June 29, 2020

May I call you Mr. Potato Head, instead of, oh, I blush to say?

Offense of the Month, June 2020
I’ve generally used the Offense-of-the-Month space to highlight knuckleheaded instances of offensiveness: not usually premeditated, but ostentatious nevertheless, produced by that sui generis creature, the Great American Dimwit. This month I offer the Tale of the Offensive Name, a story much making the rounds the past ten days.

It began in mid June when Matthew Hubbard, a math professor at Laney College in Oakland, California, encountered a Vietnamese-American student in an online trigonometry class. Her name: Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen. On the second day of class, Hubbard asked Ms. Nguyen to anglicize her name because the Vietnamese original sounds offensive in English. In a widely viewed set of emails posted as screenshots, first to Twitter and then, by Ms. Nguyen’s sister, to Instagram, he wrote: “Could you Anglicize your name. Phuc Bui sounds like an insult in English.” Ms. Nguyen responded 22 minutes later and said that unless he agreed to address her by her given name, she would treat his request as discriminatory and seek redress through the school’s Title IX office. Nine minutes later Professor Hubbard wrote her back, saying that while he understood that she was offended, “you need to understand your name is an offensive sound in my language.”

To make sure she comprehended him, he also offered this:

Your name in English sounds like” ‘Fuck Boy.” If I lived in Vietnam and my name in your language sounded like Eat a Dick, I would change it to avoid embarrassment both on my part and on the part of the people who have to say it.

Boy (speaking of boy), things have loosened up since I was in college.

In an open letter to the school community the next day, the president of Laney College said the “disturbing” allegations of “racist and xenophobic messages” were being investigated. Professor Hubbard was placed on administrative leave.

Three days after that, Hubbard issued the inevitable apology “for my insensitive actions which caused pain and anger to my student, and which have now caused pain and anger to an untold number of people who read my two inappropriate emails on the Internet.”

No further word, at this moment, of Hubbard’s ultimate fate—whether to be sacked or housebroken.

So that’s the story in brief, though it’s clear that was not an isolated incident but an instance of a widespread problem. Now let’s consider how it could have played out if both parties were strategic thinkers, civic minded, inclined to be civil, and not spoiling for a fight.

Professor Hubbard could have begun by acknowledging that he did not know how to pronounce Ms. Nguyen’s name and asking what it should sound like. He might have confessed what is plainly the case, that he had at best only a suspicion, informed by no knowledge, about the correct pronunciation. He might have asked her to allay his fear.

Had he not done so, Ms. Nguyen nevertheless could have begun by acknowledging that she knew what he was hinting at. For one thing, though she said she did not know the word “anglicize,” she had in fact used a nickname, May, in her earlier school years, so it couldn’t have been all that difficult to discern her teacher’s meaning. (And, see below, she could have looked up the word in a jiffy.) Moreover, her sister, who attached her own thoughts to the emails she posted online between the teacher and student, was perfectly colloquial in saying (I’m assuming the sisters grew up in the same American household): “My sister graduated high school thinking she can finally be able to use her name. But this is fucking disgusting.” Ms. Nguyen could then have acknowledged that while she understood her professor’s concern (she knew what sound he was trying to side step), his alarm was misplaced—instead of summoning the lawyers, as she did, within the same sentence.

And that’s just for openers. If Hubbard hadn’t been so clueless (or racist? couldn’t he have given an Asian word the benefit of the doubt?), a better beginning would have been to webble the pronunciation. I did. It took—well, you’ve already guessed this—about two seconds for websites to pop up providing the answer. (Yes, I Googled it, to use the old-fashioned term.) It turns out that in Vietnamese, Ms. Nguyen’s first name vowels sound somewhere between the double “o” in “food” and “cook.” The “c” is very soft or perhaps non-existent: one YouTube pronouncing guide renders Phuc as “foo” ending in a “b” or “p” sound behind closed lips (for a slight variation, see here). The second name is pronounced something like “boo-ee” (depending on whether the speaker anglicizes the pronunciation or sticks to one of the major Vietnamese dialects).

And if Ms. Nguyen had not been in such a rush to triumph (which was certainly her due), she might have done the nobler thing and sent her interlocutor a YouTube link with a note that said: “Ah, Professor, stay calm, no need for anxiety; see, this is how my name’s pronounced, not as you’ve imagined, so there is no there there,” instead of lowering the boom in her opening remarks.

Following one of these alternative pathways, Hubbard, who has taught at Laney for fifteen years (and whose photo, at least, suggests he’s an adult), might have begun by asking whether she had ever been known by a nickname, since many of his students had one (26% of the student body at the college is Asian-American). Ms. Nguyen could have said that although she once went by a nickname, now in college she has chosen to forgo it and to honor her parents’ choice of her birth name.

Both could have noted either that no one even needed to pronounce the names, the course being online; or, if it was Zoomed, the professor could have addressed his students by their last names and dodged his problem altogether. And then they would both have realized that there was neither fire nor need for a fire engine.

The teacher certainly could have omitted the vulgarities in his note. He could have refrained from responding almost instantly, a rule of conduct that should be ingrained in every teacher on the planet, and used the intervening time to think things through. Likewise, the student could have stated her reason for insisting on embracing her whole name and waiting for his response before upping the ante.

That’s how it could have gone in a world in which people are respectful and seek ways of keeping molehills from rising to the mountain tops. But such a world, I keep learning week after week, is not the one we live in.