What counts as an ‘American name’ in a changing nation
This was produced in conjunction with About US, a Washington Post forum to explore issues of race and identity in the United States. Sign up for the newsletter.
Few things signal the challenge America faces as it adapts to its evolving demographics more than a name.
Four in 10 Americans now identify as non-White, according to the latest census report, and they are transforming what counts as a common U.S. name.
So much so that when Katherine He analyzed census data of 348 million American baby names between 1880 to 2017, for the Linguistic Society of America, she found that boys are now four times as likely to have “unique” names, defined as “novel, non-conventional names” per 1,000 people. Girls are almost three times as likely to have a “unique” name.
“That obviously has to do with an influx of immigrants and names from other cultures coming in,” He said.
Translation: In many cases, “unique” means non-White.
“My parents say I am lucky to have a ‘White’ name. It is better for my future,” said Natalie Sydney Phan, a high school senior from Wichita.
Her parents initially planned to call her Thanh but her mom “begged” for Natalie after Natalie Portman, “scared that no one could pronounce Thanh,” she said, adding that “the struggle to pick the right name is “a story of survival in America … a story of resilience.”
How this name project came to be
Not fitting in led me to spurn my full name for many years. Then a wave of anti-Asian attacks pushed me to reclaim it. When I wrote about my journey, more than a thousand readers wrote in about how their names had affected their stake in the American Dream and their sense of “Americanness.” These readers, from all different backgrounds and ages, said they faced many of the same questions: Can I call you something else? Where are you really from? What are you?
Some still struggle with the idea that their name is too foreign, too other. Their stories were often triggered by major global events, from wars and terrorist attacks to protest movements, that propelled them to reexamine their names and embark on a slow, often painful, journey to acceptance. Many have embraced their monikers and say it’s time to reclaim what counts as an American name.
It’s time for Juan, Emily and Uzoamaka to all have equal claim.
Ekaterina Vyacheslavovna Elson
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Ekaterina Vyacheslavovna Elson started to hesitate when asked about her origins.
“Sometimes I’m afraid to say that I’m from Russia,” said Elson.
In work meetings, says Elson, an international business development project manager, “people comment and say, ‘We don’t want to have anything to do with Russians.’”
The 33-year-old, who emigrated from Russia to Alaska at the age of 13, says she has dealt with finding acceptance of her name since childhood. “I would just get made fun of for my name and my accent all the time,” Elson said.
But people have been more vocal during the war. Some of Elson’s Russian acquaintances in Maryland told her their clients dropped them shortly after the invasion.
Her first name, Ekaterina, she said, has a Greek origin: “Katerina,” from “katharos,” meaning pure, she said. It’s also associated with Ekaterina II, or Catherine the Great, the Russian empress and Russia’s longest-ruling female leader.
“Ekaterina has always been a struggle for anyone who attempted to read my driver’s license. I haven’t even touched my middle name yet,” she said. (It’s Vyacheslavovna.)
Her high school gym teacher didn’t even try, instead calling her Elson, the surname of her stepfather who adopted her. “Russian names are notoriously lengthy, which is understandably difficult for people of many different linguistic backgrounds to pronounce.”
But even the short version of her name, Katya, has been butchered. “I was once told by a classmate in middle school that my name is spelled wrong and should instead be spelled ‘Caughtya,’” said Elson.
Her cousin has the same first name but adopted Kate to better fit in while attending school in Indiana.
It was out of sheer stubbornness, said Elson, that she has refused to change her name, even when she suspected it was hampering her job prospects.
“It looked awful to me. Kate Elson or Catherine Elson,” she says. “I’m not gonna change my name so I can get a job, be somebody else.”
Ahmed is such a common name in Egypt, says Ahmed Ibrahim, that when he founded a rock band, three out of five bandmates shared the name. To help differentiate, “in Egypt when you write your name, you write your dad’s name,” explained Ibrahim, so to those bandmates, he was not just known as Ahmed the drummer, but as Ahmed Nasser, adding his father’s first name.
