Last week, Patriot Act host and The Daily Show alum Hasan Minhaj gave voice to a frustration that’s shared by millions but rarely discussed in public. Sitting on Ellen DeGeneres’ couch, he gave an honest answer to her question about whether she was pronouncing his name correctly. “People always mispronounce it,” he told DeGeneres in a moment that quickly went viral, racking up millions of views on Twitter and YouTube. “They’re always like, ‘Haseen Minaja! Hussein!’ ” Recalling the early days of his career, when he was advised to change his name to make it more showbiz-friendly, Minhaj was defiant: “If you can pronounce Ansel Elgort, you can pronounce Hasan Minhaj.”
It’s worth dwelling on both the significant cultural work that Minhaj does in this brief, two-minute clip, as well as how he does it. First, the Netflix host dared to request that DeGeneres, and the public at large, pronounce his name in a non-Anglophone way: not “ha-SAHN mi-NHAJ,” as he himself has said it for years, but “HA-sun MIN-haj.” (For the Asian American viewers keeping track at home, the fact that he made such a pronouncement on his mom’s favorite talk show means that, yes, he won this month’s round of the Best Asian Child contest.) And for those in the audience who might ask what difference the alternate emphases make, he observed, “the real way you pronounce it” is “a big deal because my parents are here.” Minhaj insists on a less assimilationist way to pronounce his name without ever framing it as such.
No less remarkably, he’s doing this mid-career, a half-decade after entering the spotlight via The Daily Show. For most of the first season of Patriot Act, the comedian called himself “ha-SAHN mi-NHAJ,” then changed it up in the finale to “HA-sun MIN-haj.” He didn’t dwell on the shift in that episode, but as a longtime fan I definitely noticed: Minhaj was finally comfortable enough in his success to insist that people call him the way he prefers, even if it meant people outside of his culture would be slightly (like really, the tiniest possible bit) more uncomfortable doing so.
Though Minhaj never talks to DeGeneres about it, it’s clear that Minhaj is making visible (“I actually wanna do this on national television,” he tells Ellen) a lifelong negotiation that many of us with non-Western or non-“American” names grapple with. Immigrants and their children often give themselves or each other American names, while others opt for more Americanized versions of their names. My first name, for example, is pronounced “in-goo” instead of “in-koo”—i.e., the way it’s been Romanized from Korean using a valid but necessarily imperfect system. In reality, the consonant in the second syllable of my name doesn’t exist in English, and I’m happy to modify it for American and other non-Korean speakers to “in-goo.” Non-native Korean speakers generally can’t pronounce the ㄱ sound anyway, and the times when Korean speakers do say it correctly feel like a form of cultural bonding. I distinctly remember the thrill of rootedness I felt when I made the decision in high school to eschew an English name after a monthslong search for one, choosing instead to stick with my given name. But I also find it annoying to correct the pronunciation of my name at a rate of what feels like 170 times a day.
Convenience, the comfort of others, a desired bifurcation of identity, and many other factors go into this decision to change one’s name or anglicize it, and no choice deserves to be policed for its perceived cultural authenticity or lack thereof. Still, it’s hard not to feel at least a twinge of admiration when someone as prominent as Minhaj uses his platform to request that non-Desi audiences pronounce his trochaic name in a way that deviates from white English rhythms. (Still, even he has to relent when he goes to Starbucks, where good coffee and non-Anglo names go to die. The rolls-off-the-tongue Starbucks name that Minhaj gives himself? Timothée Chalamet.)
But if Minhaj resists cultural assimilation on a national stage, he takes a cue from DeGeneres and does it as non-confrontationally as possible. He alludes to double standards (Hasan Minhaj vs. Ansel Elgort), but never once mentions racism or xenophobia, leaving the social justice framework to be inferred, discarded, or to never occur to the audience. (It’s not hard to imagine a version of this interaction in which a white person gets called racist and then goes on the defensive.)
He appears to grant that aspiring entertainers frequently have their names mispronounced (also see: Chrissy Teigen), as when he bonds with DeGeneres over the times her surname was pronounced “Dee-Generes.” (She also alludes to the times when she was called “Ellen DeGenerate” at the height of homophobia’s impact on her career, but studio laughter quickly washes away any lingering sore spots.) That Minhaj brought his parents to the studio and called the proper pronunciation of his name “a big deal”—seemingly to them—demonstrates a rhetorical shrewdness worthy of the comedian’s years on school debate teams. The presence of his mom and dad implies that the care people take to say an individual’s name correctly (or as correctly as possible) doesn’t just indicate an idiosyncratic preference, but confers respect to their family and culture as well.
On his own show, Minhaj has never shied away from difficult issues. Shortly after Patriot Act’s premiere, the Saudi government banned the second episode, which focused on issues that the comedian had with Saudi Arabia as a Muslim American. A recent (and stellar) episode about the Indian elections was prefaced with hilariously dire warnings from his parents and older relatives about how the comedian, as an “ABCD” (American-Born Confused Desi), should not talk about the subcontinent’s messy democracy. So while it’s clear Minhaj isn’t afraid to tackle harder subjects, it’s also weirdly cheering, especially in these racially polarizing times, to have such a fantastic example of how the same argument can be made differently to disparate audiences, but always be heard.