We Should Embrace Obama's Middle Name

11/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jane Devin Cultural critic, essayist, and author

Jewish history is rife with name changes. Outside of the ancient Judaic superstition of "change your name, change your luck," we've renamed ourselves in order to avoid being captured or killed, discriminated against, or set apart. Many of our grandparents, arriving here after the terrors of the Holocaust, anglicized their names hoping to blend more easily into the melting pot.

We live in a different world today, but not that much different. Instead of Jews being gassed in Auschwitz, Africans and Arabs are being slaughtered in Darfur. Instead of a name like Cohen causing dissent, its a name like Hussein.

Last February, conservative talk show host Bill Cunningham, no doubt wanting to play up the Obama-as-foreign-terrorist angle, repeated Barack Obama's middle name three times prior to an interview with John McCain. When McCain was informed, he released a statement saying that it was inappropriate to invoke Obama's middle name. "I absolutely repudiate such comments," McCain said. "It will never happen again." Of course it happened again, most recently when a Florida sheriff introduced Governor Palin at a rally. Palin's campaign spokesperson Tracey Schmitt later called the sheriff's use of Obama's middle name "inappropriate rhetoric."

The left has cried foul over the use of Obama's full name, while the right has attempted to use it as a fear-inducer. My question is, when are we -- as progressives and liberals -- going to stop pandering to the obvious racism of others and stand up in defense of our candidate's full name? When are we going to feel strong enough in numbers, and fortified enough in our own anti-racist beliefs, to say that there is nothing wrong with the name Hussein, or any name, of any origin? When are we going to be able to say Barack Obama's full name with pride, and not with trepidation?

Barack Hussein Obama is a prodigious and worldly son of America, who has risen to the top with grace, intelligence, and a set of ideals sprung from the best tenets of our country. To bastardize his name, or to insist that his name be anglicized in order to avoid racism, is racist. It sends the message that one cannot be of Arabic origin and truly American. It wasn't that long ago that the anti-Semites sent the same message to Jews. Irish, Italian, Polish and other immigrants, as well as African-Americans, all have a history of being penalized for their names. Such discrimination is obviously wrong, but when those of us on the progressive side cater to it -- when we bemoan the use of one's full name as rhetoric rather than embrace it ourselves -- it reeks of hypocrisy.

If we truly believe that it is the content of a person's character that should be judged, and not their skin color or ethnic origins, then we should act on that belief, and embrace the given name of our Presidential nominee, refusing to let it become a source of shame or derision, or something that must be kept silent in order not to scare the racists.

While at a coffee shop tonight, I happened upon a mother and daughter team that were taking a break from canvassing for Obama. Connie, 57, and Sadie, 16, both white, have been out and about in the Western suburbs of Minneapolis, and have felt the sting of racism both in the streets and in other political discussions they've had. One of Connie's coworkers sent her an overtly racist email about Obama. The father of one of Sadie's friends, a lifelong Democrat, said he's voting for McCain because he won't vote for a Black man.

Racism exists, and while some may never know a cure (or want one), we do nothing for the cause of ending discrimination when we allow ourselves to be bullied by the nonsensical fears of others, or shamed into silence.

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