What’s in a Name?

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A few weeks ago the tv show Blackish raised another powerful question, and it has stayed with me all this time. Rainbow, the MD wife of Dre, the ad exec husband are expecting their fifth child. They are trying to decide on the baby’s name. Bow wants the baby boy to be called Matthew, but Dre wants to be “real” and name him Davonte.

Bow is horrified. She argues that having grown up with an unusual name, she knows how hard a burden that can be,  especially for a child. She also argues that in studies she has read, when two individuals apply for the same job, one named Jane and one named Shaniquia, Jane gets called for the interview every time. She believes that it is a disadvantage to label a child with a name that “screams ghetto.”

Dre argues that from the beginning, African slaves were stripped of their African names (think Kunta Kinte) and given White names (Toby.) He believes that by giving their child a name that is associated with being Black, they are owning their ethnic identity. He mentions Mohammed Ali and Amiri Baraka, important men who claimed their Blackness by changing their names. He finishes that we elected a Black man named Barack to the White House. He wins the argument.

When I taught in the Juvie facility, the majority of the kids were Black boys from the projects, and many of them bore the kind of name that I associate with both poverty and being Black. One boy was named Jahquantavious. When I met him, I remarked, “That’s a unique name.” He replied, “No that’s my sister’s name. Her name is Unique.”

In their world, those names are strong and important and they embrace their membership in their community. But my fear is that if those students, whom I care about so much,  ever chose to move into a different world, law school or corporate life as an outside example, those names would identify them with a population that many White people fear, and that would hinder them.

These thoughts lead me to the real reason why this episode resonated with me personally. When I was a child I hated my name because in those days it was unusual and I was embarrassed when people couldn’t pronounce Stephanie. Believe it or not, that happened a lot! I wanted nothing more than to blend in. I begged my parents to change my name to Susan, but they refused.

I grew up in Englewood, NJ, which was home to a big restricted (No Jews Allowed) country club to which all my friends belonged. I was reminded often that because my family was Jewish, we were not welcome at the club Also when my friend Ann’s mother had had too much to drink, she would order me to get out of their house and call me horrible names. My maiden name, Friedman, is a Jewish name, and because of the prejudice I experienced, I was very worried that people hearing my last name would judge me because of it before even meeting me, and I feared that I could be in danger.

In recent days, we have witnessed a rise in anti-Semitism along with bigotry against Muslims and anyone of color. It feels unsafe to be identifiable as a person from any of these groups, as being “other.” Once again, a part of me wants to hide and blend in. Mostly I am comfortable in my own skin, but history, my own and world history, teach me that people have strange ideas about Jews. (In college a girl from upstate NY asked me if I had horns.) Frankly, I feel ashamed that I am reluctant to claim who I am. I am guilty of a sin that I abhor in other people, fear of being who I authentically am.

We recently tried to watch a Netfix series called “The Man in the High Castle.” It was too scary to watch and we turned it off. The premise is that the US loses WWII and the Nazis and the Japanese divide the country and turn it into a police state. First things they do are exterminate all those they can identify as Jews and forbid free speech. Everyone lives in fear of being suspected of being part of the resistance, because they will be imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

With the recent events in this country, including mass deportations, the naming of the press as “the enemy,” and banning Muslims from entering the country, this show seemed altogether too realistic. Neither Ron nor I could watch the entire first episode.

How frightening that the thing I value most, being unique and authentic, is suddenly dangerous. We are all in a state of heightened alert, though, waiting for the next shoe to drop.