An Open Letter to Betty Brown (House Rep – TX)

Hi Betty,

My name is Andy Bilhorn.  You don’t know me because I’m from Chicago, and you live in Texas.  We’ve never crossed paths – and I don’t really go to Texas much, so I don’t imagine we will. But I’m sure it would be nice to meet you.

I heard about you in the news because you’d like some of our fellow Americans of Asian descent to change their names in order to make it easier for voting purposes.

You know, something somewhat similar happened in my family over 170 years ago.  My family name was changed five generations before mine when my family emigrated from Oberammergau in the south of Germany in Bavaria.  It used to be Puehlhan, but a circuit court judge in Mendota, Illinois thought it would be easier for the folks in the states to say Bilhorn rather than butcher the German umlaut.

That judge was Abraham Lincoln.

But don’t worry, I’m not comparing you to him. But you can be like him in some of your actions if you learn a little more about what it’s like to be a minority in this country in this century.

I’ve wondered why I actually know something that happened five generations ago in my family.  Most people I know don’t know their great-great-great grandparents names, let alone what happened surrounding the development of their name.  I know in large part because I am proud of my family – because we’ve made it a point to keep that story in our family.  I’m sure you’ve benefited from those in your family who have gone before you as well.

I think we would both agree that helping Americans preserve their heritage is important.  We’re a better nation because of it.  So why are you asking a large number Americans to change their names?  For the sake of voting? Why not ask a much smaller minority of voter registration folks to learn a few Asian last names? Wouldn’t that be easier?

Though you may have the best of intentions, the way your words are received by Asian Americans today is as an assault on their identity that they aren’t “American” enough.  It’s probably what happened with my great-great-great grandpa too. Since he was white, and the rest of the nation was mostly white, that was pretty easy to pass as an American.

But that was before the civil war – and Betty, the times are changing.  Sure – your district is 80% white – that’s great.  But the rest of the state is very different.  Your state already has no particular ethnic group as the majority – so what is, “normal” in Texas, anyway?  What is “standard?”

I ask because it’s a real question now that is hard to answer.  The rest of the nation will catch up with Texas in the early 2040’s when we have no ethnic majority, though experts think that could even change to the 2030’s. I know you’ll be in the grave by then, but I ask this question because you are propagating the assumption that people that look like us are “standard” and then I have to go and talk to my Asian-American friends who aren’t seen as “standard” and try to live in harmony with them. They are hurt by your dehumanizing comments, and even though they are well-intentioned, they hurt America.

To be honest, we live in a world where good intentions aren’t good enough.

Here’s what is worse – your words put those of us who are white who are in relationships with Asian Americans feel guilty by association and then your words make things difficult between us.  The easy thing for me to do is to say you are some dumb white woman who just doesn’t get it.

But if you were elected as a representative, I’m doing my best to suspend that judgment and hold you in high regard.  I do think you need to understand those whom you serve.  You should ask someone other than me since I’m a white guy from Chicago, but you should definitely ask someone.

So, Betty, here are couple ideas you can check with people who know more than me about Asian Americans than I on what you can do to undo the damage you did. You need to start by saying just two small words: “I’m sorry.”  A sincere apology would go a long way.  So would asking for forgiveness.  Don’t be political about it, don’t be overly dramatic – just say you’re sorry.  But only if you mean it.  The media is telling us that you don’t want this to be a big deal about race.  It’s too late for that – you already did it. Make it right by saying you are sorry.

But there’s more – you need to make good on your intent on serving Asian American voters.  You know that Asian Americans are very underrepresented in elected public offices? After your words, I can see why – it doesn’t seem like a welcoming place for them.. And it would be helpful if you included them in your census report in 2010 rather than lumping them in “other.”

Wouldn’t it be great if you were seen as working towards making public service more inviting towards Asian Americans?  Ask some of your fellow Asian Americans in politics what needs to happen for that to work.  Because if you were to do that, it could go a long way in not only undoing the wrong you did with your hurtful words, but it would help our democracy better serve it’s people in all it’s diversity.

So, here’s your chance to make some lemonade out of lemons.  But it means being humble, teachable, contrite, and finding creative solutions.  You know – like President Lincoln.  We have big enough problems right now facing our country.  If you did that, it could go a long way to making things better.

If you don’t, and do nothing, especially by not apologizing, then you’ll leave the next generation with a bigger mess to clean up. And trust me, it’s hard enough already.

Please choose option the former rather than the latter.  We need it.


Andy Bilhorn (Puehlhan)

1 Response to “An Open Letter to Betty Brown (House Rep – TX)”

  1. 1 Anja March 31, 2010 at 2:55 am

    How interesting to read!

    I’m Anja from Germany and doing a bit genealogy. My great great-grandmother was nee Pühlhorn. We always knew that a part of our family went to the US (Mendota, Illinois) around 1850 but my great-grandmother lost contact about 70 years ago or longer.

    So when I was looking for the Pühlhorn family in the US I didn’t find anyone until accidentally somewhere on the internet I found a note about composer Peter Philip Bilhorn and that his name was changed from Pühlhorn into Bilhorn or Billhorn by Abraham Lincoln.

    So it seems that we are related …

    Kind regards

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April 2009

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