The name game people of color can’t lose…

By Malena Amusa Aug 09, 2007

Molefi Asante on names. **** My dad can tell the year a Black person was born based off her name, at least according to the day he walked up to this security guard in our hometown of St. Louis, Mo. Their conversation went like this: "Hi you doing sista?" "I’m fine," she said. "What’s you name?" "My name is Africa." "Ahh, Africa! ," he said with his signature enthusiasm. "That’s nice. I bet I know what year you were born." "Really?" "1972?" "Wow. You’re right!" And there I was, marveled and amazed. Later my dad, a Nigerian immigrant and civil rights activist, said folks who named their kid ‘Africa’ come from a special space in time. Most likely the 1970s, when the movement for Black empowerment in America was deeply tied to embracing African identity. So after assessing things, her age marks and such, my dad made a reasonable calculation. Too bad this is something many institutions do–target a person’s identity through her name. Because most times, this comes at the expense of people of color. For example, just until recently, Canada had a ban on Sikh surnames Kaur or Singh, blogger Angry Asian Man reported Aug. 2. "If you apply to become a permanent resident, you’ll receive a letter from the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi stating ‘the names Kaur and Singh do not qualify for the purpose of immigration to Canada,’" he wrote. "Twenty-four hours after the World Sikh Organization raised the Sikh name issue, Citizenship and Immigration Canada announced it was dropping the policy, calling the whole thing a misunderstanding based on a "poorly worded" letter." Riiight. It’s pretty clear. As race becomes a less popular mode of overt discrimination, names have come under attack. And while white institutions look to names as a site of discrimination—in airports, jobs, and schools—not enough progressives look to names as a site of empowerment. Because of this, I think it’s time people of color revitalize the name movement—made popular by Black nationalists in the 60s and 70s—as a counter to political pressures to dilute ethnic names or stigmatize them like in Canada. I’m not saying people should all adopt African names like so many Blacks did then. Rather, we should actively talk about the implications of our names, fighting against name profiling, and decide what we want to call ourselves, even to the extent of making up new names. And if we chose to rename ourselves, I think there’s more to gain than not. African scholar Molefi Asante would agree. "To transform ourselves, it is essential we transform our names," he says. "The naming process itself is a process of creation." So this is an appeal to all of us. For people to begin defending names, but also, renaming our world. From our personal selves, to the boroughs of Westchester to the banner of Roosevelt High School. Because the ban on Sikh names in Canada only represents a larger problem—and that’s an attempt by groups to universalize a certain brand of whiteness, and to use ethnic indicators to fight off immigration and opportunity. So we have to prepare for more of this, and hopefully, see it as an opportunity to empower our names by connecting them to something truer to ourselves and our political goals.