I’ve always been Hernández on the inside. But identity can be funny: sometimes, what’s inside doesn’t matter.
When I was only 18 months old, my parents — the Hernández family — requested permission to legally change our surname.
According to family lore, the judge bounced me on his lap as my father explained the discrimination that he had experienced throughout his life because of his Latinx identity and last name.
He was denied employment and professional advancement, was presumed undocumented and was subsequently given lower wages.
My parents didn’t want me to experience the same hardships. So, they sought to “neutralize” – as they put it – our Puerto Rican name.
They swapped one sweater for another, changing “Hernández” to “Hernann.” (They added the final “n” so the name didn’t look cut off…or like a Latinx first name, I suppose.) And presto: neutrality!
Thirty years later – after extensive self-reflection and critical discussions with my family, friends, and students – I decided to reclaim my birth name.
While my loved ones have been supportive, the fears that motivated them to neutralize the name in the first place have resurfaced.
Their fears are indicative of a larger problem: the explicit and implicit sociopolitical norms that so many families of color in white supremacist societies are required to obey.
What are some of the implications of passing as non-Latinx? And why couldn’t I, as some folks have demanded, just accept my amended last name?
What Does ‘Neutrality’ Mean In A White Supremacist Country Like The United States?
I hate to break it to you – scratch that; I absolutely need and want to break it to you – that there is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to race.
I believe my parents when they tell me that they didn’t want to Anglicize the name. They didn’t want us to have an explicitly white name.
They wanted a “colorblind” name that was ambiguous and without any racial connotations.
Like other families of color, they wanted people – especially admissions counselors, potential employers, teachers, police officers, bankers, and judges – to get to know their child without presuming anything about their intelligence, creativity or supposed propensity towards violence.
So, like other families of color, they strategized. Frankly, I find the name change creative and ingenious.
Nonetheless, no one is — or even should be — colorblind to names, or anything else for that matter.
If a name is not perceived as “Black,” “Brown,” “Asian,” “Muslim,” or associated with any of the “others” living in the US, that only leaves one other category.
That’s right, “neutral” names are actually white. And that’s a big deal.
By neutralizing our surname, my parents inadvertently made our last name seem white to everyone else. In doing this, my parents gave us a degree of white passing privilege we previously lacked.
What Are Some Implications Of Passing?
Before reclaiming my birth name, few folks assumed my Latinx heritage unless I explicitly told them.
I remember working at a local retirement facility as a teenager. The residents would often comment on my nametag.
“Ah, Andrew Hernann. A good German, Christian name,” many presumed, bottom lip jutting out, nodding their heads in approval. Right.
But many of my non-Latinx friends and family member who knew of my identity, also disregarded my Latinidad.
During my undergraduate years at the University of Illinois, for example, many of my white peers bitterly complained about supposedly unqualified “urban” students getting admitted solely because of their racial background.
And they did this right in front of me, sometimes even with a “Isn’t that right, Andrew?” thrown in there.
Paradoxically, some — while vehemently defending Chief Illiniwek, the University’s racist former mascot — argued that they should get a full-ride scholarship because they are “one-sixteenth Cherokee.”
More recently, seemingly innocent dinner conversations have turned to television’s ostensibly “propaganda-like” emphasis on diversity:
“Have you noticed how there are barely any white people represented on TV anymore?”
“Why are there so many interracial families on commercials these days?”
These microaggressions hurt. A lot. Because they imply that people of color (POC) don’t deserve visibility, validation or advancement; that their inclusion is less valuable than their white counterparts’.
Sometimes, these microaggressions made me feel sad. Sometimes I feel lost. Other times, like filth. They always made me feel insignificant and invisible.
How could my friends and relatives say such things? How could they be so dismissive of the lives and experiences of people from communities like mine? How could they be so dismissive of me?
I don’t mention these anecdotes out of some game of “oppression olympics.” I’m not saying, “I know I’ve had passing privilege, but I, too, have suffered.” I mention them for what they reveal about white supremacy in the US.
When my fellow undergrads lamented sharing a campus with “urban” students, I reminded them both that not all POC come from cities, and that I am Latino — one of those students they complained about.
And when others bemoaned a (slightly) more inclusive Hollywood, I added that, as a Latino, I enjoy seeing more diverse actors on TV and watching stories that more closely mirror my own.
Not unsurprisingly, my reminders were met with even more problematic statements:
“Ok, but you’re not REALLY Latin.”
“I always forget you’re Hispanic.”
“Yeah, but you’re not one of THOSE Latin people.”
These white folks feel slighted — oppressed even — just by giving more space to POC.
Just by virtue of POC being around, they feel that they are not getting something they “deserve,” like a quality education, representation, etc.
My initial assertion of my Latinx identity was met with rejection and denial (which is, in and of itself, another example of white supremacy).
In their eyes, I was the exception to a rigid conception of Latinx identity specifically, and non-white communities more generally.
With my Midwestern accent and my “German” last name, my perspective didn’t count because I didn’t fit some predetermined “Latinx” mold.
