Month: September 2015

In Full Bloom: Uncovering My Vietnamese Name

My name is Elaine, which is derivative of the old French name Hélène meaning “shining light.” The symbolic meaning is quite lovely. But this is just my given Anglicized name. I am not French or white. Before I was even born, my Vietnamese parents chose this name for me—this name that can be easily pronounced without question or confusion, in any place that I should travel to in the United States. This name grants me certain privileges that others with more ethnic names do not have. Upon meeting me in person, people do not make racially colored assumptions about me due to my name.

My name is Elaine Ngọc Yến Lê. It took me nineteen years to fully embrace this.

As a child, I took my name for what it was and with young innocence, I did not question it. Once I learned how to spell my Vietnamese name, my little self would always proudly write Elaine Ngoc Yen Le at the upper left hand corner of all of my homework. This easily became one of my momentary childhood practices. This memory makes me smile.

But as an adolescent, I dropped my middle name from all of my papers. I had witnScreen Shot 2015-09-28 at 10.44.14 AMessed a few instances—too many instances—of other peers with names such as Bích, Phúc, Phát getting teased incessantly. And I did not want to be one of them. I refused to believe that I could be just another outcast (In retrospect, I wish that I could have interrupted the bullying but my concern over my own reputation took precedent—it was some kind of ironic survival mode, one that we thought our parents would have left behind in the War). I quickly learned that my middle name was constructed by American norms to be weird, inconvenient. It was enough to make me want to hide it—the identity that I was too shy and self-conscious to confront.

Exploring my identity eventually became a subconscious challenge for me through my childhood and adolescence. I experienced self-disapproval, loathing even the sound of my name rolling off of someone else’s tongue, a feeling much like the embarrassment and surprise we experience when we hear our voices on the recording of a VHS tape—distorted, fuzzy, strange, unlike the self we think we know, the self we want to appear to others. I wanted to be normal, to have an “American” middle name like Janet. This memory now makes me cringe.

Now I am a junior in college and I am proud of my name. I experienced a particular sense of belonging and self-acceptance in my introductory Vietnamese class last year when we had a discussion about our names and their symbolic meanings. Vietnamese parents give particular care and thought to the names they bestow onto their children—names that reflect qualities and virtues they wish upon their children. Ngọc literally translates to precious gemstone, jade. Yến literally translates to sparrow, little bird’s nest. This name represents the essence of my being, more than I could ever articulate in English. It is deeply meaningful to me and it reminds me of my ancestors who came before me, without whom I would not exist today. It connects me to the traditional value of remembering.


Some Common Vietnamese Names and Meanings

“Phúc” (Phuc) means phúc đức, phúc hậu, hạnh phúc – kindness, merit and happiness. 
“Đam”, “Đàm” (Dam) mean yên tĩnh, yên lòng, an tâm – tranquility, calmness, relief.
“Bích” (Bich) means ngọc bích, ngọc lục bảo – emerald, jade (can be understood as both the color and the precious gemstones).
“Sơn” (Son) means núi, mạnh mẽ và uy nghiêm như núi – mountains, as strong and majestic as the mountains.
“Đạt” (Dat) means thành đạt, vẻ vang – success, honor, glory.
“Nga” (Nga) means xinh đẹp, tốt đẹp – beauty, kindness.
“Đông” (Dong) means mùa đông, hướng đông – winter, East.
“Dũng” (Dung) means dũng mãnh, anh dũng – strength, power, bravery.
“Dung” (Dung) means xinh đẹp, yêu kiều – beauty, elegance, grace.

(translations provided by Rb Nguyen)

These are just some of the names—beautiful, strong, meaningful names—that people recreate as jokes and profanities. It is simply unacceptable to laugh at someone’s name—especially an ethnic name, whose beautiful meaning is usually lost in translation to its English phonetics. Teasing someone on the basScreen Shot 2015-09-28 at 10.44.23 AMis of their name is first and foremost bullying. It hurts a very human being. It is deeply insulting, and can cause someone to feel embarrassed and ashamed of their language, heritage, and self. It is disrespectful to an entire culture and its rich history. It contributed to the rejection of my racial identity during my adolescence. I am lucky today to be fighting my internalized racism, to be reclaiming my heritage.

