That’s Not My Name
Dec 7, 2020 8:00 AM
CW: name-based microaggressions, deadnaming
“What’s in a name?” In one of his most famous works, Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare posed this question via the character of Juliet. She continues the line, “…that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet….” While the line helps readers and audiences to sympathize with the star-crossed lovers’ plight against their feuding families, names actually carry quite a lot of meaning. Especially when it comes to how others use or misuse our names.
Names are more than just words. Those letters carry with them stories and history of family and self. As an example, my first name’s spelling is different because it is the name and spelling of the street in Washington, D.C., where my parents had their first date. My middle name is the same as my mother’s, and long ago, I decided that I will always carry my “maiden name” with me no matter my marital status because of the personal meaning and identity it holds for me.
As a white woman in the United States with a name of English origin, chances are slim that I will encounter a mispronunciation of my name. Still, it’s definitely annoying when my first name is misspelled. However, that’s just a slight annoyance. More harmful and disrespectful than that is when someone’s name is completely disregarded with constant mispronunciation and misspelling (especially when corrections have been given) or replaced entirely with something “easier” to say or write.
Name-based microaggressions can begin early on with children in school being asked for (or worse, given with no input) a nickname to be called instead. According to Ranjana Srinivasan, Ph.D., this can create anxiety and frustration at the lack of autonomy in how they are identified. Dr. Srinivasan notes that this is not the case for every single person, but it is important that we ensure folks have the uninfluenced ability to say for themselves what they want to be called and that we do not undermine or disrespect that decision.
Respect for one’s name that originates from a country, culture, or ethnicity different from the dominant society must be applied as well to trans and gender-nonconforming (GNC) folks. Deadnaming is not only disrespectful, but it is an act of violence as it can negatively affect mental health and could put folks in danger of physical harm.
Jacq Hixson-Vulpe, with The 519 in Toronto, Canada, states that using a deadname or incorrect pronoun “…insists that trans people aren’t who we say we are. It is a way of policing trans communities and reminding us that we don’t even get the space to self-determine our own identities.”
Indifference to getting names and naming conventions that do not conform to white, Eurocentric, American, and cisgender standards correct can create mental and physical harm. As we continue to reiterate the message that we value diversity and inclusion and lay claim to being anti-racist, here is one small action to follow through on those pronouncements. Actress Uzo Aduba’s mother said it best when she told her daughter, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”
Jenifer Alison WilsonJen is the program manager for community in the Office for Health Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion. A transplant from Maryland, Jen has made Utah her home for nearly a decade now. She loves to connect people with each other, and is passionate about social justice and continuously seeking out knowledge to learn how she can best use her privilege to provide platforms and opportunity for others.