My friends snicker behind me in the coffee shop line, saying, “Nice to meet you, Hannah.” I grit my teeth and offer a forced smile, sick of justifying my alias. As the condensation on my iced coffee blurs the messily-written Sharpie, I take my thumb and stubbornly erase “Hannah” in a small act of defiance, leaving my fingers coated in smudges of ink.
I wrote one of my college essays about how much I hated my first name as a child — how people pestered me with questions about where I was really from, insinuating that I didn’t belong. It’s a familiar drill: A substitute teacher pauses in the roster to fumble over your name, a prolonged awkwardness you attempt to remedy by replying “present” as quickly as humanly possible. But somewhere down the line, after my mother showed me a famous CNN reporter with my same name, I decided to own this marker of my identity, making it my own.
But even at Yale, a place that supposedly champions diversity, there are situations where my name still feels incredibly out of place. Reading people’s name tags in interview waiting rooms and hearing recruiters butcher my name transports me back to those middle school classrooms. As a first year, it flustered me that renowned professors could deftly pronounce Kierkegaard but struggled with the 10 letters of my first and last name. This is such a common experience, a constant nuisance — yet never a pressing enough problem to fix.
Many adults recommend that I change my name so that I’ll be taken more seriously, be called on in class more often. Their intentions are benign — wanting to ensure that I won’t lose out on opportunities because of something I was given at birth. This goes beyond personal experience — a study conducted by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan gave companies identical resumes, except some had traditional white-sounding names and others had African-American–sounding names. They found that white-sounding names are far more likely to receive interviews and callbacks — in fact, a white-sounding name was equivalent to eight additional years of experience in regards to callback rates.
Our names will always be a source of identity. When we shed it or mold it to societal norms, we succumb to the same attitudes of conformity that we claim to protest. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with changing our names, we should evaluate why we do so. Is it because you feel like it doesn’t properly represent you? Or is it because it’s inconvenient for others?
Oftentimes, we think that these small interactions — mumbling, or even obvious omissions, of names in conversation — are relatively harmless. They usually come out of a place of embarrassment in the face of an awkward situation, rather than ill intent. In the grand scheme of things, these interactions seem insignificant, but they add up, reinforcing the idea of “the other,” contributing to a more divided society. Therefore, if this problem can be easily avoided, then we should take steps to remedy it. I don’t need someone to pronounce my name correctly to validate my background. However, them doing so is a matter of basic respect and inclusion. When we celebrate diversity, we should be consciously doing so at every step along the way, especially at the very beginning, with introductions and names.
For those of us with nontraditional names, it can be exhausting teaching people the appropriate way to approach situations like these. We’re forced to take on a lot of responsibility for something we didn’t really choose. I’m guilty of it, too, giving up on correcting people after a couple of instances. So, if you’re unsure how to pronounce a name, or feel like you’ve been mispronouncing your friends’ names for quite some time, ask. In most cases, people would rather have someone make an honest effort to learn their name than go about the rest of that relationship without ever acknowledging a fundamental part of their identity. It took five semesters here, but one of my professors makes a conscious effort to correctly say someone’s name every time they raise their hand in a hundred-person lecture, and it’s undoubtedly created a more positive classroom dynamic. After all, names are how we identify ourselves. They’re how we know ourselves and present our existence to the world. For someone to ignore something so small yet so meaningful speaks volumes.
I should’ve listened to my friends behind me in line — the idea that I should ever want to change my name for others’ convenience is utterly ridiculous. Now, I use my real name whether it comes to making restaurant reservations or meeting a total stranger. Maybe I’ll have to listen more carefully in the coffee shop when they call out my name, or repeat it over and over to my seminar instructor, but it’s a start to cultivating a more inclusive and accepting generation.
My name is unequivocally mine, and that’s not up for debate.
Hala El Solh is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .