To give or not to give "helpful" suggestions to people of less privilege

Decorative image of Asian woman and a train zooming by

"Should I suggest to a foreigner that they change their name to make life easier for themself?" Answer: Don't. No matter how well-meaning.

"At work, I'm training a person from a foreign country who has a difficult name to pronounce and to remember. Should I suggest that it might make their life easier if they shortened their name, like others in earlier cohorts have?"

This question was raised by a (judging from the profile pic) white person from what I presumed to be an English-speaking country.

I recognize that this comes from a good place, that it's well-meaning, that the person who was asking was, as a trainer/mentor, trying to think of ways to make the adjustment easier for the trainee.

That was my calm, reasonable voice.

But my gut reaction was a vehement and furious "NO!!"

Suggesting that someone change their name to fit in screams condescension.

It tells them: "You are a foreigner, you aren't good enough for us as you are, you have to efface whatever part of you is foreign so that you can blend in."

Some people will say that I'm blowing it all out of proportion—after all, they wouldn't mind if someone gave them this "helpful" advice.

I wonder if such people have ever been in the minority, the outsider, where it's constantly signaled to you—in looks, in words (no matter how kind), in deeds—that you don't fit in, that you're foreign, an alien.

You could say it was being realistic, even if it wasn't the trainee's fault that others couldn't pronounce their name.

But why be party to such a petty reality?

I liked the advice that someone else gave on the forum:

First, wait for the foreign trainee to bring up the issue themself. 

Then acknowledge that it's an unfortunate challenge, and brainstorm with them an easy, memorable way to teach others their unusual, hard-to-pronounce name.

I know it's not easy or even all that clear-cut how to be culturally sensitive. Too often, I, too, feel like my well-meaning attempt as a "pale Asian" to be sensitive only comes across as being patronizing.

So if you are a person with privilege (in whatever form), and want to make "helpful" suggestions to a person of less privilege so that they "fit in" better, please instead take those suggestions and make them to others who have privilege like you.

Be supportive of the persons of less power, be a listener when they do come to you. I'm sure they will appreciate having you as a friend or supportive colleague.


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