Co-authored by Firdaus Arastu.
Earlier this week, news broke of the latest celebrity engagement: Hollywood actor and self-proclaimed perpetual bachelor, George Clooney, proposed to Amal Alamuddin. Frantic Google searches began as everyone wanted to know who this "exotic beauty" was.
What we learned is that Alamuddin is an educated and extremely accomplished woman. Born in Beirut to Druze parents, Alamuddin is a prominent barrister in England, specializing in human rights and international law, representing high-profile clients like Julian Assange, and serving as an advisor to Kofi Annan. The Muslim Internet in particular was abuzz with the excitement: The most eligible bachelor in the world had decided to settle down with a woman who is not just educated, but perhaps more significantly, Arab and sort-of-Muslim (the Druze are an offshoot of Islam).
Yet, for those of us with "unusual" names, most exhilarating of all was Alamuddin's name. One of the authors of this piece was particularly excited to see "uddin" plastered all over social media and on every major celebrity news site. At last, someone to educate the American public how to pronounce the name; someone to help those of us with "different" names feel not so different -- familiar, more mainstream.
The experience echoed that of 2008, when Americans elected a Black President, "a skinny kid with a funny name who believe[d] that America has a place for him, too." His election made the dreams of all American minorities feel more tangible. If someone like him can manage to attain the most powerful position in the free world, then we had a place in America, and the possibilities were endless.
What's in a name, you may wonder (especially if your name is, say, "John Smith")? The everyday experience is complicated for those blessed with names that are, in our current American context, different, unusual or difficult to pronounce. Growing up, your peers come up with the most creative ways to inflict linguistic barbs. New teachers or the occasional substitute teacher would always pause, brows knitted, struggling to figure out how to tackle the unusual name in front of them. Even now, every time you place an order at a coffee shop or a restaurant, people note it incorrectly.
It is exhausting to bolster your identity against the apathy or linguistic shortcomings of others. When your name is dismissed or mangled, all the identities yoked to it are as well. It's a behavior that layers on top of the color of your skin and the cultural traditions you practice to Other you.
Is it any wonder then that some people decide to change their names to fit in? Many Asian Americans adopt English first names. Other minority groups may chop and shorten long last names. Indian Americans like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley revamped their names to successfully gain inclusion in predominantly White spaces and to achieve political office.
Despite the frustrations that accompany an unusual name, it is still a source of pride. For one, as a conversation starter, it has significant practical use. One of our best icebreakers is asking people to share how they were given their name, and what their name means.
But more meaningfully, we recognize that our names do more than serve the practical function of referring to us as individuals; they are a powerful marker of multiple intersecting identities, marking our place in the world.
And in those occasional moments when someone appreciates the full meaning behind your name and pronounces your name with the true beauty it is due, there is a special feeling of being recognized and understood.
So from all of us in the "funny names" club, congrats Mrs. Clooney! It's clear your brains, beauty, or your name doesn't intimidate George. Let's hope he pronounces your name correctly when he says, "I do."
Co-authored by Firdaus Arastu.