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  • Dr. Rashanta Bledman

What's In A Name?

What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet

That is a quote taken from Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet (the original, not the one with Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes). And although there are ways in which I agree with this statement, I also have some opinions that contradict the words written by the lovely bard with a beard.

Names tell us so much and often define who we are and how the world sees us. I recall a grade school assignment in which we each had to discuss the origins of our names. I immediately went to my father to ask him what my name means and he revealed that the "ra" is for the sun god Ra, and the "shanta" is homage to the beautiful Ashanti African people. There is a strong possibility that my father made this up, but it was one of the first times I genuinely felt pride in my name (And of course, I got an A on the project!). It made me flip my fro in confidence and walk a little taller. For myself and many others, we have been tasked with carrying the weight of our names, a weight that is often brought on by the assumptions and prejudice of our American society. Many of us have been teased or burdened with negative stereotypes because of the names we were given at birth (or chosen for ourselves at later dates).

You may be wondering the point of this post. I will try to explain by asking you to play along and answer these questions. When you see or hear the name Rashanta, what is the first thing you think? What do you imagine Rashanta looks like? How does Rashanta dress? Speak? Dance? Where does Rashanta work? Who are Rashanta's friends? What race did you assume for Rashanta? Now, answer those same questions but use the name Becky. Which one of those people are you more likely to feel comfortable with and confident in? How does this influence your social circle and your choices related to healthcare professionals?

We all carry around implicit biases that influence our thoughts and behaviors. Much of this bias is rooted in all of the "isms" I often discuss (racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.). We often want people to shorten their "difficult" names in order to make it easier for us to pronounce. This has the distinct impact of erasing someone's identity, individuality and requiring them to conform to our own. How many times have you asked someone if they have a nickname that is easier to say? What is the purpose of this renaming? Instead, maybe we should work on changing our biases, rather than making people change who they are to make us feel more at ease. My name either attracts or repels people, before they even meet me. In two words: that sucks...

I'm betting that when Shakespeare asked "What's in a name?", he didn't realize the answer would come to be "a whole helluva lot!"

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