For the average reader, the most infamous line of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” may be “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” But instead, I’ve found myself repeating the question, “What's in a name?” over and over again in my head.
As a child of immigrants, I was given a name rooted in my parents’ home country. Though for them it was a connection to the motherland, as much as I wished to see it purely as that, the harsh reality was that it was just another way for me to be othered. Even in a moderately diverse area, growing up I was astutely aware that I was different than most of my other classmates. Sure, a lot of the time things were as simple as freeze tag and book fairs, but then a substitute teacher would come in for the afternoon and it was time for roll call. Danas and Daniels were named without hesitation, but when it came to Donya, there was a pause, perhaps some squinting and sometimes full-on gawking. Then followed a butchering with the giggles and sneers of the kids echoing in the classroom. Whatever obscure sound the substitute had managed to make in place of my name replaced it for a week as it became the latest classroom joke, only to be replaced when someone sat in paint or called the teacher “Mom.” Even worse were the full-time teachers, classmates or even friends who never bothered to learn how to pronounce my name and got mad when they were corrected.
Yet, nothing compares to those who maliciously make a mockery of the beloved name your parents gifted you as part of your identity. This is a shared experience among many with ethnic names. It is almost guaranteed by children who may not know any better, but it continues even until college among what are supposed to be some of the most promising intellectuals of our generation. My very first night out as a freshman was promptly cut short when someone decided that my name was too hard to say, so she would call me Ghandi instead — a double-edged sword belittling me and my name on one side and insinuating that South and West Asian people are all the same on the other. Everyone laughed. I left back to my dorm alone and cried.
Still, my story is a mild case. Earlier this year, a college student named Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen was told by a professor to change her name because he thought it resembled an insult. Had he bothered to quickly search online how to correctly pronounce her name, he would have realized that is not correct. Instead, he alienated her throughout several emails and classes, pressuring her to somehow assimilate to this country which itself was formed by immigrants.
It’s bad enough in college, but it is outright embarrassing to see this behavior in the middle of a presidential campaign in which we witnessed a candidate running as the first woman of color to be vice president of the United States of America. Sen. David Perdue mocked Sen. Kamala Harris’ name as if he couldn’t make the effort to learn the name of a historic groundbreaker. Though his campaign claims there were no harmful intentions, no apology has been issued despite the harm that it may cause. The act itself was xenophobic and a blatant disrespect to Sen. Harris, her culture and everyone who has found themselves in this position. A hashtag began on Twitter for people to stand in solidarity with Sen. Harris, share the significance of their names and recount their own run-ins with this type of ignorance. Considering the numerous entries from celebrities to teenagers alike, it is clear that we as a society have a problem.
This behavior has been normalized for far too long. We should not need to have a Westernized name to be treated with the same respect allotted to others. It takes not even a moment to clarify with someone or search it on the internet to find a video on how to pronounce it. After all, people have no issue learning the names of the characters of “Game of Thrones” like Daenerys. There is no excuse. To properly say someone’s name is the most basic form of respect and professionalism. Refusing to do so is a deliberate attempt to undermine or alienate us.
A name represents a person, their identity and their culture. It may carry a meaning, a connection to a loved one or a memory. It embodies more than we could ever explain, but we try anyways.
My name is Donya. My name is translated from Farsi as “world,” which inspires me to see the whole thing. My name is used in many different cultures, keeping me always learning about others. My name is what my mother gave to me to become the person I am today, but also what she yells when I have forgotten to soak the rice in preparation for dinner. My name is my heritage. My name is my past and my future with every memory and ambition it carries. My name is me. That’s what’s in a name, Romeo.
And, the power behind our names persist. Despite the cowardly acts of her opponents, Sen. Kamala Harris is the first Black and Indian woman to be the vice president-elect of the United States. Her name will serve as an example to many to remind people to pronounce their names correctly because one day, they very well may be in news headlines and history books.