Note: This story originally appeared on my blog (in slightly different form) on October 5, 2015.
I just got finished reading Wajahat Ali’s incisive article that was published in the New York Times yesterday. While I cannot presume to tell other people what to name their children, I have to say that I was somewhat disturbed by the fact that Mr. Ali and his wife even briefly considered giving their son a name that wasn’t “Muslim-y.”
Once again, I cannot presume. As someone who is neither Muslim nor South Asian/Middle Eastern, I am only familiar with the very broadest outlines of the Muslim experience in America. I also don’t personally understand the pain of belonging to a racial/ethnic/religious group that all the paranoid knuckleheads blamed for 9/11. And, while I’m fully aware that Islamophobia is a major problem in the United States, as a native born Christian, I admit that I don’t always pick up on the more subtle forms of the prejudice.
What I do know, as a woman of color, is that “non-ethnic” names don’t necessarily shield their bearers from prejudice. In fact, a “non-ethnic” name may in fact create situations where their bearers are actually exposed to more prejudice.
I speak from experience. My first name is Ebony, a name that is considered Afrocentric despite its Greek origins.While I’ve heard that some black parents are unisexing the name “Ebony” by granting it to their sons and while there may be some culture appropriating white person granting that name to their (white) child, I’ve never in my life encountered another Ebony who wasn’t black and female. And most other people have only encountered black female Ebonies as well. Therefore anyone who sees my name on a resume, business card, byline, social media profile etc, can reasonably expect me to be a black female.
Although prospective employers are less likely to call me in for an interview once they see my name on the resume, that also means that anyone who does call me is not going to have a problem hiring a black woman. Regardless of conventional wisdom, having a name that so clearly advertises my ethnic origins has actually insulated me from bigotry.
The experiences of black women with “non-ethnic” names bears this out. A friend of mine, a dread-lock-wearing sister named Lisa, reported to me that a job interviewer actually seemed disappointed to see her. Lisa was at first confused by the man’s attitude; the day before, over the phone, the interviewer had seemed very eager to hire her as her credentials were impeccable. Then she realized that her So-Cal accent and ethnically neutral first and last names had probably led her prospective employer to assume that she was white. Needless to say, she didn’t take the job.
An older friend had an even darker story to tell. Back in the early seventies, my friend had searched for a job by perusing the want ads. Responding to one ad, she called the number. The woman who answered the ad asked my friend’s name and gave my friend an impromptu over-the-phone interview. Pleased with my friend’s answers, the woman asked my friend to come by for a more formal face-to-face interview. My friend showed up at the appointed time and place only have the woman draw back and say, “Oh, no! You’re a nigger!” Needless to say, my friend wouldn’t have taken the job, even if it had been offered.
The experiences of my friends as well as my own experiences with American-style racism fly in the face of what Mr. Ali wrote at the end of his eloquently written piece. Commenting on Ahmed Mohamed’s (completely unjustified) arrest, Mr. Ali wrote:
If his name wasn’t Ahmed Mohamed, what would have happened instead? He’d probably be hailed as the Texan Jimmy Neutron or teenage Tony Stark.
Um, no. As one of the many people who tweeted #IStandWithAhmed, I was fully aware of Ahmed Mohammed’s appearance beforehand. Poor Ahmed is not, nor will he ever be able to, pass as a white person. Given his physical appearance, a “non-ethnic” name would not have provided that child with any protection from those racist ass police officers who mistook a clock for a bomb. And at least some of those black kids who were beaten and humiliated by police officers at a pool party this summer had “non-ethnic” names. After all, someone who is intent on disrespecting you due to your color, race, or ethnicity will do it without ever wanting to know your name, let alone asking what it is.
All told, I am glad that Mr. Ali gave his child the very “Muslim-y” name of Ibrahim. While it possible that he will live up to the name by becoming a father of many, little Baby Ibrahim will most likely become a solid citizen who makes his parents and his country proud.And I sincerely hope that no one ever gives Baby Ibrahim shit over his “Muslim-y” name.