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I’ve gotten used to folks not recognizing my last name—I grew up saying it in a Westernized way (he row see) and only started correcting people on the proper pronunciation in my late teens (hee row say). “It’s like the word ‘hero’ and the word ‘say’” is what I tell strangers now. Friends, teachers, and colleagues get my name wrong, and spellcheck programs usually don’t recognize it as a properly spelled name.
Barbara Lee, founder and president of the Vancouver Asian Film Festival and Elimin8Hate, chose her English name to avoid the hassle. “My older sister helped me Westernize my name—when you’re a kid, you just want to fit in,” she remembers. But having to change your name for people who have no trouble pronouncing Steve Buscemi or Saoirse Ronan takes a toll.
“As people of colour, we feel that we have a responsibility to educate,” says Lee, “but it takes a lot of emotional labour to teach people and to talk about these things.” Having to legitimize your name over and over again is exhausting, and programs like Microsoft Office flag ethnic names in that classic red underline—as in, wrong, try again.
In an effort to spark conversation and to make work a little easier for Asian folks, Lee and her team at Elimin8Hate have created a custom dictionary of over 8,000 common Asian names from more than 12 Asian countries. The free dictionary is available as a Microsoft plugin, so your documents will stop indicating that those names are spelled wrong.
“It’s a way to be more inclusive without people of colour taking on that emotional labour,” explains Lee. She notes that it’s obviously not a solution to a very complex problem, but rather a very easy-to-use (and free) tool that makes work a little better. “Yes, it’s a dictionary, yes, it has names, and yes, it’s backed by research, but the end goal really is awareness, understanding and cultural appreciation,” she adds.
The dictionary is available for free download at namereclaim.ca, and anyone can submit a name for future versions of the dictionary. Hirose’s not in there (I checked) but my middle name is. Progress!
VAFF, Elimin8Hate, and projects like namereclaim.ca are run almost entirely by volunteers—if you want to support this initiative and others like it, you can donate here.