Names matter

For the first time in 16 years, I am insisting that people call me by my full first name. Well, I don’t really have to insist. People here don’t know me as anything different, which has made it easier to consistently introduce myself as “Mawiyah” to new people I’ve met.

I’ve been aware for some time that I have some emotional name issues. Hypothetically, having a name and being called by said name should be pretty uncomplicated, but this has never been the case for me. Up until age 10, I was always dealing with having my name mispronounced, and feeling too timid to assert myself and correct people. My name was different, the “not normal” kind of different, which is just how I felt whenever people made a fuss about my name. In one memory I have from when I was little, a woman was filling out some type of form for me and, after hearing me spell my full name (first, middle, second middle, last) for her, asked me, “How did you ever learn how to spell that?!” I didn’t know how to answer the question. Because children are born knowing how to spell “Tiffany” or “Nicole?” Hearing my name spoken incorrectly as a little girl reinforced insecurities that were already there, feeling small, feeling different.

“Mawi” just made life easier, for me and everyone else. But in recent years, I began to feel differently. I realized almost no one, not even my immediately family called me by name anymore. I was “Mawi” to everyone, and had been since fifth grade. Which was fine — nicknames are a pretty common convention… although I was lucky enough to have people create nicknames off my nickname. Some I am more fond of than others. But slowly, I became aware of the fact that I missed my name.

So when I started introducing myself differently here in North Carolina, I didn’t anticipate how strange it would feel to be called “Mawiyah.” At first it didn’t even feel like my name anymore. It threw me off the most to hear it used in the third person. Who are they talking about? Oh, that’s me. Am I in trouble? Why are they calling me that? Oh, right, I asked them to.

But now that the confusion has warn off, I’ve realized something incredible.  People can say my name. After all these years, I’d begun to think I was asking for something impossible. That I was imposing on people by correcting them a first or second time, and by the third time, I felt positively high-maintenance. Suddenly, I am being called by my given name, on the basis of my own choosing. And for me, that is a big deal.

It’s hard to write this post and not feel totally egocentric… but I guess what I’m getting at is this. Names are important. They are hugely attached to our identity. I love the direct translation of introductions in Spanish. “How are you called?” “I call myself Mawiyah.” When people or individuals choose what to call themselves, they take ownership over their identity. And when we assign names or labels to others against their will, we have the power to disfigure their self-image. Calling people “retarded” was harmful. Calling teenage boys “troublemakers” is harmful. Calling people who are struggling to provide for their families “moochers” or “takers” is harmful. In the field of social work, we refer to the people we get to work with as “clients.” I have mixed reactions to this word, though I’m not certain why.

Language matters. What we call people matters. I am learning to pay better attention not only to what I call people in person, but the names I use in my head. Whether I intend them to or not, they are shaping how I see that group of people.

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6 responses to “Names matter

  1. I had always known you as Mawiyah up untill high school. It was a hard change for me to start calling you mawi :) I will gladly go back now that I know you prefer it

  2. This was a perfectly timed post! I have been teaching literacy to English Learners at an elementary school in our area for the past 2 1/2 weeks. I was so intimidated the first week learning the students’ names as many are Arabic names that I am unfamiliar with and were difficult for me to pronounce. But it felt very important to me to learn the students’ names and to be able to pronounce them clearly & accurately. I was just sharing with Matt today (before reading your post) that I can’t believe I have all of the 51 students’ names down perfectly and feel that I’ve really gotten to know each of the students, & how meaningful that has been. I had a few new students join us this week. I kept messing up one of my new 2nd grader’s name so to keep it light and to make sure she knew it was important to me to KNOW her name, I told her I owe her a star sticker (that I use for rewards) each time I mispronounce her name. She got a huge smile, and after a few stickers, I now KNOW her name. :) So cool & affirming to read about your experience after sharing with Matt today!

    • Thank you for sharing that story Roxanne! That has to be such a unique classroom experience. I love what you did for the little girl with the stickers, and it sounds like she did too. =)

  3. Love you, Mawiyah! Such a powerful post. Love you, dear friend!

  4. I’m really glad I stumbled into this post. I now think back to the first few days of class when you had to repeat your name a few times to teachers . . . Realizing now how strange it must have felt to do that after so many years of simply saying ‘It’s Mawi, actually.”

  5. OK, now I need you to teach me Mawiyah… :) I have also had to call clients “consumers” and now that I’m in a medical setting, “patients” but some in a school setting have “students” or “kids”….interesting.
    Also,”Como te llamas?” is “what do you call yourself?” Cool!

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