A columnist’s advice on “unusual” names ignores the power of cultural identity

Do kids need a common name to fit in?
Do kids need a common name to fit in?
Image: Reuters/Alexandros Avramidis
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Dear Abby:

You recently wrote a column in which you suggested that an American husband dissuade his wife, born in India, from giving their children Indian names. Though your stated intention was to make life easier for the children of this couple, who will live in the US, by choosing “practical” rather than “unusual” names, this suggestion sparked accusations on Twitter that you support “whitewashing” and are “racist.”

That seems slightly extreme. I believe you simply failed to recognize the depths of identity questions, particularly for those whose identities are complex. Your answer indicates that you were unprepared for the difficulty of the question you faced and unaware of the international debate about naming conventions.

Notably, this debate is already taking place in France. On Sept. 12, a controversial writer named Eric Zemmour told a TV host and entrepreneur named Hapsatou Sy, on television, that her name was “an insult to France.” Sy was born in France to parents of Senegalese and Mauritanian origin. In response to Zemmour’s comments, Sy started a petition, which garnered more than 300,000 signatures by Sept. 29, to deny Zemmour invitations to speak on TV, based on his hate speech. She circulated it in tweets expressing her love of France and her indignation about his statement, under the hashtag #JeSuisLaFrance, which highlights the fact that the nation encompasses many cultures.

The French have been wrestling with the question of what it means to be French pretty intensely of late, as Quartz’s Annabelle Timsit has noted. The South African comedian Trevor Noah got caught up in that debate when he made a joke this summer about how France’s World Cup victory, with a team that reflected the nation’s remarkable cultural diversity, was really a win for Africa. French envoy to the US, Gérard Araud, wrote a formal letter condemning the Comedy Central host’s comments, noting that all but two of the team’s 23 players were born in France. “France is indeed a cosmopolitan country,” Araud wrote, “but every citizen is part of the French identity.”

Players chimed in as debate about them raged, emphasizing their unity as teammates and Frenchmen, while recognizing their diversity. Benjamin Mendy tweeted a “fix” to a list of team members with the flags of their families’ country of origin, replacing all of these with the French tricolor. Adil Rami said he feels both French and Moroccan. As Siddhartha Mitter wrote in Quartz, ”This is France. It is French. It is African. The French team are French. They represent the Republic, and its changes.”

That is the point. The US is a nation of immigrants, and to be American means more than one thing. The children of the American couple you’ve advised will have a mother with Indian origins and identities that incorporate multiple cultures. It’s a typical American story, not unusual at all.

While it may be impossible to live in two places at once, it’s unnecessary to choose one culture over the other when considering the formulation of their identities. If anything, given that the kids will be raised in the US, it’s imperative that they maintain some ties to their heritage in order to honor their mother’s origins (because that’s what she wants to do) and giving them traditionally Indian names is one way to do that.

It may present the occasional obstacle in pronunciation for the people who encounter them and force the children themselves to contend with complexity. Still, there’s are no “foreign” names in a nation of immigrants. Instead, there are more and less common names.

Having a less common name doesn’t make a kid a target for bullying necessarily. And it doesn’t curse a person for life. It might, as journalist Soledad O’Brien points out on Twitter, ultimately be a blessing. Certainly, it helps equip a child for the complexity they will face communicating and operating in a globalized world.

On the other hand, making it easier for others by ignoring culture is not so helpful, not to the children, their mother, or society at large. We don’t live in a simple world in a simple time with simple identities that are easy to understand or describe. And increasingly, children are born into families that encompass multiple cultures in countries where the whole world meets and grows up together.

Having a name that indicates cultural complexity is, in my experience, the easiest way to signify to those we encounter that who we are is complicated. Some American schools already recognize the complexity of the societies we live in. Santa Clara County in California started the My Name My Identity campaign that emphasizes the importance of correctly pronouncing all names and understanding that people’s monikers are a critical element of who they are.

Humans, including children, are capable of managing complexity and benefit from a sophisticated worldview. The earlier we’re exposed to multiple cultures, the easier it is for us to understand one another, no matter where we’re from, and even if where we are “from” is more than one place.

There’s no need to oversimplify. Instead, we should be following in the footsteps of the French soccer players—celebrating our diversity and working together to excel at whatever we do, using our roots to make our lives richer, not poorer. Ultimately, everyone benefits from this approach.


Ephrat Livni