In my twenty-first year of living, I am still at the beginning of discovering myself. Just recently have I begun to dig deeper into the soil that nourished my roots.




Image source:




My White Skin

MY WHITE SKIN affords me social privileges that many cannot enjoy. All of these privileges grant me unfair access to an ease of life in virtually every social, political, economic, and situation in the United States of America. However, one privilege seems to be the most toxic—the privilege to forget.

I, unlike my siblings of color, do not have to worry about the day-to-day struggle against a system; the system favors me. A white, cisgender, heterosexual, educated, able-bodied male is almost as privileged as it gets in our nation. I don’t confront oppression against myself on a daily basis like many others. I, indeed, find myself forgetting that systematic oppression exists. However, simply because oppression does not affect me does not mean that I can forget it exists.

The white majority oftentimes forgets about systematic racism, and this occurs every day, even among celebrities.

Case #1: Recently, Taylor Swift rocked the music world by asserting her white privilege. After misinterpreting a Tweet from Nikki Minaj, she changed a conversation about structural racism into one about the hurt feelings of a musician. She asserted her privilege in two ways: 1) in her ignorance of the issues, and, 2), in politely apologizing and leaving the conversation altogether.

The first error is necessary to be acknowledged for social awareness and progress—to understand our mistakes and correct them in the future. However, Swift’s second mistake—to remove herself from the conversation—is much more problematic. Swift allowed her hurt feelings (of embarrassment and shame of misinterpreting Minaj’s tweet) to overcome the greater conversation of systematic oppression in the music industry.

And, as much as I wish to say that I have never committed an error of the sort, I too am guilty of white ignorance.

Case #2: I currently work as a Resident Advisor for on-campus housing at San José State University. I work in the Black Scholar’s Community—a floor dedicated to providing a safe space for the black community in residential life. This community is new to residential life, and I am an extremely—almost pale—white male. I admittedly knew little to nothing about the current struggles of the black community besides what I’d seen on the morning news.

In an honest, genuine attempt to learn, I began asking my black residents about their culture. I wanted to know about their experiences, their struggles with racism. I wanted them to educate me. I, however, asserted my white privilege in its most systematic form.

I believed that asking for the Black community to educate me made me an ally. But instead of taking the initiative to cure my own ignorance, I gave the burden to them, expecting this community to take my workload. “Why should we have to continue to educate others about our culture?” one resident said to me. “I don’t need you to tell me about your holidays or traditions or customs. They’re already imbedded in me from television, movies, and the radio.”

These stories illustrate a notion I believe imperative to any true White ally: to not step away from the oppression that you don’t experience, and to educate yourself regarding oppressed communities.

It’s easy to believe that treating marginalized peoples with respect is enough to make you an ally. If I’m not overtly prejudice, how am I the problem? This question, however, is entirely too simplistic in its assumptions. Systematic racism is–by nature–nature, covert, hidden, subtle. And this system is built into our psyche, into the way we communicate with one another.

MY WHITE SKIN gives me the privilege to step away from the fight, to believe these systems of oppression don’t exist. But until humankind is freed from the bondages of oppressed identities, I will continue to break down the barriers between my marginalized family and myself.



Ben is a Resident Advisor at SJSU, in Joe West Hall. He is a third year student majoring in English Subject Matter Preparation with a minor in Humanities. If you are interested in being featured like Ben on our blog, please email: with a blog post, attached photograph, and the source for the latter. 

Authenticity vs. Code Switching

I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be “myself.” This is something that I have been told all my life: “Be brave, be yourself!” “Don’t let anyone tell you who or how to be!” “Just be yourself!” That last one I heard the most. Whenever I would apply for jobs, prepare for presentations, or do anything that involved assessment from others, the advice I was always given was “Just be yourself!” Never mind that I literally had no clue who that person was, no way to let her manifest herself in my daily interactions, and no way of knowing who this true “self” is.


