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Monday, March 4, 2013

'I have called you by name, Quvenzhané'

Names are important. They are integral to our identity and self-worth. Throughout the bible, names signify heritage and history (Moses, Samuel), and are given to mark moments of great significance (AbrahamIsrael, Peter, Paul). This is why it's so meaningful when we hear God say "I have called you by name" (Isaiah 43:1)

And yet, when Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest actress ever nominated for an Oscar, had her moment on the red carpet, the media could not give her that same grace. Instead, they took it upon themselves to give her nicknames (and vulgarities).

They might have addressed her with a respectful 'Miss. Wallis.' Or politely asked how to pronounce her first name. Or best of all, they might have done the research ahead of time to learn how she preferred to be addressed. Instead she was called 'Q,' 'little Q,' 'Miss Q.' An AP reporter even decided "I'm just going to call you Annie," to which Wallis replied "My name is not Annie. It’s Quvenzhane."

Tracy Clayton notes that "Refusing to learn how to pronounce Quvenzhané’s name says, pointedly, you are not worth the effort...You will be who and what I want you to be; you be who and what makes me more comfortable....only on my terms" She also notes that Hollywood has managed to master names like Zellweger, Galifianakis, and Schwarzenegger

That this happened to a famous movie star should be no wonder when we routinely commit such indignities in our daily lives. Names given to some black children are mocked as being 'made up' or not 'real' names. White folks will substitute them for names that are more familiar to our own culture.  It shows that we think very little of a person when we will not bother to learn or respect their name. Why not celebrate the richness of deeply personal and beautiful names, instead?

StoryCorp's 'Facundo the Great'
Similarly, we anglicize Spanish names rather than pounce them as given (David, Paula; check out this great StoryCorps video) or we are unduly confused by traditions of multiple last/middle names. Folks of East Asian heritage sometimes just give up and simply choose an 'English name' to save themselves the trouble. Even holy names that are not Judeo-Christian can inspire fear and hatred in some. 

White ridicule of black names can be traced to days when slave owners replaced the given-names of their enslaved African people with European names that they could more easily manage (and even then, it was likely to be the diminutive Ben, rather than Benjamin). Might these new enslaved people have felt much like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, being persecuted in a foreign land and forced to take on name from their captors? 

Our biases continue to have serious implications today. It's been well established that when judging resumes, employers will turn away equally-qualified candidates with non-white names. Likewise  a teacher's respect for a student drastically affects how that child will perform on tests. Yes, I have sympathy for teachers on the first day of school when reading the roster. But what better way to show a new student that you care than by learning their name?

If it's a new name to you, just ask politely and respectfully how it should be pronounced, and then listen carefully. Don't assume that it's abnormal, or that it is rare. Don't joke, sneer, pun, or otherwise emphasis it as an oddity. Instead, be glad for our freedom to carefully and lovely choose beautiful names for our children. We are each unique--it is wonderful to have a name that reflects one's individuality. 

Remember that a name is someone's identity. Erasure of a name is an erasure of identity. When we exoticize someone's name we reveal how deeply steeped we are in our own culture, and how blind we are to the values of others'.

"give your daughters difficult names. 
give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. 
my name makes you want to tell me the truth. 
my name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right." 


  1. I love this post! This hits home for me personally, since I have an "odd" name too. In grade school I got so tired of having to correct people that I started to introduce myself incorrectly just to make things easier. This article has inspired me to rethink my decision and start reclaiming my true identity.

  2. I love this post too! I tried for years to write my name the correct way, as my family name (1 word) followed by my given name (2 words), but it kept getting corrupted in the West. I tried underlining the family name and hyphenating the given name, to no avail. So I gave up and now I use the Western order (family name last).

  3. A great response to an ignorant tweet about 'ghetto names':

  4. How can anyone post such ignorant replies to such a serious thread is beyond me


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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