But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Ibrahim says, he decided it was time for a change. One of the hijackers was also named Ahmed, which means “a person with a very pleasant character.”
But “no matter how woke you are, that’s what you think of,” said Ibrahim, a 33-year-old mechanical engineer.
After the attacks, he began using the name “Ed,” then “Aiden,” on LinkedIn, Uber and various dating apps. His online alter egos felt like “safer” options, he said. His roommate had warned him that “no one wants to swipe right on a terrorist.”
When driving for Uber, “people would cancel on me immediately just because I’m Ahmed there. And when I put Aiden in, it just turned around. I mean, I got Burning Man tickets, for God’s sake,” he said, referring to a gift from a generous passenger.
“My life has been an upward trajectory ever since I became Aiden and it went from ‘Obviously he’s an Arab’ to like, ‘Ooh, you’re ethnically ambiguous,’” said Ibrahim.
Ideally, Ibrahim says he would rather define what his name means for himself. “I want to be treated as if, like, I’m a question mark. Like it doesn’t matter what my name is; it doesn’t come with a preloaded notion.”
But that’s not always the case, so Ibrahim says he’s sticking with Aiden for now.
AikWah Leow immigrated to the United States from Malaysia at 19 years old to attend Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. Her name was a frequent topic of conversation.
“A lot of people are very accepting, no matter what color you are and what you look like and what your name sounds like,” she said. “But still a few are just not as kind.”
Of 16,000 students at the university, Leow was the only one from Malaysia, and was often called “the Egg Girl” or the “Eggroll.” She was asked if her parents “dropped dishes on the floor to find the right name.”
Her name means “virtuous flower,” which her parents picked to inspire her.
After a gunman targeted three Asian spas in Atlanta in 2021, Leow, 51, says she was frightened, especially since her daughter lived close to where the shootings happened. She also thought a lot about the significance of her name again and how it set her apart. Names were “a big discussion in the Asian American community here in Georgia when the attacks happened,” she said. “A lot of the reporters did not know how to pronounce the names of the victims. And it was as if they were victimized all over again.”
Her name had felt like a stumbling block in the past. After having trouble finding a job, she revised her résumé to reflect her married name, AikWah Williamson, using the last name of her new husband. “With only one change, I received several opportunities to interview and found a great job in an ad agency almost immediately.”
Even now, the secretaries in her office keep “a list of how many ways you can butcher my name,” she says. “They just kind of gave up after five” variations.
But after her divorce in 2005, Leow says she became sad about having abandoned the name her parents were so proud of.
She began using her maiden name again, Leow said, and uses it “loud and proud.”
Jaime Gabriel Garcia
Jaime Gabriel Garcia was attending Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff when Arizona passed the “show me your papers” law, requiring people suspected of being undocumented to show proof of legal immigration status to the police.
In the months after the law, which was eventually overturned in court, went into effect, Garcia says he was repeatedly stopped by police who peppered him with questions: They asked for “my green card, which I don’t have,” he said. “I’m a citizen who was born in the United States. … I was asked about where I was born, how long I’d been in this country. How I learned English so well.”
Many people, including the police officers, also mispronounced his name, which Garcia says felt like an attempt “to exert their authority in order to emphasize the ‘otherness’ of my name.”
Garcia was named after his father, a choice his mother and grandmother pushed for, despite his father’s worries. “I can’t believe my parents could have named me like James or something. It would have been so much easier. I would have gotten teased a lot less when I was a kid,” he says.
The senior Jaime had shortened his own name to Jim. “He wanted something that he could use as more of an easy transition to develop business relationships with people,” said Garcia, who is of Mexican, Salvadoran and Italian descent. “It wasn’t as cultural or political for him, where it is definitely is for me.”
But for Garcia, those experiences have pushed him to hold tighter to his name.
