What’s in a name? Personhood, biopolitics and relationships to state power

rose keyboard

“So what is your real name?”   I get this a lot.

 I understand; it’s confusing. Patel? Stevens? Lisa? Leigh? For me, my names reflect/contain much of my life trajectory and history, so I’m not so fond of relinquishing or shortening them just to make it easier for people used to one first and one last name to not have to think. There is, as we know, quite a lot in a name. A lot of history, a lot of life pathway, and a lot of generational and cultural significance. But it’s not until we run up against a name that is unusual that we have an opportunity to remember how much names matter and how much cultural significance and history can be contained in the small groupings of letters.

Here’s how it breaks down in my case. There is the American first name that my family gave me – the only American name in my family. By the time the youngest one came around, my parents both were so tired of having Indian names fumbled and had internalized enough White supremacy that “Lisa” sounded much better than say, Lakshmi or Laaysa. They wanted life to be easier for their children. If you have an American sounding name like Jeffrey/Justin/Jared or  Kirsten/Kristen/Caitie/Kate, you don’t have to worry about this. Still, the name, “Lisa” rarely was used in my house, but “Lisaladlee” was. “Ladlee” means loved one in Gujurati, and so in a truly beautiful turn of hybridity, the American name my parents gave me got Guju’ed when spoken through their language of love. So I picked up the “lee” vocalization and ran with that.

Then there was milestone of marrying a German American man with the last name of Stevens, which I only too happily shellacked over my family name of Patel because of course I had also drunk thirstily from the pitcher of white heteropatriarchy as well. In my 20s, as I listened to “Lisa Stevens” being called out loud in doctors’ offices or other strangers, I felt the conflicting feelings of resistance to being called a name that sounded like it belonged to a blond cheerleader and being seduced by even a momentary enjoyment of being an insider. Surely, that had to be easier, right? Seemed that way then and I can still understand this kind of internalized racism since the relentless images of beauty that promote whiteness above all else have not abated.

You see when you have a decidedly South Asian or otherwise glaringly immigrant family name in a Euro-dominated culture, it’s understandable to crave, even a little or for a little while, not being the other.

roll callWhen people, usually teachers and social workers, would fumble over our names, or worse, just assign us an American sounding nicknames, whether they knew it not, intended to or not (intent is immaterial here; only effect), they did the work of othering us and recentering themselves.

If you have a European-origin name that wasn’t assigned to your family by a slave owner, you don’t have to worry about this. Your name is more cleanly your own. By clean, I do not mean without participation in histories of colonization and oppression; I mean unquestioned. Because Euro-descendant names are the ones in power, they are seen as normal, and the accordant, perhaps sullied, histories are subdued. Our names, all of them, are locations for biopolitics of race, supremacy, and liberation.

As I grew older and more awake to white heteropatriarchy, and simultaneously more drawn to the core beauty of my family’s culture and history, I started publishing under Patel, not Stevens. But I have never changed my bank name. This has been a deliberate and ongoing choice for me. I keep the Lisa because it is how my family knows my printed name more than Leigh or certainly the oral only ‘Lisladlee’. But my friends, anyone who knows me really calls me Leigh.  My students call me Professor Patel, particularly after we discuss how female professors of color are often demoted to “Ms” or their first names on college campuses. If you are addressing me as “Lisa,” it means to me that we don’t know each other. If you are addressing me as Stevens, it means to me that you are a banker and our interaction should be thusly limited.

I joke with friends that I have so many names because I’ve already lived a few lives (suburban housewife, radical scholar activist) or to keep the government guessing. To be honest, though, I like that there is a distinct bank name that does not reflect who I am at my core. There’s a distance between the name on my social security card and how my loved ones address me that feels somehow very right. Whatever anyone’s reasons (which they are not obliged to tell you, ever, no matter how curious you might be), when it comes down to it, our names reflect, at least, in part, who we are, and we should, without question, follow requests as to how people wish to be addressed.

Just ask Chelsea Manning.

