What's In A Name, And Who's Asking?
At Pizza Pizza, Starbucks, and the photo store down my street, my name is Sara. It’s not a lie. It’s my middle name. It’s easy to spell. It’s “normal.” As I approach 20, I find myself thinking more about what this word "normal" means. A few months ago, I read a three-year-old piece by Toronto writer Shailee Koranne, called, My Name Was Anglicized — But I’m Taking It Back. In this essay, Koranne highlights the micro aggressive behaviours that resulted in a passive erasure of her identity. She told students in high school her name was “Shelley,” using Anglicization to achieve normalcy. Her “Shelley,” is not so different from my “Sara.”
I never truly appreciated how my parents always defended the pronunciation and spelling of my name if people got it wrong. My father told me that if my name was spelled or pronounced incorrectly, it wasn’t my name. What he implied was that messing up my name meant invalidating my identity. I am not me if you change my name, if you spell it Hadiya, or pronounce it Hidd-ee-yah, which sounds too much like “hideous,” or Had-die-yah, which many of my teachers have. An identity, for my parents, has always been a question of agency. If somebody threatens this agency, it is my duty to correct it. But how, then, did I come to this realization so late? Why, for years, did I let so many people spell and pronounce my name wrong? I tended to justify the same way I have tended to justify abusive behaviours or toxic friendships, using the words, it’s just. It’s just one mistake. It’s just the way it is. It’s just a name.
I have always been an accommodating person, especially with strangers, almost exclusively with strangers. I loved to be liked, I loved for my first impression to be, “oh my god Hadiyyah is so nice,” because “nice” was better than the default, “shy” or “cute”. I was the kind of person who lost sleep over someone else’s exam-woes, I bent, I shapeshifted, I changed my clothes for other people. And I thought this attitude was simply how a person should be. I don’t want to do that anymore.
In many of the pieces I have read about the importance of names, Orange is the New Black actor Uzo (Uzomaka) Aduba is mentioned, as she refused to change her Nigerian name to fit into the acting industry. In an interview with The Improper Bostonian, Abuda recounts her mother saying to her, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” Abuda’s mother, like my parents, is an emblem of what equity means when it comes to names. There is no such thing as just as a name. When it comes to identity, there needn’t be a just, just is an apology. I’m sorry for correcting you. I’m sorry for calling out your microaggressions. What I need to do is unlearn the reflexivity of apologizing to people, especially to white people, for being a person with an Arabic name.
My Arabic name means “gift from God.” The first I remember explaining my name was to my family doctor, a flamboyant white woman from Nova Scotia. I was maybe seven, eight. It was a check-up. “That’s such a unique name!” she exclaimed, the kind of exclamation I would hear frequently. “What does that mean?” she asked.
“Gift,” I tend to say, instead of Gift from God. Calling myself a gift from God is slightly embarrassing, especially without the presence of my parents. My mother and father were always glad to call me their gift and explain that my mother picked it from a list of names my aunt sent them from England, as she thought it described me perfectly.
I was glad whenever someone called my name beautiful, but not until recently did I wonder why only white people had considered it an artifact of some sort, an exotic unknown that needed to be explained or separated somehow, an oil to the normal waters of English names. I have ever asked Jill or Jessica or Michael what their name meant, why their parents chose it, and sounded it out in front of them, while they sat there, cringing.
A simple lesson in labelling theory will reveal the fact that names have the power to shape lives. A name is not simply a label or a token, it is often the first statement of identity you get, and the first one you give. It is both an internalization, and a type of embodied presentation. If a name becomes a source of “Othering” and is subject to Orientalization or casual discrimination, then the name holder, the body itself, is devalued. Simply put, when somebody calls you a name, it influences how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you. Calling someone by a name that is pronounced incorrectly or is not theirs not only creates mistrust but disrespects their sense of identity and autonomy.
A few months ago, a friend of mine was shocked to realize she’d been pronouncing my name wrong for an entire year. Ashamed and disgruntled, she asked me why I didn’t correct her. I said it was because she was so nice to me that I didn’t want to offend her. That’s on me. I had the agency, but I didn’t use it. I was passive, and for no good reason that embarrassment. As I get older and develop a stronger sense of personhood, I realize that language is a tool that must be used with care, as it’s simply a solid signifier of more abstract thoughts. Owning and caring for the treatment of name means developing the self-authority to say, “no, that’s not a nickname I want,” or, "it’s pronounced Ha-dee-yah.”