Oakland professor on leave after asking student to ‘Anglicize’ her name
An Oakland college professor has been placed on administrative leave after asking an Asian student to “Anglicize” her name, saying the pronunciation “sounds like an insult.”
Matthew Hubbard was unwilling to call on student Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen, a Vietnamese American freshman, by her given name, claiming that it too closely resembled a profanity in English.
Growing up, Nguyen had gone by the nickname “May.” But as a freshman at Laney College, she was excited to use her birth name, which means “happiness blessing.”
But on the second day of trigonometry class last week during the summer semester, Nguyen said she received an unsolicited email from her professor.
“Could you Anglicize your name? Phuc Bui sounds like an insult in English,” the professor wrote on Wednesday.
Offended but composed, Nguyen began to type.
“Hello Professor Hubbard,” she wrote. “Your request for me to ‘Anglicize’ my name feels discriminatory and I will move forward with filing a complaint with the Title IX Office if you can not refer to me by my given birth name. Best, Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen.”
Laney College has more than 17,000 students, nearly 30% of whom identify as Asian. Classes are being conducted online and via Zoom sessions, while the campus remains closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a statement, the school’s president, Tammeil Gilkerson, said the college has been “discussing and working to combat structural racism, xenophobia, and violence in both the Black and Asian Pacific Islander community” for decades.
But when Hubbard received Nguyen’s email, he did not relent. Nine minutes later, the professor fired back.
“Your name in English sounds like F— boy.” If I lived in Vietnam and my name in your language sounded like Eat a D— , I would change it to avoid embarrassment,” he wrote. “I repeat my request.”
A Twitter user caught word of the incident and posted a screenshot of the emails on Thursday. The post has been retweeted nearly 50,000 times and received more than 125,000 likes.
Nguyen’s sister later posted a screenshot of the emails to Instagram, stressing the professor’s “ignorance and audacity.”
“As a professor, he should be trying to learn her name and culture and not try to whitewash her name. My sister graduated high school thinking she can finally be able to use her name,” she wrote. “I love that my parents want to keep my culture alive by keeping our Vietnamese name.”
By Thursday, Hubbard had thought of an alternative. Another student in his 30-person trig class had changed his online name, Hubbard told the New York Times. Why couldn’t Nguyen do the same?
He asked all of the students to rename themselves by their last name and first initial during the Zoom class.
“P. Nguyen,” he said, calling on the freshman.
Later that day, Gilkerson announced that Hubbard, who has taught at Laney for 15 years, had been placed on administrative leave.
“While our mission has been bold and unrelenting, we also recognize that our college and its community is a reflection of broader society and we must actively fight ignorance with education. We do not tolerate racism, discrimination or oppression of any kind,” Gilkerson wrote.
In an email Monday, Hubbard declined to comment.
The Peralta Community College District, a collaboration of community colleges in Oakland, issued a statement Saturday.
“We understand the need to challenge and eliminate racism and white supremacy in all of its insidious forms, including the suppression of native cultures and languages and its demands that people of color conform to norms of ‘whiteness,’” board President Julina Bonilla and Secretary Regina Stanback Stroud wrote.
The college district recently announced it would work to “expand racial literacy” among the faculty, staff and administrators in response to racial injustice and the death of George Floyd.
Stewart Kwoh, the founder of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-L.A., says learning names and the background of names should be part of the education process for professors and students alike.
“Your name is who you are,” he said. If people refuse to call you by that name, “you’re getting a message that your name and yourself are not acceptable. You feel devalued. It’s an insult because your real name is considered off-bounds or considered a curse word.”
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