Thursday, September 15, 2011

Names, Identity, and the Earliest Labeling

People laugh at me when I say my last name. It's long. I hyphenated it when I got married, tacking my husband's five-letter, two-syllable name onto my ten-letter, four-syllable one. Sure. It's long. I used to be self-conscious about it when I had to say it to strangers (bank tellers, for instance, or on the phone trying to make doctor's appointments). I'd make little jokes: "Yeah, it just wasn't long enough so I had to tack on some more!" But, when I really stopped to think about it, it's pretty rude to laugh at someone just for saying her name. I stopped qualifying it. I stopped laughing back. My name is important to me, and--though it's a small thing in the face of all the things that are wrong in the world--it's a tiny battle for my own identity when I refuse to let it be mocked.

I read this St. Louis Post Dispatch article about name changes today. In it, a series of name changes (both odd and more typical) are catalogued and discussed. Synthia became Calvin as a step in a sex change operation. The Kmieciks became the Kents because they were tired of having to spell their difficult-to-pronounce name. People dropped hyphenated parts of their names to avoid computerized documentation snafus (and I feel their pain). Among the less conventional, George F. Blackburn became Led Zepplin II as a way to reinvent himself after his third divorce. Robert James Reed became Robert 52 Jackson to honor his favorite rapper, 50 Cent.

So, what's in a name? Something, apparently. And if the power to rename ourselves is tied to the power to craft our own identities (in the above examples, name changes signal an immigrant family becoming American, a woman becoming a man, and a divorced man severing his past), what kind of power do we have as parents naming our children? And what responsiblity accompanies that power?

Obviously, our children can later strip themselves of those names just as the people in this article do. But a name has a way of hanging around, leaving behind residue like a sticker you can't quite remove. Even if you recreate yourself, the old you is in the background.

It's a big responsibility, to give a name.

Consider this college counselor whose name is--wait for it--Marijuana Pepsi Jackson. She chooses to go by her legal name as a "symbol of her struggle to succeed." And what a way for whoever decided that was the earliest label to place on his/her child to add to that struggle. A name can have a much greater impact than a few awkward glances or rude giggling.

After all, studies have shown that "black-sounding" names get fewer call backs than "white-sounding" names on resumes, even when the credentials are identical. This has resulted in some job seekers, like Tahani Tompkins from this NYTimes article, "whitening" their resumes (Tahani became T.S. Tompkins). As John L. Jackson Jr., an anthropology professor, points out in the same article, "In some ways, they are denying who and what they are. . . They almost have to pretend themselves away.”

The choice to name a child carries all sorts of baggage. There are often pressures to keep a family name alive, or at the very least to choose a name that pays some sort of homage to heritage. For us, that could get ridiculous in a hurry. My paternal grandmother was a second-generation German immigrant, my paternal grandfather a second-gen Italian immigrant. My maternal grandparents add to the mix Irish, Native American, and Dutch heritages. I don't closely connect with any of these traditions. My husband is African American. An attempt to give my daughter a name that honors her heritage would leave her with more than she could handle, I think.

The pervasiveness of product placement has also crept into names (as Marijuana Pepsi demonstrates above). It makes me think of the movie Idiocracy, in which the President is named Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.

Then there are cultural pressures. You don't want to give a child a name that's too popular or too uncommon. You don't want to accidentally scar a kid by tapping into some cultural phenomenon, but sometimes you can't help it (how many Katrinas do you think are going by less destruction-laden monikers these days?)

I struggled over what name to give my daughter. In the end, she got a somewhat uncommon (but not that uncommon) first name, a family middle name, my maiden name as a second middle name, and her father's last name. That's a lot of names. When I say all of her names together, it sounds a little like a law firm--a powerful law firm, I tell myself. IIn the end, I hope that I've left her with options on how she can use those names in a way that best fits who she will become. My aim was to balance the responsibility and power of this earliest labeling with the freedom to self-identify I hope my daughter will have. Only time will tell if I succeeded.

1 comment:

  1. I love your reference to the law firm. I have a friend name Nasir who's of Afghani descent and he said once, after a lack of callbacks, he starting using a friend with a more "white" sounding name, even though this friend was Filipino and he started to get more responses. I think, until recently, I never thought about the implications of one's name in terms of economy.