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What’s in a name? It’s complicated.

 … a name is not just any designation. A name is not inherent. It reflects the namer’s assumptions about and hopes for how a child will be regarded by the world. It tacitly positions the child as a proving ground where historic aspirations, contemporary realities, and the child’s own needs vie for salience.

From: Naming Rites:  Rewriting Preconceptions With a Name Change

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Back in March, before we were married, I went to the bank to get something out of the safety deposit box that I share with Just Husband.  When the teller who was helping me saw our names on the sign-in card, she asked me, “What’s your background?”

I get this question a lot.  (A lot.)  Usually, it’s a propos of completely nothing other than the shade of my skin; but in this case, I knew she was reacting to something specific, as my last name is not all that common in Toronto.  So, I told her that my parents were from the Caribbean.  She then asked if I was Spanish, because my last name was Spanish, as was my (then) fiance’s.  I told her that, actually, my last name was French, and his last name was Portuguese.  Explaining our names is always complicated, because we both have Caribbean heritage.

This heritage has also complicated the question of whether or not I would change my last name to my fiance’s after we were married.

My last name is French, because my father’s is descended from French Europeans who emigrated to the Caribbean sometime in the 1800s. We don’t know when, exactly, they arrived, so we don’t know if they were slave owners.  The men were definitely landowners, though, living grandly up in the “big house” (and, apparently, having a penchant for dark-skinned African women).

Just Husband’s last name is Portuguese, because his father’s father’s father’s father emigrated from Portugal to the Caribbean as one of the thousands of indentured servants who were recruited after the abolishment of slavery.

We both also have Indigenous Caribbean ancestry.  We don’t know their names at all.

On the one hand, my name carries the twin (literally and figuratively) burdens of a violent, racist colonial history, and a violent, sexist one, whose effects are still reverberating today.  Just Husband’s name also bears these burdens, not least because the Portuguese and other Europeans were recruited to the post-slavery Caribbean to be a source of cheap labour for the landowners (thereby getting paid to do the work that the African slaves had been forced to do for free), and to swell the ranks of the European population, because the Africans were becoming too “numerous”.

These are some of the reasons I take seriously Tawny Tidwell’s argument that debating whether or not a woman should change her name upon marriage is a neoliberalist trick, designed to make us treat our individual choices as though they were made in a neutral, decontextualized space, and have no wider repercussions.

On the other hand, my name is also mine.  As in the quote at the beginning of this post, it is a proving ground where my historic aspirations, contemporary realities, and my own personal needs vie for salience.  Through my words, my actions, my experiences, I’ve shaped my name.  I’ve formed it.  Loved it, because it came from Just Dad.  My name is mine not in spite of its larger sociopolitical context, but because of it.

I am a Black, Canadian-born person of Caribbean descent.  I am married to a White*, Canadian-raised person of Caribbean birth.  Those facts, along with our middle-class existence, complicate the neoliberal discourses that structure our society, “troubling” the preconceptions that people may have of us.

I still don’t know if I will legally change my name to Just Husband’s.**  It’s possible that my decision will come down to the practical, mundane matter of whether the hassle of not taking on his name becomes greater than the hassle of doing so (specially in situations where we will have to prove the legitimacy of our marriage, such as travel, finance, parenting, thus opening ourselves up to even more questions about our “background”).

Ultimately, though, if I do take on Just Husband’s name, it will be both a (small) political act that further troubles neoliberalism’s narrow categorizations, spurious separations, and blithe subjugations, as well as a personal choice that reflects my commitment to the person I love.

And there’s nothing complicated about that.

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* Just Husband’s ancestry is both European and African, so though he “passes” as White, he doesn’t fully identify as such.

** By “change”, I actually mean “add his name to mine” because I’m not giving up my personal identity, not least because it’s also my professional one.

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3 comments on “What’s in a name? It’s complicated.

  1. OH MY GAWD!!!!!!! I BLAME MYSELF!!!!
    MOM

    Date: Fri, 9 Aug 2013 23:12:21 +0000 To: nancistory@sympatico.ca

    • Good article. Interesting that, even after 10 years of marriage, she still hasn’t decided on which name to use. I wonder what it would take for all of our social institutions to “catch up” to the fact that a married couple can have different last names…

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