What’s in a Name? White Silencing and Name Identity

I had originally planned a Halloween post for today, but this morning I messed up, and it’s been hanging with me enough that I decided I should write about it.

One of my mentors once told me that, as a person of privilege, if I wanted to be involved in struggles for social justice, I had to recognize that I was going to “mess up . . . a lot.”  She said, “Knowing this, you have to be prepared to apologize earnestly, humble yourself, and move forward, attempting to do better and live more accountably.”

Well, this morning I made an ass of myself.  I recently reached out to some consultants in the DC area to see if they could help a non-profit that I regularly work with.  As far as I know, all of the consultants are people of Color.  Well, in the initial email, I messed up one of their names, taking a name that is not “normative White” and making it, well, as “normative White” as you can get.

The woman politely corrected me in an email, and I responded apologetically.  But get this: I responded in a hurry, and I DID IT AGAIN!

Now, I know how a lot of White folks are going to respond to this.  “It’s a simple mistake!  It’s easy to accidentally mess up someone’s name.  I do it all the time!  Why do you have to make everything about race and social justice, Jamie?!?

Well, I agree that it’s a simple mistake, but it happens quite often for not-so-simple reasons.

You see, White folks like me live in a world that was built by White people for White people.  That’s the essence of White privilege.  We never have to be inconvenienced.

When I saw him speak recently, Lee Mun Wah put it like this (paraphrasing):

Before I was born, my family spent a very long time choosing my beautiful name, Mun Wah.  But when I was born, my father wrote on the birth certificate, “Gary.”  He did so because he didn’t want me to have to face the racism that would come with the name Mun Wah.  I would get enough of it for how I look.

I’ve seen it happen over and over.  I’ve seen professors who can’t pronounce “Rykheem” so they say, “I’ll just call you Ryan, ok?”  I’ve seen students who don’t want to seem “weird” so they change their name from “Asusena” to “Susie.” I’ve seen White people say, “Why can’t they just have a normal name so I can pronounce it?”  And I’m reminded even now of what is “normal” as Rykheem and Asusena have a little red line under them as I compose this blog while Ryan and Susie do not.

I’ve seen it, and I’ve done it.

I did it today.


The problem with this, though, is not just that people cannot go by their given or chosen name (though that’s problematic enough).  It’s what message mistakes like mine convey.

What my mistake today says is that you are invisible to me.  You are not even worthy of enough of my attention for me to call you by your given or chosen name.  Unless you sound like me, look like me, talk like me, and have a name like me, you are an other.  You do not belong in the club.

Now, after having people mess up their name over and over again throughout their life, most folks wouldn’t bother or wouldn’t have the energy to correct me not once but TWICE!  And there’s the rub.

My mistake is part of a cultural reality that’s called White silencing.  Any person who does not fit into the White center, any person who lives at the borderlands of White culture or outside of this privileged few, is silenced into submission.

Thus, I admire the woman who correcte my mistake today, but I am ashamed of the part that I, in subtle and overt ways, play in continually establishing Whiteness as normal and everything else as other.

So . . . White folks . . . PARTICULARLY Progressive White folks . . . If we claim to be anti-racist (as most any White person seems to these days, regardless of their actions), then the least we can do is show those who do not fit into our White-centric norm the respect to take care with their names.  Pronounce them right. For God’s sake, at least type them right when the spelling is RIGHT IN FRONT OF US.  And don’t continue to make this simple yet hurtful mistake over and over.

I, for one, am always reminded that I have plenty of work to do.


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