I have heard this kind of transcendentalist language for as long as I can remember. And for as long as I can remember, I have been reciting it to myself by way of self-love. And I think it has been working in many ways. Just recently I have started to come to terms with my intersecting identities, with the multi-faceted nature of my experience as a Muslim woman of color. This summer I travelled to Europe, traversing the grounds of four separate countries, three of which I had no linguistic knowledge. The blatant looks people gave me and my caramel colored skin reminded me of my different appearance, but for some reason I understood that whatever they were thinking had nothing to do with me. For some reason, on the metro in Prague, I was able to think to myself: You are brown. You are real. And you are okay.

When I returned from Europe this mentality slowly found its way into every aspect of my life. I found that I didn’t care whether people stared for a second too long at me. When I waited in line for coffee and was cut off by a stranger, it did not cross my mind that this might of happened because I am brown. None of these horrific toxic thoughts infiltrated my mind. I felt like I was finally becoming “free,” whatever that means. I felt that I could finally start being “myself,” that awkward, introverted, occasionally-loud, nerdy, bookish girl that I know I am in my heart. More importantly, I was starting to feel that I had a good idea of who I am, what I want, who I want to be, and who I want to surround myself with.

But there is another prevailing narrative that I have been thinking about even more now: code switching. All my life can be summed up in a few moments, each with me speaking in a different tone of voice, different language, or a different vernacular. If I presented these scenarios to myself—each with me code switching in a different manner—I wouldn’t recognize that girl. She too is different from me. But I have had to learn how to deftly, quickly, and smoothly change myself for those around me. I believe this is a skill that women of color in particular are forced to cultivate. It becomes about survival, about getting by. And in a country that pushes messages that promulgate thriving instead of surviving, how can I do the former, when I am too busy trying to succeed at the latter?

How can I be “myself” when I have to be what other people expect of me at any given point of time? If I refuse these societal expectations, then I too am bereft and my opportunities are limited. I also then become a representation of all women who are like me—in this case other Muslim brown girls. That’s the thing with racism and stereotyping: you stand for everyone looks like you. You are seen that way, therefore everyone who is like you physically must be just like you internally.

But then if I give in, I lose what I have discovered about myself. I have not been able to find a balance between code switching and authenticity. I wonder why no one has taught me how to find that equilibrium. My parents didn’t teach me anything: they just told me to work hard and I would succeed. In a country like theirs, where there is no such thing as race, there is no need to have a conversation about what my skin color will mean for me when I am being assessed. I have been taught how to participate in job interviews, how to carry myself in academic settings, but no one ever sat me down and told me that I would have to over-compensate for what others might merely acquire. I reflect on why that is and I have come to a few  conclusions:

Many of the people who told me to be “myself” were white. In fact, all of them were. And I think there is a certain liberty that comes with being white and pursuing authenticity. The stakes aren’t as high, the repercussions are not as severe. There is an entire system of oppression that has been constructed to a white person’s benefit that has not been for me. Code switching is not a necessity for a white person in the way it is for me. Rather, it is simply a good idea in certain situations. Choosing not to partake in code switching for a white person will not warrant the negative consequences it will for me.

Secondly, my parents have internalized whiteness. So much so that they never thought to tell me that I am brown and that will mean I am other. They just thought that I could work hard like all my counterparts and I could then have the same opportunities. That, coupled with the fact that there is no such thing as race in Egypt, have resulted in my ill-preparedness for the reality that will face me as women of color.

Finally, as a woman of color, code switching is necessary. I cannot walk into all spaces as myself. I cannot choose the spaces that will suit me when an entire country has been built to my detriment; I must walk through life aware of when and how to change my behavior and mannerisms for others. It cannot be about me. It is a difficult and sad reality to acknowledge, but it is a truth I must live with—probably for the rest of my life. I have become more okay with the concept, but I have a long way to go before I am able to simultaneously code switch and maintain a sense of identity within myself.


