POLITICS

Washington State Officials Mocked Vietnamese American Senator's Name On State Senate Floor

State Sen. Joe Nguyen, son of Vietnamese refugees, explained to HuffPost why his colleagues' jokes about his Asian name spoke to a larger issue.

A new profile on a freshman Washington state senator gave people a glimpse into the microaggressions he’s facing as a public servant. 

In an interview with Seattle newspaper The Stranger, Democratic state Sen. Joe Nguyen, the son of Vietnamese refugees, revealed that Republican state Sens. Phil Fortunato and Minority Leader Mark Schoesler decided to mock his name after he passed his first bill last year.

While it’s tradition to roast a freshman senator when they pass their first bill, racism isn’t quite customary. 

“I’d like to know how you get ‘win’ out of Nguyen,” Fortunato said, according to The Stranger. 

“I’m going to work really hard to learn to spell and pronounce member ‘new guy’s’ name, and hopefully by the end of this session he’ll be able to spell and pronounce my name,” Schoesler added. 

Nguyen told HuffPost he actually has the most common last name in the most populous county in the state, making his colleagues’ comments all the more astounding. And while some have brushed off the jabs as just playful teasing, the freshman senator explained that there’s a larger issue at hand. 

“The reason why it’s so frustrating and dehumanizing is that if they don’t even respect you enough to learn how to say your name, they won’t respect your values and respect your ideals,” Nguyen said. “When we had it on the Senate floor ... it kinda just showed their thought process.”

“Any time you minimize somebody’s existence whether it’s through their name or other means, it’s detr
“Any time you minimize somebody’s existence whether it’s through their name or other means, it’s detrimental for the community," state Sen. Joe Nguyen said.

The Vietnamese American senator explained that after the incident, he had a few conversations with the colleagues who mocked his name. He emphasized to HuffPost that he felt it was important to speak out on the issue rather than let it slide altogether. 

It’s an issue of representation, he said.

“Any time you minimize somebody’s existence whether it’s through their name or other means, it’s detrimental for the community. ... It’s one of those things where it’s so fundamental to the core that if you don’t take the time to learn somebody’s name, it doesn’t give me much faith that you’ll fight for that community as well,” he said. 

Making sure that Asian Americans “at the very least claim our space and claim our names” is not only important in terms of educating people outside the community, but for Asians themselves to keep pushing for respect, he added. Nguyen admitted that he’s mispronounced his name in the past for fear of dealing with “the consequences” of having to tiredly explain it all the time.

“None of this is a shock, and that’s why I was kinda numb when it happened,” he told HuffPost. “This is the same thing that happened in elementary school. It was the same thing that happened in high school. ... It’s actually my bad for being desensitized by it. I should be fighting harder.” 

This is the same thing that happened in elementary school. It was the same thing that happened in high school. Washington state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D)

Asians are so often stereotyped as quiet, subservient worker bees that people aren’t always receptive to his outspoken personality, Nguyen told HuffPost.

“It’s interesting when you see an Asian person speak up for themselves ― the reaction isn’t always what they’d hoped for, to the point where they even question why I get to speak out on my own behalf,” he said.

The adverse reactions haven’t stopped him for doing so, however. 

“It’s hilarious,” Nguyen told HuffPost. “Because then I’ll just point to someone else and question why that person gets to be X, Y and Z.” 

Correction: A previous headline for this story misstated that officials mocked Nguyen on the House floor. It was the state Senate floor.

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