Frustratingly, though, it was also clear that had I not been so “exceptional.” Had white folks seen me as more “urban,” for example, my perspective still wouldn’t have counted because I would have fit the stereotype.
Why Not Just Pass As White?
Sometimes I would let it go when someone would make one of these comments. But other times, I wouldn’t.
When I would push back, asserting my Latinidad and calling out racist words and actions, that pushback would be met with hostility and incredulity:
“Not everything is about race!”
“I can say what I want – it’s my First Amendment right!”
(How creative, citing your right to free speech in order to take away mine.)
It’s become clear to me that these folks prefer me to stay silent. They prefer me to support their white privilege rather than forcing them to them question it and making them feel uncomfortable. How dare I?
Why wouldn’t I just toe the line? Why would I assert my Latinidad at all? Especially when I could just pass as white?
These questions evoke the “good immigrant” narrative. That is, that the only good immigrant is one who assimilates; who embraces U.S. national and colonial myths; who embraces the English language; and who, above all, embraces white superiority.
Under this logic, all non-white folks are “immigrants.” Being Latinx makes me an “immigrant” even though I was born — as my parents were — in Illinois.
In asserting my Latinx identity when I could pass as white I implicitly became a “bad immigrant” because I rejected white superiority.
That pissed off a lot of people. And it seemingly “justified” the racist rhetoric that many then sent my way:
“Go back to where you came from!”
“You’ll only be able to mow lawns for a living.”
“How can you be so ungrateful after all the opportunities the USA has given you?”
“If you’re so unhappy here then just leave!”
In the face of such aggression, I realized that — even if I had wanted to — I would never be satisfied “being” white (though, I acknowledge the passing privilege I had due to my surname).
In my experience, just below many white folks’ “colorblind” surface is an internalized superiority, coiled and ready to assert itself. I could never truly belong to that. What’s more, attempting to do so would mean abandoning too much.
What’s In A Name?
I was uncomfortable with “Hernann” for a very long time. It felt like wearing a shrunken wool sweater — abrasive and ever-present.
It reminded me that even assimilation cannot protect someone from racism. It didn’t matter that my parents lived a “standard” American life, were college graduates, had good jobs, a house in a suburban neighborhood, a friendly pet dog, and a less friendly pet cat.
That didn’t protect my father from ongoing racism, and my parents knew that such assimilationist behaviors wouldn’t fully protect me as I grew up, either.
The abrasiveness of my former last name reminded me of my family’s — and my own — experiences confronting anti-Brownness, all for the “privilege” of neutrality.
As it turns out, “Hernann” did exactly what many folks would have wanted it to; it reasserted the US racial hierarchy.
However, this constant reminder slowly morphed into a feeling of rejection.
Coming Full Circle: Back To Hernández
In telling this story, I am not looking or pity. Nor do I claim that I am the only one to suffer because of a name.
The history of the United States could easily be told through the oppressive lens of (re)naming. How many Native Americans were given Christian names under a genocidal policy of militarized mission work?
How many Africans were given the names of their enslavers? How many non-Western European immigrants were assigned new names when passing through Angel and Ellis Island?
How many trans folks are still unable to change their names – legally, or even on social media sites?
How many women continue to be deprived of their names because privileging patriarchal and Christian conventions force them to take the name of their husband?
I wanted to rid myself of that abrasive sweater, the one that reminded me not of my parents’ “courageous sacrifice” – as I’d once conceptualized it – but of white society’s assertion of Latinx people’s inferiority.
“Hernann” made me feel powerless to whiteness.
Indeed, for the longest time, even when friends of color and white allies would ask if I’d ever considered returning to “Hernández,” I thought, “no.”
“Hernann” represented an aspect of the Latinx experience in the U.S., one of white coercion, but also of Brown creativity, and I previously felt an obligation to that.
But, I have realized that I am not beholden to whiteness. Just as the change to “Hernann” did not erase “Hernández,” the change back to “Hernández” could not erase thirty years as “Hernann.”
That happened. And yes, I benefited from the “neutral” privilege it offered.
It is now my turn to express Brown creativity. And I acknowledge that I do so within a tradition of name changing among communities of color.
In keeping with this tradition, I am practicing naming in a way that rejects whiteness — not my white friends and family — as an oppressive political tool.
In today’s Trump era — a time when anti-Latinx sentiment has become increasingly toxic and violent — I do not want to pass anymore.
I want to occupy those social and professional spaces — those spaces in front of students, with colleagues, during everyday encounters — as Hernández.
As schmaltzy as it sounds, I’ve finally chosen to put on a new sweater. It fits and it empowers. And, most importantly, it externalizes the politics and identity that have always existed within me.
Andrew Hernández is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He is a public anthropologist and teacher, completing his PhD in cultural anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Andrew bases his research out of West Africa and the Sahara, working on issues of human rights, crisis, and religion. A former adjunct lecturer, he is now a Professional Teaching Fellow at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewHernann or at his website www.AndrewHernann.com.