Difficult Names and Cultural Erasure

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It begins
with your second last name
gone missing from your mailbox,
school ID, and learner’s permit.
It is hard to explain to your relatives
back on the Island.
Your mother says,
you had it
when you left home,
where is it now?
You cannot claim
to have misplaced
your mother’s surname.

–“Crime in the Barrio” in Call Me María by Judith Ortiz Cofer (via)

“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.”

–Warsan Shire

Weeks ago, I was proctoring an exam at my university’s law school. Everyone was stressed but one student was especially frantic. She had claimed a spot in an exam hall based on the first letter of her last name, but the official exam listing had assigned her to a different room. She was disputing it with the head proctor: “My last name is de la Rioja, Rioja, not de la. I should have been assigned to this room, with the R names, not the other room with the D names.” The head proctor was indifferent. “You need to tell the administration to change that.”

Some time ago I was getting dinner with a public school teacher. This person was white, but she worked in predominantly low-income black and Latino neighborhoods. “You would not believe the names!” she commented blithely.

During add/drop period at the beginning of a semester at my university, professors at my graduate school often begin with calling attendance. It should be quick, but it always takes twice as long as it needs to because of professors stumbling–apologetically to be sure–over the names of international students. The Chinese sanguinely provide their American names. Even I generally call my classmates by their “American names” if they provide them, and in Nagaland, I often interacted with people I met through their “Christian names” rather than their given names.

People’s identities are complicated–certain parts of our identities may come to the foreground in interactional certain contexts, sometimes prompting different variations of our names. But the patterns of whose names tend to be changed, and in what ways, by whom, and with what consequences, is clear. Is this a world we want to create–one where cultural backgrounds are erased and given dominant-culture replacements? A world where a supposedly global-minded educational institution does not know how to handle its international students’ last names? A world where certain names are written off as difficult compared to an arbitrary standard?

I say no, and that we all have reflection, self-work, listening, and targeted learning to do to put a stop to this erasure in the domain of one of the most intimate words that an individual possesses–their name.

Photo: “Lady Liberty” by SETH at the Museum of Public Art, LA 

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