Affirming A’s Turkish identity

I had a long day on Tuesday, but I had signed up to listen to a webinar put on by EmbraceRace, a nonprofit that works to encourage color-conscious parenting. The webinar was about ‘Why and How to encourage cross-racial friendships in young children;’ I recommend the webinar if you are interested. The main take away I had from the webinar was not actually about cross-racial friendships (though that’s important). It was about the positive (emotional & academic) outcomes associated with a strong, positive racial/ethnic identity (see some related research here & here–there’s lots more, but this was from a quick google).

I got to wondering: what am I doing to affirm A’s Turkish identity? Because we chose to name him a Turkish name, he will be treated as Turkish in many contexts, although he looks White. I want his Turkishness to be a source of pride for him, not a source of discomfort/angst/embarrassment. I want him to have a strong, positive ethnic identity. I have been talking to A as if he were White—for example, when we talk about race or skin color in books, I talk about ‘people who have pink-y skin like us.’ In many ways, he is White—and he will certainly benefit from White privilege—so I don’t want him to grow up ignorant of that. But at the same time, because we named him a Turkish name, he won’t always be treated as White. My husband and sister-in-law, who grew up Turkish in the United States, will be able to speak more to this, but I wonder: What is the role of the White parent in raising a child who may not always be treated as White?*

Obviously, a lot of the cultural affirming needs to be done by my husband. I can’t really understand what it’s like to be treated differently because of your name or language you speak at home. We are lucky enough to live close to my in-laws, so A has those family spaces to feel culturally affirmed & supported. Additionally, our niece who is Turkish-Iranian, lives just a half an hour away and is only 9 -months older than A. They will be able to grow up together and have each other as support. They won’t question each other’s identities as some of their peers might to them.

The question of what the White parent can do to affirm identities that are typically ‘othered’ (i.e. what can I do to affirm A’s Turkish identity) still stands. I encourage my husband to speak to A in Turkish as much as possible. When we read about immigrants, I try to say something like ‘your baba is in an immigrant! That means his family came from a different country to live in the United States. How cool is that?’ I want to get more books about children from immigrant backgrounds or children with uncommon names in the American context (I feel like books have been my answer to a lot of questions around identities for kids, but they can be powerful tools!). We do hope to travel to Turkey soon, but there’s a lot of unknown questions with that.

Overall, it is a question of modeling pride (and allowing him to have mixed feelings, particularly during school-age and adolescence).

*P.S. Turkishness is an ethnic (or even national) identity, but I think this question could be applied to parents of biracial children as well.

Choosing a last name

I wrote about how and why we chose A’s first name, but my husband and I also spent time talking about what A’s last name should be.

I didn’t take my husband’s last name when we married—for many and no reasons at the same time. It wasn’t something I every really thought about honestly, mostly because it wasn’t a precedent set by my mother. She kept her last name when she wed my father in 1985. It was my father (according to family lore, at least) that wanted to have my mom’s last name as my sisters’ and my middle names. My sisters and I all have the same middle and last name: my mom’s last name (as our middle names) then our dad’s last name (as our last names). I’m not sure why they decided this way instead of hyphenating it or ditching my mom’s last name all together. But they did, and I like it.

When we got pregnant,  we discussed what A’s last name should be. We never really considered hyphenating, though that seems like a good option for some. We debated mostly if he should have my last name or my husband’s last name. Ultimately, we decided to do as my parents did: my last name is A’s middle name; my husband’s last name is A’s last name.

When I talk about last names with other women, they often say that the only reason they changed their last name when they married is so they have the same last name as their children. I get the sentiment, but given my background, it doesn’t bother me as much as it might bother others. I didn’t feel any less connected to my mother because we didn’t have the same last name. And I don’t feel any less connected to A because we have different last names.

For the next kid (not any time soon-don’t worry!), I’m not sure what we will do. Should we switch the order for the next kid—my husband’s last name as the middle name with my last name as the kid’s last name? That would be the fairest, after all. If I am being honest, I am already leaning towards sticking with what we did for A. It does mean that the maternal last name only gets one extra generation of life—I’m not passing down my mom’s last name to my son, for example. But I’m not really concerned with legacy in that way. It doesn’t bother me, for example, that if A has children, they probably won’t have my last name in their name anywhere. At the same time, there is something romantic and rebellious about giving the next kid my last name. We’ll see…

By the way, I do NOT consider myself more feminist than others who do something different with last names when they marry/have kids. What I think is radical is the conversations and debate about family names, just as much as the actual act of naming (though that has power too–and is more permanent than a conversation). Disrupting the patriarchy means critically thinking about the paternal family name as the norm.


A Turkish Name for an American kid

“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.