            What does it mean to code switch in a time when authenticity is the prevailing rhetoric? It means to lose yourself, over and over again every day. To then have to find yourself, over and over again—every day. This is the psychological and emotional struggle of many woman of color, myself being one of them. And it is draining. It is tiring. It is real.



“You’re So Pretty to Be Dark Skinned”

“Mommy why don’t you ever straighten my hair? Or give me one ponytail? Why does it always have to be like this?” I asked while pulling the kinky, curly tips dripping with water.  I remember having this debate with my mother every Sunday night. You see, my mommy did my hair once a week, not every morning like some girls. My hair was too “thick” and “full”, I had a “head full of hair.” Or so that’s what Mommy said. Every morning before getting on the school bus, Mommy made sure to change the color of my barrettes to match my outfit for the day and spray my hair with oil and water.

She thought I looked “adorable” that way and maybe she was right. Leaving the house I could have looked great, but she wasn’t there when I got to school and began playing and running, and when the sun came out and dried my hair into an Afro. She wasn’t there when all my light skinned friends with straight hair asked me why my hair looked so “crazy”. She wasn’t there to hear my classmates take the terms I was use to my hair being like “full” and “thick” and turn them into “nappy” and “ugly”. And she definitely was not there every day when I took my routine trip to the bathroom to dump my head under the faucet to ease some of the “ugly” away.

My mother only knew of the unconditional love she had for me that made me beautiful in her eyes no matter how my hair was. But she was oblivious to the hate I had for myself every moment I walked outside. I wished and prayed to whoever I was taught was the “man upstairs” to make me lighter, to give me straight hair, to make me beautiful.

In my young eyes beautiful was light skin, colored eyes, with long straight hair. It was the complete opposite of what I happened to be.

The Clark experiment captured this entirely. In the 1940s Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted an experiment that was meant to test the psychological effect that segregation had on African American children. The experiment included two dolls, one that was white and the other black. In the Clark’s experiment, the dolls would be lying down on a table and the young African American child would be sitting in front of them. The first question asked is to point out the white doll from the black, just to insure that the children knew the difference. Followed are questions such as; “which doll is nice vs which is bad” and “which is ugly vs whmosaic blogich is pretty.” This experiment that is still being tested today has added some new questions and new shades of dolls while still testing the same original question: How has segregation affected not only African American children but children of all races. It is now five dolls that range from white being the lightest and black being the darkest with shades of tan and brown in the middle. It is also now being experimented on all races along with new questions being added such as; “which one do you trust/distrust,” “which do adults like/dislike,” “which one is smart/dumb,” and much more. Majority of the kids answer the negative questions with pointing to the African American doll or darker shades, while using the White doll or lightest shade to answer the positive questions. When asked “Why is that one ugly?” or “Why do adults not like that one?” many of the children answered “because he/she is black”. The last question of the experiment is “Which one do you look the most like”. The White children have no hesitation as they point to the White doll that just received all the positivity with a smile, almost a sense of pride that reflects all that positivity. The Hispanic children ponder a little depending on how dark their skin actually is, majority choose the White doll while very little choose the Black one. But for the African American children it’s a different story. They tend to hesitate while reflecting on everything they just said. They don’t have an outlet or an option in between choosing either doll, knowing inside that they look more similar to the Black one. Initially the children were literally just answering questions with answers they thought to be true. But when the last question is brought into play, that little Black doll that was ugly, mean, dumb, distrustful, and disliked by adults is now a mirror. It’s no longer just an experiment; it becomes the reality of how African American children see themselves. And what I’m trying to dig deep to find is how? How an experiment that was conducted decades ago, right after segregation is banned illegal, the same fate and reality of 2015? How is it that six year old African American children who don’t even understand why, already hate who they are?

