“Give your daughters difficult names. give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. my name makes you want to tell me the truth. my name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”—Warsan Shire
Naming your child isn’t a mundane moment of parenting, as this blog claims to be about–it’s actually one of the most powerful moments of parenting. Their name dictates how the world will treat them and how, in turn, your child will view the world.
My husband and I both grew up in the U.S. He in a college town in Missouri, me in a small city in Pennsylvania. We both grew up watching Hey, Arnold and playing with Beanie Babies. We both attended high school right at the Myspace/Xanga era of social media (what a time to be alive!). But there was one difference: my husband, though for most of his childhood and adolescence was in the US, is Turkish. His parents first moved here before he was born, with his older sister in tow, doing anything they possibly could to make ends meet as graduate students. After my husband was born, they moved back to Turkey during my husband’s toddlerhood. My husband has a Turkish first name that he now goes by (and that his family has always called him), but when he was growing up in Missouri, he went by an Americanized version of his middle name (“John”). To many who know my husband from that time in his life, he is John.
So when it came to naming our first born, it’s kind of weird that we chose a Turkish name for A. I admit that, for the first few months of his life, when I would introduce my son to strangers, I would have this weird mixture of pride/embarrassment when I said his name (that was my own ish that I’ve since gotten over). My name is Olivia, after all, a relatively common name in the United States. I always wondered what people would think when I said, ‘Hi, my name is Olivia, and this is my son [insert Turkish name].’
Is naming your child an act of social justice?
There’s lots of reasons we chose a Turkish name over a name more common in the US. Most importantly, we (and my husband particularly) want our son to have a strong Turkish identity. My son, for all intents and purposes, is White. He certainly passes for White. But because we named him what we did, instead of Nicholas after my grandfather which we considered, the world inherently treats him differently. And that’s ok. He understands the world in a more nuanced way because he will hear people struggle with his name, ask him to repeat it, or quietly try to avoid using it at all. My husband lives with that hidden curriculum of names, and we decided it was worth passing down those lessons to our son.
Ultimately, the name is a family name—my son’s great-grandfather’s. There are arbitrary cultural boundaries on what seems ‘American’ and what seems ‘other.’ We are allowed to honor my husband’s family without skepticism.
While Shire’s poem has a gendered aspect that I haven’t talked about, her words are applicable nonetheless. His name makes you want to tell him the truth.