Opinion: Ethnic names matter and they always will

It is time we recognize the importance of ethnic names

Opinion: Ethnic names matter and they always will

I spell out my name to the Starbucks worker while I hand them my card to pay.

Whether it’s the doctor’s office or simply a coffee shop, this is a usual occurrence for me: spelling out my name wherever I go. My ethnic name is nonexistent in America. It is refused to be seen by this country. I am simply nonexistent. 

What is a person without their name? I often joke to my friends about how a white American person can pronounce an uncommon, white name, such as Timothée Chalamet, but stumble when it comes to an ethnic one. What is the root of white people’s resistance to pronounce ethnic names and how does that contribute to the erasure of our identities?

Ever since I came to America, it’s always been like this. It wasn’t news when I came to American University and received the same treatment here. I had been desensitized to this issue because I simply assumed I had the most difficult name ever to pronounce. 

Meliha. Meh-lee-ha. Meliha. Meh-lee-ha.

I always wonder how different my life would have been if I simply had a common, American name. Would people care enough to pronounce it right, then? After seeing how many people can pronounce my name correctly, I realized that the problem isn’t having a “difficult name.” It’s just people’s lack of effort to get the pronunciation of an ethnic name right.

My roommate often hears my rants about how yet another person at AU has gotten my name or the pronunciation of it wrong. I usually go by “Mel” to avoid this trouble, so it’s surprising that it still happens. Oftentimes I try not to let it get to me but no matter how much I try to fight it, it still nags at me. It feels as if my identity is ripped away from me. Why can’t I keep something as simple as my name to myself? Why do I always have to be in protection and defense of it?

I’ve seen many of my friends at AU struggle with the same problem. We are non-existent. We are identities whose names are taken, stolen away. We are nobodies. So many of our names are whitewashed to become “simpler” and easier to pronounce. They just become commodities to warp into, to fit into something white people can tolerate

It’s not just me who has a story about this. It’s tens, hundreds, thousands of us. You can find many students on campus who share this experience. It’s always the same story: our names are turned into something else. 

We shouldn’t have to become someone else in order to become visible here. I wish I didn’t even have to write this in the first place. I wish I didn’t have to constantly worry about whether a person will get my name right or not. I am tired, exhausted and angry.

Our names carry more value than something that’s just “pronounceable.” Our names are a cultural stand. Our names are revolutionary.

Meliha Ural is a freshman in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.


Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle

Would you like to support our work? Donate here to The Eagle Innovation Fund.