I believe it’s all in the system of oppression; institutionalized oppression along with micro-aggressions. Actions that may seem “harmless” for some people, such as a woman clutching her purse when she walks by a Black man or a  worker following a group of Black kids around a store to make sure they aren’t stealing becomes detrimental to the mindset after experiencing so many times.  Statements–or should I say intended compliments–like “Oh My God, you’re so pretty! Are you mixed? You can’t be fully Black! You have to be mixed!” are never forgotten. They become a constant reminder, along with every action encountered that being black is a downfall. That being black is something that someone shouldn’t be prideful about. Imagine feeling the need to prove yourself to every person you meet, that you’re not that stereotype. Imagine smiling at every person you pass, not because you’re having a great day and are full of joy, but because you don’t want to appear as the “angry black person.” Imagine sitting in the front row of every class and raising your hand to every question, not because you actually want to, but because you don’t want to appear as the black kid that doesn’t care about education. Just imagine living a life where you’re onsistently walking on egg shells and giving your all to be the exact opposite of what you feel the entire world thinks of you.

I can’t speak on every Black person’s experience in life but I can share with you mine. And for me, that is my reality. I was raised in a home that showered me with consistent love. I was always reminded of how beautiful and smart I am but somehow self-hate and low self-esteem still creeped its way into my life. The society we live in today is full of micro-aggressions. Whether it’s through media, music, or general everyday life, they are around constantly and they are a major role in why the Clark Experiment is still relevant today.



Colonial Mentality: Brown Skin, White Minds

Colonial mentality? Ever heard of it? Chances are that you probably haven’t heard of such a term. Well to understand this term and provide a little more context to it, we are going to explore a little bit about Pilipino history and try to provide the roots of where the colonial mentality originates from. The Philippines has had to deal with two phases of colonization: the first comes from the Spanish because Spain acquired the Philippines as a territory through colonization with the first wave of Spanish colonizers, led by Ferdinand Magellan. The more important phase of colonization that the Philippines experienced that affects most if not all Pilipinos and Pilipino-Americans today was the U.S. phase. As the Philippines was acquired from the Spanish-American war as the result of the Treaty of Paris in 1898,  officially making the country a colonized territory of the U.S. as a result of the Philippine-American war, thus starting the roots of what is now known as the colonial mentality.

Now to get on the real stuff of defining the colonial mentality. It is defined by Lakandiwa M. de Leon, author of “Filipinotown and the DJ Scene: Cultural Expression and Identity Affirmation of Filipino American Youth in Los Angeles” as “an attempt to conceal the native or indigenous, a manifestation of acute inferiority complex.” What this means is that many individuals who have this mentality consciously hide their native or ethnic identity generally in response to assimilate into the mainstream culture. First generation Pilipino parents in America tend to pass this mentality to their American-born and –raised children. A nuance as part of the colonial mentality is that Pilipino-American youth not only have to search for a history ancolonial-mentality-in-the-Philippinesd culture that is sometimes lost or kept from them, but must also battle the mentalities that prevent them from embracing that heritage.

Now how does this exactly relate to privilege, power, and oppression? The two identities we will be focusing on for the sake of this piece is race and ethnicity. Strictly focusing on the definition of the colonial mentality and its influence on Pilipinos, it acts as a system of oppression upon Pilipinos by creating a reasoning that native or indigenous ethnic and racial identity is a source of shame and lower status while being phenotypically white and adopting the mainstream culture is perceived to be a sign of higher status and the right way of being. As the colonial mentality reproduces such thought and logic, what this does is it reinforces the mainstream culture of the United States and those who are phenotypically white as points of privilege and higher status in society.

The bigger question of this all is how to decolonize one’s self of this mentality. There are various ways in which one can do this, but from my personal experience it came from learning about myself as a Pilipino-American and seeking out what it means to be Pilipino ethnically as a American-born youth coming out of Hayward, CA. It wasn’t really until I came to San Jose State University that I had the opportunity to learn about my history and my culture in a formalized class with Dr. Estella Habal. It has provided me with a sense of being on a deep and holistic level that I carry with me everyday. Now this is not saying that I do not suffer from the colonial mentality anymore because there are certain attitudes in which I still harbor within me, but I am slowly working on it as it is a lifelong process. Being in this constant battle of colonized versus decolonized is something that will eventually be won, but I encourage people to explore one’s identity and see where the research will lead one.