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"'Legal' vs. 'Preferred': An Autoethnography on the Affective Consequences of Whiteness in Naming" | Georgia Lin

Wednesday 23rd November 2022

Georgia Lin graduated from Linacre this month with a MSt in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies concentrated on the socio-political impacts of racialisation and names. Here she shares with us an article exploring her research.

My dissertation for the MSt Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies degree concentrated on the socio-political impacts of racialisation and names. Names, and the act of being named, are intrinsic to everyday experiences of embodiment and legibility in Western society. The connotations of owning what one perceives as an “ethnic” name versus a white, Anglicised name impact one’s identity on an affective, felt level. Employing a feminist autoethnography methodology, I outline and reflect on my lived experiences as a first-generation diasporic Taiwanese immigrant woman of colour who holds both a racialised “legal” name (Yun Fei Lin) and a “preferred” Anglicised name (Georgia Lin) in Western nation states including the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.

I posit that autoethnography serves as a critical intervention into traditional objective narratives in academia and embraces a pedagogy of refusal against hegemonic structures of whiteness and its onomastic rituals. The modern forms of Orientalism that work in tandem with whiteness to enforce the categories of “ethnic” names, in turn, shape the affective experiences of racialised East Asian women. I explore personal incidences of racism and fetishization and wrestle with my family history of immigration and assimilation through a revealing autoethnographic process. I further analyse the affective consequences of internalised whiteness by interrogating the roles of the state and empire, anti-Asian racism and its affiliated politics of emotions, and the feminist possibilities inherent in a reclamation of East Asian womanhood in relation to my names. Names hold personal and political power that can mould processes of Othering. By reorienting our affective experiences towards building decolonial solidarities, diasporic women of colour can strengthen community and embrace our narratives in concert with the complex feelings of racialised and gendered embodiment.

The process of immigration and assimilation often involves changing one’s name to fit the Anglicised norms of Western society. “Ethnic” names are mocked at school and discriminated against in hiring (Meer, 2021); pronunciations are butchered and distorted to fit different alphabets. Therefore, immigrant families choose the route of minimal pain; for example, changing their child’s name from Lin Yun Fei (林耘非) to Georgia Lin. The former is my legal Mandarin name, the title used on official documents from my Canadian and Taiwanese passports to my student records at the University of Oxford. My “preferred” name is Georgia, chosen by my parents when we immigrated from Taiwan to New York City when I was seven years old. The affect of embodying legal and preferred names, both of which have complex emotional and geographical connotations, leads to the formation of a diasporic East Asian cultural identity that, as Lisa Lowe theorises, holds hybridities and multiplicities (1991).

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, East Asian immigrants have faced an onslaught of racism and discrimination that has yet to cease. I scarcely use my legal name in public for several reasons: firstly, an Anglicised pronunciation of “Yun Fei” is uncomfortable for me to hear as the person who embodies the name; secondly, by uttering my Mandarin name out loud, I am forced to be vulnerable and explain my upbringing to whoever is asking the question. I have considered officially changing my name to Georgia, but it would feel like defeat; the only change I have made so far is to have my undergraduate diploma read “Georgia Yun Fei Lin” rather than the inverse. At this time in my life, I cannot fathom shedding my identity of “Yun Fei” completely despite not using it daily. The lived realities of owning multiple names belonging to different cultural spheres and the affective shifts that occur for racialised women to perform belonging in white spaces have not been extensively articulated in feminist research. Through my dissertation, I ask: How do the gendered affects of “legal” versus “preferred,” or white versus racialised, affect the cultural identities of diasporic young East Asian immigrant women living in the United Kingdom?

The autoethnographic format of my dissertation reflects my intersectional, decolonial feminist praxis in research and beyond. Research on the lived experiences of marginalised and vulnerable peoples, which in this context includes me as the researcher, cannot be read or performed as a wholly neutral act. As a multiply marginalised individual, I do not fit into the Eurocentric norm of the academy, nor do I primarily study disciplines in the European tradition. By working at the margins and owning an interdisciplinary academic background, my research seeks to disrupt the canon by belonging to multiple radical thought disciplines. An autoethnography “refuses a notion of affectual connection outside of power” (Militz et al., 2019: 430), hence the connections I consistently make to structures of white supremacy that dominate the nation state and actively affect marginalised communities.

The question that has plagued me throughout the writing process is this: how can I begin reconciling the diasporic entanglements inherent to my legal and preferred names? Through completing my dissertation, I have found that critically engaging with my chosen feminist research methodology creates discursive clarity in an otherwise abstract conception of diaspora. Conducting autoethnography functions as an act of refusal against the dominant modes of research in academia that expects rigid “objectivity” when presenting research findings, nor can autoethnography be easily articulated within the preferred discursive methods of the academy (for example, in a poster presentation). In articulating my experiences of racism and embodiment as an immigrant woman of colour in the United Kingdom through autoethnography, I affirm them as real and assert the validity of our narratives.

The categorisation of “ethnic” names in the West is imbued with racism, xenophobia, and other oppressions from above and below that cannot be disentangled from one another. If we keep citing equitably and facilitate meaningful discursive platforms for multiply marginalised women of colour to share their stories, our communities can continue to write and rewrite our racialised, ethnic, legal, Othered names so that they may hold rich legacies of reclamation, refusal, and resilience within their letters.