During the first Republican presidential primary last week, Vivek Ramaswamy introduced himself by saying that he was a “skinny guy with a funny last name,” echoing a line from former President Barack Obama. Although he was referencing and, in some weird way, aligning himself with the former president, it just didn’t hit the same way it did when Obama said it for several reasons.
First off, boo, you do not reflect the values of other people of color in this campaign like Obama did. Not even South Asian Americans. So your little joke didn’t come across as playful — it came across as placating.
Also, I can argue that in a post-George Floyd country, the funny-name-joke no longer captures the cultural moment. As people of color, we’ve learned and progressed since then. Throughout his campaign, Ramaswamy has repeatedly pointed out his ethnicity and immigrant parents’ background as a sort of shtick to set him apart from the other Republican candidates, which has felt exploitative.
I wonder if reminding Republicans about how “ethnic” he is, is a way of playing into some of their fears of being perceived as racist — if they voted for a brown person (the “safe kind,” mind you), they couldn’t possibly be racist, right?
But Ramaswamy’s rhetoric is actually pretty racist and anti-immigrant. He described the movement of undocumented immigrants into the U.S. as an “invasion.” He characterized people coming in from the Southern border as criminals, much like Donald Trump has on many occasions. Just before the hate-motivated shooting in Jacksonville, Florida, Ramaswamy denied the existence of white supremacy.
But what’s more, I feel like Ramaswamy is the type of brown person who’s willing to make fun of himself at the expense of other brown people to make himself more relatable to the (overwhelmingly white) Republican voters, as opposed to trying to get them to a place where they make an effort not to butcher his name. After the Republican debate, even Sean Hannity was confused about why Ramaswamy didn’t correct the moderators’ pronunciations of his name earlier. “I appreciate best efforts,” Ramaswamy told Hannity in an interview after the debate.
Of course, many Asian Americans and other marginalized groups understand the embarrassing and sometimes degrading experience of having our names mispronounced. Sometimes, it’s so bad that we go by totally different names to make other people’s lives easier. But we are finally at a point now where we should demand that our names be pronounced correctly — even if it makes other people uncomfortable — without giving others permission to laugh at or alienate us.
Vivek Ramaswamy’s behavior might be a little funny, but his name definitely isn’t.