What’s in a Name?
This unit wants you to ask…
By the end of this unit you will…
The resources in this unit include…
- How can you get to know other people without knowing yourself first?
- What are the stories we tell about ourselves and others?
- What makes me, me?
- Ask significant questions related to internal and external identities.
- Tell a story about your name in hopes of telling a broader story about your identity.
- Examine the power dynamics in your learning environment.
- A poem: “Each of Us Has a Name” by Zelda.
- Various quotes from religious and intellectual leaders about questions of identity.
- A TED talk: “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
- An article from the Huffington Post by a Jewish and Muslim leader about names and their power.
- A clip from the TV show The West Wing.
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear
Read the full poem here."Each of Us Has A Name," Zelda (Translation: Marcia Lee Falk).
Identity + Dignity
Read the full poem above. Pick three images from Zelda’s poem that resonate for you and consider the different names that you have. Who gave them to you? When? Why?
After identifying the different names you hold, consider the following quotes about names, human identity, individuality, and more. What quotes stand out to you?
“If God had so willed, He could have made you a single people, but His plan is to test you in what He has given you, so strive as one human race in all virtues according to what He has given you.” – Qur’an 5:48
“The human being is always unique and unrepeatable.” -Pope John Paul II
“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” -Margaret Mead
“We write about our life, not to see it as it was, but to see as we wish others might see it, so we may borrow their gaze and begin to see our life through their eyes, not ours. Only then, would we begin to understand our life story, or to tolerate it and ultimately, perhaps, to find it beautiful.” – Aciman, Jewish writer from antiquity based in Alexandria
“We all have different gifts, so we all have different ways of saying to the world who we are.” – Mr. Rogers
“I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.” -Jhumpa Lahiri
Names are important because they represent You, someone unique and unrepeatable. This idea appears across cultures and history! Who are you? Who are you when you’re with your family–chosen or otherwise? Who are you when you’re alone? Do you feel change in your identities over time or in different settings?
A Single Story
No one is one single thing or, as Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would say, “you are not defined by any single story.” One way to think about ourselves is through the lens of different identity markers. Some say there are eight markers of identity, which are called “The Big 8.”
Take a moment to write and reflect on these different identity markers. Fill out your own Big 8 chart. You can write or draw or use some other media to describe how you understand yourself. Just sit with these words for a few minutes and let the ideas wash over you. Then watch the following speech by Adichie:
- In what ways do “single stories” impact our own identities, how we view others, and the choices we make?
- What single stories have you heard about yourself? What single stories have you thought about others?
- Why do we form “single” stories about certain individuals or groups?
- Adichie has been criticized for her comments relating to trans women. Vox journalist Emily Crockett explains much of the controversy in the 2017 article “The controversy over Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and trans women, explained.” How would you apply the lens of a single story to Adichie’s views about womanhood and the public response to her views?
- How are stories and power related? How can we broaden the stories we tell?
- How does power affect the story we tell and the story we project onto others?
What Makes Me, Me?
As Adichie teaches us, many stories coalesce in complex, interwoven layers to form you and your story. This article, co-authored by Rabbi Or Rose and Wajahat Ali published by the Huffington Post, describes their unique experiences balancing their cultural heritages and expectations while living as minorities in pluralistic societies. Rose is the founding Director of the Miller Center for lnterreligious Learning & Leadership of Hebrew College and Ali is a New York Times contributing op-ed writer and public intellectual.
Knowing the dangers of a single story and recognizing that the reader only has access to a limited amount of information, what do you know about Rose and Ali after reading “What’s in a Name?” Can you fill out a Big 8 chart for them?
The World and Me: What if Moses Looked Like Me?
Religion columnist Daniel José Camacho writes about how power dynamics in US society made him feel about his own Columbian-American background for The Revealer:
Daniel José Camacho, in The Revealer
Moses Speaks Spanglish
“At every turn, shame pricks the tip of my tongue. Shame for having an accent. Shame for not having the right type of accent. Anger when someone is surprised I can speak English ‘well’… I was born in this country, I’ve traveled to the motherland, but it feels like I’m still searching for home.”
Read Camacho’s full article for an imaginative framing of Moses as a proto-Latinx figure.
Power + Names
Adam Alter, a professor of marketing at New York University, describes the power of naming. He writes in The New Yorker, “as soon as you label a concept, you change how people perceive it. It’s difficult to imagine a truly neutral label, because words evoke images…, are associated with other concepts (as are ‘north’ with up and ‘south’ with down), and vary in complexity.”
One place where we find labels is maps. Maps may seem objective, but even a map is not neutral. Choices are made in labeling and scale, and these affect everything. This clip from the TV show The West Wing illustrates that point. A committee from the (fictitious) Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality speaks to members of the White House administration…
- What is the Mercater projection? And what is the Gall-Peters projection?
- What are the Mercater projections of your learning environment? And the Gall-Peters projections? What are the preconceived notions that inform your understanding of this learning environment?
- What would a more accurate depiction of the space reveal? Is it even possible to understand the learning environment outside of the power dynamics that exist within it? What work can be done to make it a more equitable place?
Exercise: Chief Movie Programmer for "America"
You have been assigned the (fictional!) but influential position of “Chief Movie Programmer” for all of “America.” You have been tasked with putting together a showcase of movies to introduce America to those who have never heard of it before. Keeping in mind Adichie’s warnings about the dangers of a single story, what would you consider in selecting movies to tell “America’s” story? What stories are being told and who is telling them? What parts of “America” get to have their stories told? Who counts as an “American?” What does the word “American” mean to you and for this project? Are Brazilian, Canadian, Mexican, or Guatemalan citizens “Americans”? Are United States ex-patriots permanently living in other countries? Do incarcerated people count as “American” even though they lack certain civic rights? (Hint: you might want to start by defining what “America” is and why.) Explain your criteria and priorities in your process of telling the story of “America.” Explain your challenges in creating such a list. And don’t forget to think about the Big 8.
Want to Learn More?
- “We are not all the same, and in our difference we are divine” (by Simran Jeet Singh, Religion News Service).
- A four-minute case study on white normativity: “Color film was built for white people. Here’s what it did to dark skin.” (Vox).
- “This fantastic argument of being alive” (On Being).