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COMMENTARY | Jeneé Osterheldt

Dear Abby: Your advice against giving kids ‘foreign’ names reeks of whitewashing

Dear Abby columnist Jeanne Phillips recently advised people against giving their children “foreign names,” sparking a backlash from some readers.
Dear Abby columnist Jeanne Phillips recently advised people against giving their children “foreign names,” sparking a backlash from some readers.The Trustees

She used to go by Jojo.

It was easier for people to pronounce. It required no explanation. It made people comfortable.

These days, the nickname is reserved for loved ones only. The 25-year-old Randolph native introduces herself to strangers as Jovonna Jones, the name her daddy gave her.

Named after her father’s cousin, Givonna Joseph, a New Orleans arts educator preserving African-American contributions to opera, Jones learned to take pride in her name.

“It’s just the most incredible thing,” Jones said of the inspiration for her name. “More than the fact that people misspell my name or shorten it, knowing the history, knowing who I am named after, that matters.”

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So when Dear Abby columnist Jeanne Phillips recently advised people to choose names that aren’t difficult to pronounce or spell, in an effort to make life easier in America, it reeked of whitewashing.

“Dear Abby saw ‘Roots,’ ” Jones said. “Renaming was a concerted effort by slaveholders as a way to separate black folk from African culture.”

In September, when a man wrote to the advice columnist distraught over giving his children a traditional Indian name, as his Indian wife wanted to do, the column fed his angst.

“Not only can foreign names be difficult to pronounce and spell, but they can also cause a child to be teased unmercifully,” Phillips wrote. “Sometimes the name can be a problematic word in the English language. And one that sounds beautiful in a foreign language can be grating in English.”

Recently, thanks to a tweet by Sikh activist Simran Jeet Singh, the problematic post went viral.

Pawan Dhingra, a sociologist and professor of American Studies at Amherst College, said the answer is not conformity.

“Dear Abby is encouraging a world that denies us our individualism, our differences, and our right for self identity,” he says. “People who cannot name themselves lose who they are. And it’s very sad that America is a place where you are told by some reputable elite, Dear Abby, that America is a place you have to give up who you are to be told you belong.”

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Pawan, an Indian name, means wind. And it carries with it a lot of the concerns addressed in the advice column.

“My name is very uncommon in the United States, and it’s a common source of correction,” he said. “Some of us are constantly educating people as Indian Americans. But I don’t regret my name. In some ways, it is a hassle. In other ways, it is my opportunity to share. That’s how I carry it. Names are a really important part of your culture, and to deny someone their name is oppressive.”

And when Phillips says “foreign,” what exactly does that mean? Abigail, after all, is a Hebrew name. What is an American name in a country full of immigrants and descendants of immigrants?

“A name has to do with your selfhood, and selfhood is the very thing that has been historically at stake for black people and people of color in this country,” says Jones, a doctoral candidate in African and African-American studies at Harvard. “To deny a name on the front end is a foreclosing on a person’s agency.”

Phillips ended her ill advice with a question: “Why saddle a kid with a name he or she will have to explain or correct with friends, teachers and fellow employees from childhood into adulthood?”

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Yes, name discr imination is real. Some employers dismiss applicants with black- and ethnic-sounding names.

Rather than wonder why a parent wouldn’t shrink their identity to thwart discrimination, ask why we’re subscribing to a system that expects it.

Marlo of “The Wire” said it best.

My name is my name.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.