There is no doubt in my mind that this brave truthteller long ago chose Chelsea as the name that best aligned with not just her gender identity but her personhood, but she held off making this request so as not to distract from her moral calling as one the nation’s most important whistleblowers. And distract it has. The twitterscape of course exploded with both supportive but sadly more so derisive comments about Manning’s gender identity and wishes to purse gender reassignment. To me much more disappointing than the predictable vitriol on twitter was hearing and reading journalists who called Manning “he” days after her announcement and request to be referenced using female pronouns. It is a disturbing deference to dominant cultural norms. From journalists. Who are supposed to be one of society’s basic checks against state power.

Chelsea Manning will be under state surveillance and control of her daily existence for quite some time. Every decision the state and public makes to ignore her personhood, her very existence, erodes who she is. It is part and parcel of what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has theorized as the ‘state of exception,’ in which prisoners and detainees are reduced to the barest of lives, “each a homo sacer in that they occupy a biopolitical space where they are confronted by power without any protection or mediation” (Andrist, 2012).

I do not mean to align my social location in any way with that of Chelsea Manning. You could park several hundred Buicks between the privilege I enjoy and what Manning is undergoing. I have, due to my low attention and inquiry,
like Aura Bogado, let Pvt. Manning down. We all have, I think, evidenced by the lack of public outcry and instead thin slice, reality show-esque reductive discussions of friend or enemy.  Our priorities of obedience and consumerism are seriously trumping those of honor, morality, and collectivity.

What I am calling attention to is the importance of names and how very vital it is that we not automatically assume that the state’s/dominant culture’s assignation is inherently correct. Now is not a time to casually shrug off the state’s roll call as benign. Perhaps it has never been, but in this time of drones, stop and frisk, and land grabs of schools for private interests, I for one remain weary of what the state wants to call me. Besides, I much prefer to read the messages of bell hooks than miss her points while insisting  that she stick to Gloria Jean Watkins.

3 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Personhood, biopolitics and relationships to state power

  1. This state/dominant culture control of names reminds me of my goddaughter’s first day of preschool. She had always been known by the traditional abbreviation (Reni) of her Sierra Leone middle name (Morenke), the name of her maternal grandmother. But on arriving at school her teacher informed her parents that she would be called by her full first name, Anastasia, that of her paternal grandmother and a name she had never been previously called. It was already on her cubby, albeit spelled incorrectly. Like you, I’m pleased that she quickly understood that Reni is a name called out to her by family and friends, especially by those with whom she shares love. While also coming from a familial and loving place, Anastasia nevertheless squarely situated her in school. I know this because I tested her by Reni “Anastasia” and she made it clear that to me she is Reni. What an early lesson she’s had in multiple consciousness.

    • Reni is a great reminder that no one needs to be ‘given’ voice. Instead, we should concentrate on creating space for young people who know very well their own terms.

  2. I am a white, middle class, third-to-fifth generation America. Arguably I am the “dominant culture”. My last name is Italian in origin and my entire life I have gotten comments about how difficult it is to pronounce (even though it is pronounced phonetically) and how hard it must be, how much I must hate my own name. More often than not, people don’t try to pronounce it; they simply start on the first sound and trail off hoping I jump in and save them from sounding it out. I’ve always been so proud of my name and held it in the same esteem as I hold my own self as it IS myself, my identify. I married three years ago and couldn’t part with my last name and neither could my husband. We decided to both hyphenate our last names so they would be the same as each other without either of us losing that piece of ourselves. My husband gets a lot of negative comments about his last name now. The worst are about how submissive and “whipped” he must be to take the name of a woman. No one has said to us, “Wow, that shows a lot of mutual respect!” Now that we are starting a family, people urge us to give our child an “easy” first name. “She’ll be ten years old before she can spell her own last name!” “How will that all fit on a form?!” I try to calmly explain that I believe my daughter will be intelligent enough to learn how to spell her own name in the same timely fashion that all children do, that I did. And this issue with fitting a name on forms continues to come up. Isn’t that a problem for the form-giver, not me? I’ve never created a form which wouldn’t allow for my entire name to be entered – it is, in fact, feasible. Until reading your post, I assumed this was my simply my own plight. Thank you for showing me a wider lens on the issue.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s