Names matter to your students — I should know

Guest Column by Naj Alikhan
September 21, 2020
Akiem Hicks of the Chicago Bears, in an interview on racial inequality, told The Athletic that because he was always a male of color and the “big kid” in class, he spent his life trying to support others’ feelings and comfort levels. “Developing my mindset going forward, I understood always that I had to make other people feel comfortable before myself. I’m going to continue to do that. I’m going to continue to make sure people feel comfortable around me. Is it unfortunate that I have to live that way? Call it what you want. But I do it because that’s how I’m able to move through society and have people OK with me.” He felt compelled to strip his identity to make everyone else comfortable. His quote made me realize that I have spent my life doing the same thing with my name. It’s been mispronounced, manipulated and even temporarily changed to make everyone else more comfortable. It all began in school. My birth name is Mirza Najaf Alikhan. Every male on my father’s side of the family has Mirza as a first name so we all go by our middle names.  My elementary school teachers couldn’t pronounce my name, so I became Naj despite my objections. I could write a book on linguistics based solely on my middle school teachers who unsuccessfully tried to pronounce my name and instead went with Naj, which was easier for them. I tried to go back to my name in high school, but that didn’t work. By the time I was a junior, I was only using Naj. I’ve been Naj ever since, meaning the identity I was born with has been systematically changed because it was too difficult for everyone else. Following the 9/11 attacks, I temporarily changed my last name because I felt that, as a television news reporter and anchor looking to elevate his career, nobody was going to hire a person of color with a middle eastern last name. Again, I was making everyone else feel comfortable. Even now, when I give my name for a take-out order, I have a revolving door of names that includes Mike, Ron, Jim and currently Roger. 

“The identity I was born with has been systematically changed because it was too difficult for everyone else.”
Here is the thing: We should embrace the identity of others and start doing it in our classrooms. Those names that appear on your screen during online classes are more than just names. They are identities that include culture, history and values. We know that educators have an incredible influence on kids and a small gesture like using full names or correctly pronouncing unique names can be a difference-maker to a student. My wife is a kindergarten teacher and knows the lifelong issues with my name. She knows identity matters.  She received an email three weeks ago from a parent regarding the pronunciation of his son’s name. It was a common name by most estimations, but it had a unique pronunciation due to the family being from another country. The parent said it wasn’t a big deal, but my wife felt it was. She reached out to the family to learn the correct pronunciation, then took another step to learn the pronunciation of his 3-year-old sister’s name because she occasionally pops up on the screen during virtual classroom meetings with a wave and smile. I’m proud that she took the step to ensure this student wasn’t stripped of his identity and I do the same. It may sound pretentious when I use someone’s full name, but it is because of who I am. Margie is Margarita. My brother-in-law is Daniel, not Dan. One of my soccer players who goes by her nickname “Bear” will always be Taryn.  By now, I’m good with being Naj and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But that isn’t the case for everyone with a unique name. We can be change agents by protecting the identity of those who we interact with each day. That begins with the students.  Naj Alikhan is ACSA Senior Director of Marketing and Communications.
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