Zhang: Why I changed my name

Dani Zhang, Op-Ed Contributor

Over the last two months, I changed my name from Dannes (pronounced “Denise”) to Dan to Dani. Naturally, people had questions. Was I changing my gender identity? Was I just a kid who, after coming into college, believes she’s totally a new and improved person now? The latter’s probably true. But there’s more.

Last quarter, I enrolled in a class I was genuinely excited about. When the discussion section rolled around, I arrived in class, sat down and took out my notebook. Everything seemed normal, but something was off. Interactions were different. It seemed as though everyone else was closer to each other than they were to me. I felt uneasy. Then, I realized: I was the only Asian in a room full of white people.

The fact that racial minorities receive differential treatment, especially in the workplace, is not news. White people behave differently toward people of other races. Job applications of people with non-white names (like Quincy, Aliyah, Jada) receive fewer callbacks than those with white names. According to Harvard Business School, companies are “more than twice as likely to call minority applicants for interviews if they submit whitened resumes than candidates who reveal their race.”

Previously, these facts existed only in online articles and research studies — an abstract, faraway place separate from my own reality. I lived in Shanghai, so it was easy for me to dismiss the issue. But last quarter, when I gauged the classroom and sensed the irreconcilable distance between my classmates and me, discomfort crept into my brain. Then and there, I was slapped in the face with the reality of marginalization and racial inequality in the United States. Faced with my future career prospects as an Asian woman, I knew that my name would be a barrier to my professional development. So I changed it.

But outside of my name, there were other unexpected changes too. When I came home for Winter Break, one of the first things my sister said to me was, “You’re so Americanized now.” With my hair recently dyed gray, my eyeliner and eyebrows drawn on, and my name changed, I couldn’t deny what she saw in me. Every choice I made in changing my appearance was subconsciously intended to minimize my race. So, when my sister said that, I was quietly pleased. I’m not sure how I feel now.

By changing my name, am I submitting to the status quo and silently accepting the racial hierarchy in the United States? After all, this is the classic debate between preserving one’s ethnicity and conforming to Western society.

Reality is, “Dannes” has nothing to do with my ethnic background. People have asked me if it’s French, South African, Argentinian, Indian, but nope — my dad made it up. Created out of thin air, my name has no ethnic meaning but is somehow chock-full of racial connotations. The way it’s spelled, the way it’s pronounced, the way it looks on paper — it’s just different. It will be different in any society I live in.

Still, there are several Dani Zhangs in this world. As far as I know, there’s only one Dannes Zhang (I’ve searched on Facebook). My name change means giving up my individuality and the history I have with “Dannes.”

At the moment, “Dani” is not on any of my official documents — I’m still experimenting with my name, as I’m sure I’ll be grappling with this issue for years to come. But for now, my new name will just be a symbol of the beginning of my journey as an Asian in the United States.

Dani Zhang is a Communication first-year. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.