but only because some ignorant person told my grandfather that his Lithuanian name was too hard to spell....After all, my grandfather was only an 'ignorant foreigner' who spoke, read and wrote five languages (including English), but what did he know, right?"
In this day and time, the grandson regularly encounters such situations as this:
"(While in graduate school), I had a professor look at my Slavic features and say, 'Well, your name is certainly not White. What was it?' I asked him why he was asking. He could not answer, or would not."
To me, these and similarly upsetting anecdotes are a lot more like the real world that I inhabit every day.
Be honest: if your name is Gonzalez, aren't you asked all the time if you're Mexican? Do you really believe the questioner asks because he's fascinated with Mexican culture? More likely, as soon as you say yes, you're Mexican, he'll tell you a taco joke, and expect you to laugh.
Similarly, what if your name is Ali Reza Amiri? Throughout the year-plus when the American hostages were held in Tehran, many people must have asked you if you were Iranian. Do you think they inquired because they wanted to know about carpets? Heck, no. They wanted to type you, and perhaps damn you.
Until we look at a Murphy, or a Tanaka, or a Schwartz, and see a person, not a stereotype, curiosity about surnames isn't innocent. I'm with Frank Shema when it comes to the "what kind of a name" question. It may sound merely curious. But most of the time, I know better.