What’s in a name

This post at Racialicious really resonated with me and I wanted to share the link.  Go check it out.  It shows a short film whose message is “how institutions intentionally or unintentionally commit cultural micro-aggressions when it comes to the names of people of color, especially young people who are often most vulnerable.”  I would argue that it is not just institutions who commit these micro-aggressions, but individuals as well.

My boys, ages 4 and 5, have Asian first names, given to them at birth by their beloved first mothers.  Most people, on hearing their names for the first time, ask for us to repeat and/or spell them.  They are names they haven’t heard before.  I appreciate that they want to learn them correctly.    We had to learn them at first, too.  (And, after a misunderstanding with a native-speaker from the country we adopted them from, we said my eldest’s name incorrectly for a whole year.  Mortifying.)  It’s understandable if people need a few attempts to practice before their names are a comfortable thing to say.

That said, the fact that other children have no problem learning their names just as easily as, say, Benjamin or Joshua, suggests that my boys’ names are not difficult, just different.  To a child, all names are new words to be learned.  I remember chuckling at my 4-year-old, astonished child when he met his second “Hannah”. “Hey!  But how can her name be Hannah?  She’s not Jesse’s mom!?!”

Some people, however, treat my kids’ names like inconvenient annoyances.  It’s as if the trouble to learn their names is not worth their time.  They’ll create a stupid nickname for their own comfort.  When bowling, their own grandfather will spell out everyone else’s names in the computer but enter a single initial for his grandsons.  (No, their names are not longer than ours.)  This makes me crazy.

My kids do have short nicknames they were given before we adopted them, which we occasionally use, but I rarely tell people what they are.  If they learned the “easy” name first, they’d never be called by their given names.

Now I readily admit that I am absolutely terrible at remembering people’s names, and so I have complete sympathy with people who cannot remember the boys’ names (or mine).  I’m more than happy to refresh their memories.  It’s when people can’t be bothered to put a tiny amount of energy into learning an unfamiliar (non-Western) name that I cannot stand.    They are worse than just lazy.  They are attempting (consciously or subconsciously) to strip my children of their identity and their history.  Both of my kids notice, and it bothers them.  They get angry when called random nick names, and will sometimes say, “That’s not my name.  I want you to call me ….”  I applaud their ability and willingness to do this as such young ages.  I also am sad for them that they have to.


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