I was 4 when I received my first nickname. My classmates called me "brownie." As I grew in years, my names evolved--from "Rafiki" to "Warlord" to "Bomberman." To this day, people still call me "Faruk" or just point at me. It is often easier than asking me how to pronounce my name, Ra-feen. Learning my name and its proper pronunciation takes effort.
Names, much like physical appearance, carry a certain weight. My name carries the legacy of my ancestors. It represents a specific place, time and culture. It exemplifies the nightly debates my parents had on what their son should be called. Most importantly, my name, just like Steve or Sarah, represents an important element of my identity.
When people talk about things like "whiteness" and "privilege," the little things are often ignored. It's the micro occurrences--a potential employer prefers a white-sounding name to a black-sounding name--that eventually leads to macro problems. So, as I grow up--no matter what I achieve or do--I always have a worry in the back of my mind that people will mispronounce my name.
It is the same kind of worry that hundreds of thousands of immigrant children have when confronted with environments that do not understand or appreciate diversity. When a person who grew up in America is asked, "Where are you from?" there are tensions--us versus them, the majority and the minority, dominant versus weak--that need to be resolved.
What really worries me are the questions that these tensions pose: What does it say about an individual if he or she doesn't care about how my name is pronounced? What does it mean if a place doesn't care about cultural or ethnic complexity? What does it mean if a society is so uncomfortable with diversity that my friend's name gets changed from Haris to Harry and thousands of Mohammads become thousands of Mos?
Francis Fukuyuma, a Harvard-trained political scientist, differentiates between European and American society in his 2006 "Identity, Immigration and Liberal Democracy" article. America has done a better job of creating a universal national identity among all of its citizens. In America, first-generation immigrants can proudly call themselves "American" while maintaining a space that allows them to practice their understandings and customs. In France, Moroccans remain Moroccan, and in Italy, Somalis remain Somali.
But such celebrations are a double-edged sword--neither system is optimal. While many minority communities in Europe remain insular, immigrants in America often assimilate. As a result, traditions, over a period of time, are often lost. The very diversity that we celebrate is also the diversity that makes us uneasy. Debates over whether English should be made the national language or whether Sikhs in the military should be allowed to wear turbans are representative of a much larger national question over the type of diversity we value.
I, an immigrant, consider myself to be an American. But I hope being considered an American doesn't cost me my Bengali name.