Every semester brings a unique set of challenges, but one consistent challenge that seems to get more difficult every semester is learning my students’ names. For the first few weeks of the semester I flounder around, clumsily trying to remember, and maybe that’s excusable, but I’ve often made it all the way to midterms, when it’s way too embarrassing to ask, “What’s your name again?” without getting all the names down. In the past I’ve chalked it up to age – you know, the older you get, the harder it is to remember stuff. Or maybe, being a PhD student and all, I’ve just got too much going on and my brain only has room for so much and no more. I’m sure that both of these excuses are true to some degree.
But I’ve noticed something else in myself. Which names do I have the hardest time remembering? It’s not the Anglo names that I have trouble with. It’s not Sue, or Mary, or John or Bill. It’s the “ethnic” names – and even my use of that term shows my own intractable ethnocentricity – that I have the hardest time remembering. Okay, part of this has to do with familiarity. Our brains learn by relating new information to something we already know. But is that the only reason? Or is there some part of me that resists learning these names because deep down somewhere I think they are “weird”?
I tried to explore this phenomenon in The R Word, in a scene where a few days after Christmas, Rachel and her grandmother (Nana) head to the mall on their annual gift-returning expedition. Here’s what happens:
As they shopped Rachel kept watch on her cell phone. “Shoot,” she said, juggling the phone with her packages and the pretzel Nana had bought her. “My battery died.”
“You’ll just have to survive another hour without talking to your friends. How did we live without cell phones? Let’s get a soda.”
When they returned home Uncle Tommy greeted her with a message.
“Your friend called. She said your cell’s not working.”
“What’s her name again? Shaniqua?”
“Do you mean Damara?”
“Yeah, whatever. All those names sound the same to me.”
“Okay, okay! Relax, I’m kidding. You gotta admit, it is a different name.”
Rachel felt herself getting angry. “No different than Antonella. You never made fun of that name.”
Uncle Tommy surrendered. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have made fun of your friend’s name. It won’t happen again, okay?” He sounded truly sincere.
Rachel frowned and stalked away to her room, taking the cordless phone with her.
One might argue that Uncle Tommy sounds blatantly racist here, and that most white people aren’t like that. The same might be said for Officer Ryan, a character in the movie, Crash, who is frustrated in his attempt to get his HMO to pay for his ailing father’s medical care. Do you remember the scene? He’s on the phone with the HMO caseworker, played by Loretta Devine. Here’s their conversation:
Shaniqua: [talking on the phone] Mr. Ryan, your father has been to the clinic three times in the last month. He's been treated for a urinary tract infection that is by no means an emergency. Now, if you have any more questions about your HMO plan, why don't you make an appointment to come in between ten and four, Monday through Friday.
Officer Ryan: What does my father do about sleeping tonight?
Shaniqua: I don't know. I'm not a Doctor.
Officer Ryan: I wanna talk to your supervisor...
Shaniqua: I am my supervisor!
Officer Ryan: Yeah, what's your name?
Shaniqua: Shaniqua Johnson.
Officer Ryan: Shaniqua. Big f__ing surprise that is!*
Again, maybe I’m being unfair, using fictional examples of racist whites to make my point. But the truth is I’ve heard lots of white people, people that I’ve been close to and would never consider to be racist, say similar things many times over the years. A close friend who worked tirelessly with the homeless population of a major city, most of whom were people of color, once said to me, “It sounds like they name their kids after perfume bottles they see at Macy’s.” This was no Archie Bunker speaking. This was a young, white, liberal person who tirelessly served the poor in a nonprofit organization known for its good works throughout the world.
I’ve heard the name “Shaniqua” tossed around jokingly many times when the white people doing it weren’t even talking about or referring to race in any way. The name stands for something funny among some white people, although exactly what I don’t know. What makes it funny? The feeling of superiority, the idea that “they” have weird names but “we” have normal names is undergirded by a racism so deeply carved into the white, dominant psyche that it pops out even among people who would never, never, consider themselves racist and even at times when race is not being discussed.
So what’s in a name? Lots. Names represent identity. Names are our first offering to people we meet. Through our names we mark our territory and stake our claim in this world. And, for some of us, names can be bricks in the wall that separates “us” from “them.”