“I can’t push my identity down anymore,” said Garcia, a public library analyst who joined the Latino Employees Organization in Long Beach. “My name should not be what is most convenient for you.”
His name is also an immediate connection to his family, Garcia says, unlike his cousin who was named Kevin and wishes for a more Latino name. “I hated my first name before,” Garcia said. But “my name is unique, my name is mine. … And I’m proud of me and I’m proud of my parents for having that courage.”
Amanda Ayako Ota
America’s incarceration of people of Japanese descent, including Japanese Americans, during World War II, left a lasting mark on Amanda Ayako Ota’s family.
Some members of Ota’s family fought against the Japanese in the 442nd Infantry during the war while other family members were incarcerated in camps in California.
Around that time, many of them also abandoned their traditional Japanese names for American monikers, she said.
“There was a lot of shame around being Japanese back then and a lot of stigma,” said Ota.
Hiroshi, her grandfather, became Harold. Among her great-uncles, Kiyoshi became Kayo, Masaru became Bruce and Tadashi became Bob.
They also took other steps to Americanize themselves. They didn’t teach their children how to speak Japanese. And when Japanese American families received reparations in the 1990s, her grandparents used the money to take their family to Disney World.
“As family folklore goes, they chose that trip because it was the most American thing they could think to do with the funds … to prove their belonging.”
But Ota says it’s time to reclaim her Japanese heritage. She always includes her middle name, Ayako, after her grandmother, on forms, even when buying plane tickets. According to her family, the word means the “fine process of silk,” but as a name can mean “my precious one,” said Ota.
Her mother didn’t want to give her an Asian first name, to emphasize that “you are an American,” she said.
Ota, who is of Japanese, Norwegian and Irish descent, added, “I am, in fact, very proud to be an American. But it’s still important to me to own the fact that I am, undisputedly, a Japanese American woman. The more I learn about how much my grandparents had to abandon their Japanese identity to assimilate, the more important it becomes for me to own that heritage in our world today, especially with what’s going on in the world now. I’m not about to let us lose anymore of ourselves or our heritage to the comfort of those afraid of our differences.”
Thenedra Roots grew up feeling like an outsider. She was placed into foster care after her mother struggled with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction. At the age of 12, she was adopted by a White family.
Roots says she began to resent her biological family and decided to change her last name, Hunter, to Corey after being adopted. (It changed again, to Roots, after she married.)
But she kept her first name, despite it being constantly mispronounced. “It was one of those things that I’ve always loved,” Roots said of her first name.
People struggling to pronounce her name would give up and just use her initials. Others purposefully mispronounced her name so that it sounded like a racial epithet, she said.
“I just laughed with the jokes. I wasn’t in a position to be able to advocate for myself. It wasn’t safe to say, ‘Hey, you know, that’s not funny. It makes me uncomfortable’ or ‘Hey, that’s racist,’” said Roots.
When she recently reconnected with her biological mother, the first thing she asked about was the origin of her name. It turned out to be something her biological mother and grandmother “made up” off her father’s name, Theo.
During the protests following George Floyd’s murder, Roots felt a new level of acceptance. She lived just 15 miles from the Minneapolis street corner where Floyd had died and as the protests swelled, she raised money and provided groceries, hygiene products and child care for protesters. “It was such a somber experience, but also healing for me to come together as a community over such a tragic event,” said Roots.
Despite her own struggles, Roots says she purposely gave her sons unique names: Sovi, Kaius, Mairo and Lior. And she also makes sure her name is pronounced correctly.
“I will correct people every single time that they say it wrong,” said Roots. “It’s who I am. It’s like the one thing in my life that has been consistent since the day I took my first breath. … My name to me is my entire story, my resilience, my childhood of my trauma, my success and everything now.”
We all have origin stories. Help The Post’s reporting on how our names contribute to our identity by calling 866-NAME-PLZ (866-626-3759) and telling us about your name.